Spiritual Decays

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

Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day.
~ 1 Timothy 5:5

…His own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
~ Luke 18:7

I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and defiled my horn in the dust.
~ Job 16:15

Experiencing Spiritual Decays, by John Owen. The following contains an excerpt from his work, “The Glory of Christ”.

III. But I come to that which was proposed in the third place, – namely, to show that this at present is the state of many professors of religion, that they are fallen under those spiritual decays, and do not enjoy the effects of the promises concerning flourishing and fruitfulness, which we have insisted on. To fasten a conviction on them, or some of them at least, that it is indeed so with them, is my present design; and this ought to be done with some diligence. The glory of Christ, the honour of the Gospel, and the danger of the souls of men do call for it. This is the secret root of all our evil, which will not be removed unless it be dug up. Who sees not, who complains not of the loss of, or decays in, the power of religion in the days wherein we live? But few there are who either know or apply themselves, or direct others, unto the proper remedy of this evil. Besides, it is almost as difficult to convince men of their spiritual decays as it is to recover them from them; but without this, healing is impossible. If men know not their sickness, they will not seek for a cure. Some, when they see their sickness and their wound, will apply themselves unto wrong, useless remedies, like them in the prophet Hosea, 5: 13. None will make use of any cure who see no disease at all. Wherefore, to fasten a conviction hereof on the minds of some, we may make use of the ensuing inquiries and observations.

1. Have you, in the way of your profession, had any experience of these spiritual decays? I doubt not but that there are some who have been preserved green and flourishing from their first conversion unto God, who never fell under the power of sloth, neglect, or temptation, at least not for any remarkable season; but they are but few. It was not so with scarce any of those believers under the Old Testament whose lives and walkings are recorded for our instruction; and they must be such as lived in an exact and diligent course of mortification. And some there are who have obtained relief and deliverance from under their decays, – whose backsliding have been healed, and their diseases cured. So it was with David, as he divinely expresses it, Ps. 103: 1,3-5, “Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Who forgives all thine iniquities; who health all thy diseases: who redeems thy life from destruction; who crowns thee with loving- kindness and tender mercies: who satisfies thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle ’s.” So does he celebrate his deliverance from that state whereof he complains, Ps. 38, – which we mentioned before. And there is no grace or mercy that does more affect the hearts of believers, that gives them a greater transport of joy and thankfulness, than this of deliverance from backsliding. It is a bringing of the soul out of prison, which enlarges it unto praise, Ps. 142: 7. Of this sort I doubt not but that there are many; for God has given great warnings of the danger of a spiritually-decaying state; and he has made great promises of recovery from it; and multitudes in the church are daily exercised herein.

But I speak in general unto all. Have you any experience of such spiritual decays, either in the frame of your spirits or in the manner of your walking before God; or, at least, that you are prone unto them, if not mightily preserved by the power of grace in your own utmost diligence? If you have not so, then I fear it is from one of these two causes: –

a) That, indeed, you have never had any flourishing spiritual state in your souls. He that has been always weak and sickly does not know what it is to want a state of health and strength, because he never had any experience of it; much less does he that is dead know what it is to want life. But he that from an exquisite temper of health falls into languishing disorder, knows distinctly both how it was and how it is with him. And the frame of the minds of many professors of religion, with the manner of their walking, is such, as that, if they are not sensible of spiritual decays, it is evident that they never had any good spiritual health; and it is to no purpose to treat with such persons about a recovery.

There are, amongst those who make an outward profession of true religion, many that live in all sorts of sins. If you should deal with them about backsliding, decays, and a recovery, you will seem unto them as Lot did to his sons-in-law, when he told them of the destruction of Sodom, – as one that mocked, or made sport with them, Gen. 19: 14; or you will be mocked by them for your concern. They have been always such as they are; it was never otherwise with them; and it is a ridiculous thing to speak to them of a recovery. We must be able in this case to say to men, “Remember whence you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works,” Rev. 2: 5. They must have had an experience of a better state, or they will not endeavour a recovery from that wherein they are. Such, therefore, as see neither evil nor danger in their present condition, but suppose all is well enough with them, because it is as good as ever it was, will not easily be brought under this conviction; but they have that which is of no less importance for them to inquire into, – namely, whether they have had any thing of the truth of grace or no. Or, –

b) If you have not this experience, it is to be feared that you are asleep in security, – which is hardly distinguishable from death in sin. The church of Laodicea was sensibly decayed, and gone off from its primitive faith and obedience; yet she was so secure, in her condition, knew so little of it, that she judged herself, on the contrary, to be in a thriving, flourishing state. She thought herself increased in all church riches and goods, – that is, gifts and grace, – while “she was wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked,” Rev. 3: 17; in such a state as wherein it is questionable whether she had any thing of the life and power of grace to be found in her or not. And so is it with many churches at this day, especially that which boasts itself to be without error or blame. And it is strange that a church should suppose that it flourishes in grace and gifts, when it has nothing but a noise of words in their stead.

So God testified concerning Ephraim, that “grey hairs were sprinkled on him, yet he knew it not,” Hos. 7: 9. He was in a declining, dying condition, but did not understand it. Hence it is added, “They do not return to the LORD their God, nor seek him for all this,” verse 10. If men will not learn and own their spiritual decays, there is no hope of prevailing with them to return unto the Lord. “The whole have no need of a physician, but the sick;” Christ “came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Such persons are under the power of a stupid security, from whence it will be very hard to rouse them up. Hence it is that we have so little success for the most part in calling persons to look after a revival and recovery of their decays; they acknowledge no such thing in themselves, – such calls may belong unto others; yea, if any word seem to come near them unto their uneasiness, they are apt to think it was spoken out of spite and ill-will towards them: they approve themselves in their present condition. Hence is the complaint of Christ in the ministry of the Word, “I have called, and ye have refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded. Ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof,” Prov. 1: 24, 25. Hence, let this truth be pressed a thousand times, it is not one of a thousand who will think himself so concerned as to apply himself unto a relief. A spirit of slumber seems to be poured on many.

2. To improve this conviction, I would ask of some, whether they have been able to maintain spiritual peace and joy in their souls. I take it for granted that ordinarily they are inseparable adjuncts of the life of faith, in an humble, fruitful walk before God. The Scripture testifies that they are so; and no experience lies against it in ordinary cases. And I suppose that those unto whom I speak do in some measure know what they are, and do not delude themselves with fancies and imaginations: they have substance in them, however derided by some, and to some unknown. Have this peace and joy been maintained and borne away in your minds? Have they under all trials and surprises been quickly composed by them? or are you not rather on all occasions uneasy and perplexed? This is certain, that a decaying spiritual state and solid spiritual peace are inconsistent; and if ever you had such peace, you may by the loss of it know into what state you are come.

3. Not to inquire farther into things internal and hidden, wherein men may justify themselves if they please, there are too many open, visible evidences of these decays among professors of religion; they have not kept them from the eyes of the church, nor yet from the world. Do not pride, selfishness, worldliness, levity of attire, and vanity of life, with corrupt, unsavoury communication, abound among many? The world was never in a worse posture for conformity than it is at this day, wherein all flesh has corrupted its way; and yet, as to things of outward appearance, how little distinction is left between it and those who would be esteemed more strict professors of religion! Was this the way and manner of the saints of old, – of those that went before us in the same profession? Was it so with ourselves in the time of our first espousals, when we went after God in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown? as Jer. 2: 2. Some understand what I say: if we have not, some of us, had better days, we never had good days in our lives; if we have had them, why do we not stir up ourselves to look after a recovery?

4. May not God say of many of us what he said of his people of old, “Thou hast been weary of me, O Israel? “ Isa. 43: 22. Have we not been weary of God, until we have abundant cause to be weary of ourselves? The most, I presume, will be ready, with them in Malachi, to say, “How or wherein have we been weary of God?” Do we not abide, yea, abound, in the duties of his service? What can be more required of us? Wherein are we to blame? This were something indeed, but that it is often so, that men are weary of God when they even weary God with their duties and services, Isa. 1: 13, 14. God says in his Word, he is weary: they say in their hearts, they are weary, Mal. 1: 13. But I answer, –

a) Many cannot with any modesty make use of this pretence. Their sloth, indifference, and negligence in the observance of the duties of divine worship, both in private and public, is notorious. In particular, is not the duty of family prayer neglected by many, at least as to its constancy and fervency? And although it be grounded in the light of nature, confirmed by the general rules of the Scripture, requisite unto the dedication of a family unto God, strengthened by the constant example of all the saints of old, and necessary in the experience of all that walk with God; yet do not many begin to seek out pleas and arguing to justify their omission hereof? Are not all things filled with the fruits of the negligence of such professors in the instruction of their children and servants? And has not God given severe rebukes unto many of us, in their fearful miscarriages? And as unto the public worship of God, I wish that sloth and indifference did not appear upon too many, under various pretences. But, –

b)This is not that which I do intend. Men may be weary of God, while they abide in the observance of a multitude of outward duties.

(i.) They may be so, with respect unto that spirituality and intention of mind unto the exercise of all grace, which are required unto such duties. These are the life, the soul, the animating principle of them, without which their outward performance is but a dead carcass. Men may draw nigh to God with their lips, when their hearts are far from him. This is that which becomes God in his worship, and is useful to our own souls; for “God is a Spirit, and he will be worshipped in spirit and in truth;” which he is not, but in the exercise of the graces of his Spirit in the worshipers; “for bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable unto all things,” 1 Tim. 4: 8.

To keep up the mind unto this frame, to stir up all grace unto a constant vigorous exercise in all holy duties, is a matter whereunto great spiritual diligence and watchfulness is required. Watch unto prayer. A thousand pretences rise against it; all the arts of sloth, formality, weariness of the flesh, and the business of life, do contend to frustrate the design of it. And the suitableness of resting in the work done, unto the principles of a natural conscience, gives efficacy to them all: and when men come to satisfy themselves herein, it may be it were better that for a time such duties were wholly omitted; for in that case conscience itself will urgently call on men, not hardened in sin, to a consideration of their condition: wherefore much spiritual labour and diligence is required in this matter. The outward performance of religious duties, be they never so many, or however strictly enjoined, as the daily and nightly canonical hours amongst the Popish dévots, is an easy task, – much inferior unto the constant labour which some men use in their trades and callings. And in them, in the performance of them, either public or in their families, men may be weary of God: and according as they are remiss in the constant keeping up of spirituality, and the exercise of grace in sacred duties, so is the degree of their weariness. And there is almost nothing whereby men may take a safer measure of their decays or growth, than by the usual frame of their minds in these duties. If they do constantly in them stir up themselves to take hold of God, Isa. 64: 7, it is an evidence of a good temper of spiritual health in the soul. But this will not be done without the utmost watchfulness and care against impressions from the flesh and other temptations. But sloth and formality herein is a sign of a thriftless state in the inner man: and all inventions of such formality are counterproductive unto the interest of grace.

(ii.) So is it with them also, who, attending unto the outward duties of religion, do yet indulge themselves in any known sin; for there is nothing of God in those duties which tend not unto the mortification of all sin: and men may keep up a form of godliness, to countenance themselves in the neglect of its power. And in particular, where any known sin is indulged unto, where the mortification of it is not duly endeavoured, where our religious duties are not used, applied, and directed unto that end, there is a weariness of whatever is of God in them; nor has the soul any real intercourse or communion with God by them.

5. If we should make a particular inquiry into the state of our souls with respect unto those graces which are most useful, and tend most to the glory of God, it is to be feared that the decays of many would be made very evident; such are zeal, humility, contriteness of heart, spiritual-mindedness, vigour of soul, and delight in the ways of God, love, charity, self-denial, and the like. Are we fat and flourishing in these things, even in old age? Are they in us, and do they abound? as the apostle speaks, 2 Pet. 1: 8. Do we bring forth the fruit of them, so as to show the faithfulness of God in his supply of grace? I shall not make a particular inquiry into them, but only give two general rules, whereby we may try ourselves with respect unto them all.

a) The loss of a spiritual appetite unto the food of our souls is an evidence of a decay in all these graces. Spiritual appetite consists in earnest desires, and a savoury relish; so it is described by the apostle, 1 Pet. 2: 2, 3, “As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby; if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” There is required unto this spiritual appetite an earnest desire of the Word, grounded on an experience of the grace of God in it, unto this end, that we may grow and thrive spiritually thereby. And this appetite will give us as just a measure of the state of grace in us as a natural appetite unto wholesome food, with due digestion thereon, does give of a good state of health in the body.

This, therefore, we are to inquire into. Does it abide in us as formerly? We hear the Word preached as much as ever; but do we do it with the same desire and spiritual relish as before? Some hear to satisfy their convictions, some to please their fancies, and some to judge of the persons by whom it is dispensed. It is but in few that the necessary preparation for the due receiving of it is found.

When men grow in age, they lose much of their natural appetite unto food. They must eat still for the maintenance of life; but they do it not with that desire after it, and that gust in it, as in the days of youth and health. Hence they are apt to think that the meat which they had formerly was more savoury than what is now provided for them; though what they now enjoy is much to be preferred before what they then had. The change is in themselves. So we may find not a few professors, who are ready to think and say that the preaching which they had in former days, and the religious exercises which they were engaged in, were far to be preferred above what they now enjoy. But the change is in themselves; they have lost their spiritual appetite, or their hunger and thirst after the food of their souls.

“The full soul loatheth an honey-comb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet,” Prov. 27: 7. Men being grown full of themselves, and of a good conceit of their own abilities, have lost their spiritual appetite unto the Word of God; and this makes the Word lose its power and efficacy towards them. That Word, which the Psalmist says is “sweeter than honey, or the honey-comb,” Ps. 19: 10, has little or no taste or relish in it unto them. If they were hungry, they would find a sweetness in the bitterest of its reproofs, beyond what they can now find in the sweetest of its promises. They come to hear the Word with sick desires, and low expectations, as if they were invited to eat after a feast, being self-full before. But this loss of a spiritual appetite is an evidence of the decay of all other graces whatever.

b) A neglect of making religion our principal business, is another evidence of the decay of all sorts of grace in us. For where grace is in its proper exercise, it will subordinate all things unto religion, and the ends of it, as David twenty times declares in the 119th Psalm. All things, all occasions of life, shall be postponed thereunto. The love and valuation of it will bear sway in our minds, our thoughts, and affections; and the practice of it shall give rule unto all other concernments. But is it so with many amongst us. It is well if religion be one thing, – it is far enough from being the one thing; every other thing is preferred before it, and it can hardly crowd in to possess any place in their minds. To see men continually plodding in the affairs of the world, regulating all their actions by their concernment in them, diverting only at some seasons, as it were out of their way, unto duties of religion, – it is vain to say that they make religion their business. But there is scarce a more certain evidence of a frame of mind spiritually decaying in all sorts of graces, if ever any of them were in it in sincerity and power, than this one, that men do not make religion their chiefest business. And a little self-examination will help men to judge what it is that they make so to be.

(3.) Lastly, I might also instance the uselessness of men in their profession; in want of love unto all saints, barrenness in good works, unreadiness and unwillingness to comply, in any extraordinary manner, with the calls of God unto repentance and reformation; in love of the world and pride of life, with passions suited unto such principles, predominant in them: for they are all undeniable evidences, that those with whom they are found had never any true grace at all, or that they are fallen under woeful decays. But what has been spoken may be sufficient unto our present purpose.

This is the third thing that was proposed, – namely, an endeavour to leave convictions on the minds of some concerning their spiritual decays, and the necessity of seeking after a revival by the means that shall be insisted on. And I intend it principally for those of us who, under a long profession, are now come unto age, and shall not have much time for duty continued to us. And the truth is, I meet with none who are Christians of any considerable experience, and are spiritually-minded, but they are sensible of the danger of such decays in this hour of temptation, and how difficult it is, in the use of all means, to keep up a vigorous, active frame of mind, in faith, love, holiness, and fruitfulness. And for those who are not concerned herein, I confess I know not what to make of them, or their religion.

IV. I proceed unto that which was proposed in the fourth or last place, – namely, the way and means whereby believers may be delivered from these decays, and come to thrive and flourish in the inward principle and outward fruits of spiritual life; which will bring us back unto consideration of that truth which we may seem to have diverted from. And to this end, the things ensuing are proposed unto consideration: –

1. The state of spiritual decays is recoverable. No man that is fallen under it has any reason to say, There is no hope, provided he take the right way for his recovery. If every step that is lost in the way to heaven should be irrecoverable, woe would be unto us; – we should all assuredly perish. If there were no reparation of our breaches, no healing of our decays, no salvation but for them who are always progressive in grace; if God should mark all that is done amiss, as the Psalmist speaks, “O Lord, who should stand?” nay, if we had not recoveries every day, we should go off with a perpetual backsliding. But then, as was said, it is required that the right means of it be used, and not that which is destructive of what is designed; whereof I shall give an example. When trees grow old, or are decaying, it is useful to dig about them, and manure them; which may cause them to flourish again, and abound in fruit. But instead hereof, if you remove them out of their soil, to plant them in another, which may promise much advantage, they will assuredly wither and die. So it is with professors, and has been with many. Finding themselves under manifold decays, and little or nothing of the life and power of religion left in them, they have grown weary of their station and have changed their soil, or turning from one way in religion unto another, as some have turned Papists, some Quakers, and the like, apprehending that fault to be in the religion which they professed, which was indeed only in themselves. You cannot give an instance of any one who did not visibly wither and die therein; but, had they used the proper means for their healing and recovery, they might have lived and brought forth fruit.

2. A strict attendance unto the severities of mortification, with all the duties that lead thereunto, is required unto this end; so also is the utmost diligence in all duties of obedience. These things naturally offer themselves as the first relief in this case, and they ought not to be omitted. But if I should insist upon them, they would branch themselves into such a multitude of particular directions, as it is inconsistent with my design here to handle. Besides, the way which I intend to propose is of another nature, though consistent with all the duties included in this proposal; yea, such as without which not one of them can be performed in a due manner. Wherefore, as unto these things, I shall only assert their necessity, with a double limitation.

a) That no duties of mortification be prescribed unto this end, as a means of recovery from spiritual decays, but what for matter and manner are of divine institution and command. All others are laid under a severe interdict, under what pretence soever they may be used. “Who hath required these things at your hands?” Want hereof is that whereby a pretended design to advance religion in the Papacy has ruined it. They have, under the name and pretence of the means of mortification, or the duties of it, invented and enjoined, like the Pharisees, a number of works, ways, duties, so called, which God never appointed, nor approved, nor will accept; nor shall they ever do good unto the souls of men. Such are their confessions, disciplines, pilgrimages, fastings, abstinence, framed prayers, to be repeated in stated canonical hours, in such a length and number. In the bodily labour of these things they exercise themselves to no spiritual advantage.
But it is natural to all men to divert to such reliefs in this case. Those who are thoroughly convinced of spiritual decays, are therewithal pressed with a sense of the guilt of sin; for it is sin which has brought them into that condition. Hereon, in the first place, they set their contrivance at work, how they may atone divine displeasure and obtain acceptance with God; and if they are not under the actual conduct of evangelical light, two things immediately offer themselves unto them. First, Some extraordinary course in duties, which God has not commanded. This is the way which they retake themselves unto in the Papacy, and which guilt, in the darkness of corrupted nature, vehemently calls for. Secondly, An extraordinary multiplication of such duties as, for the substance of them, are required of us. An instance in both kinds we have, Micah 6: 6, 7, “Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” And by this means they hope for a restitution into their former condition. And whereas spiritual decays are of two sorts; first, from the power and effect of convictions only, which are multiplied among temporary believers; and, secondly, from degrees in the power and effects of saving grace; – those whose decays are of the first sort are never to be diverted from attempting their relief by such means; and when they find them fail, for the most part they cease contending, and abandon themselves to the power of their lusts; for they have no evangelical light to guide them in another course.

Unto them who are of the second sort is this direction given, in an endeavour for a recovery from backsliding, and thriving in grace, by a redoubled attendance unto the duties of mortification and new obedience: Let care be taken that, as unto the matter of them, they be of divine appointment; and as to the manner of their performance, that it be regulated by the rules of the Scripture. Such are constant reading and hearing of the Word, prayer with fervency therein, a diligent watch against all temptations and occasions of sin; especially an endeavour, by a holy earnestness, and vehement rebukes of the entrance of any other frame, to keep the mind spiritual and heavenly in its thoughts and affections.

c) Let them take heed that they attempt not these things in their own strength. When men have strong convictions that such and such things are their own duty, they are apt to act as if they were to be done in their own strength. They must do them, they will do them, – that is, as unto the outward work, – and, therefore, they think they can do them; that is, in a due manner. The Holy Ghost has for ever rejected this confidence, – none shall prosper in it, 2 Cor. 3: 5; 9: 8. But hereby many deceive themselves, labouring in the fire, while all they do does immediately perish; they have been negligent and careless, whereby things are come to an ill posture with them, and that peace which they had is impaired; but now they will pray, and read, and fast, and be liberal to the poor, and now strive after an abstinence from sin. All these things they suppose they can do of themselves, because they can and ought to perform the outward works, wherein the duties intended do consist. Hereby Christ is left out of the whole design, who, when all is done, is the Lord that heals us? Exod. 15: 26. And there is another evil herein; for whatever men do in their own natural abilities, there is a secret reserve of some kind of merit in it. Those who plead for these things, do aver there can be no merit in any thing but what proceeds from our own free- will; and what is so done has some kind of merit inseparably accompanying of it; and this is enough to render all endeavours of this kind not only useless and fruitless, but utterly rejected. Faith must engage the assistance of Christ and his grace in and unto these duties; or, however they may be multiplied, they will not be effectual unto our healing and recovery. These things are to be used, according as we receive supplies of grace from above, in subordination unto that work of faith that shall be declared. Wherefore, –

3. The work of recovering backsliders or believers from under their spiritual decays is an act of sovereign grace,

wrought in us by virtue of divine promises. Out of this eater comes meat. Because believers are liable to such declensions, backsliding, and decays, God has provided and given unto us great and precious promises of a recovery, if we duly apply ourselves unto the means of it. One of the places only wherein they are recorded I shall here call over and explain, Hos. 14: 1-8, “O Israel, return unto the LORD thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and turn unto the LORD: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips,” &c. “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive-tree, and his smell as Lebanon. They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon. Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him, and observed him. I am like a green fir-tree: from me is thy fruit found.”

The whole matter treated of in general, both as unto the disease and remedy, is fully stated in this passage of Scripture; and that in the experience of the church, and God ’s dealing with them; we may therefore receive many plain directions from it, and a safe guidance in our progress; which we shall endeavour to take in the ensuing observations: –

a) This application of God unto Israel, “O Israel, return,” was made when the generality of the people were wicked, and devoted unto utter destruction. So it is declared in the last words of the foregoing chapter; and their desolation fell out not long after accordingly. Wherefore no season nor circumstances of things shall obstruct sovereign grace when God will exercise it towards his church: it shall work in the midst of desolating judgements.

b) In such a time the true Israel of God, the elect themselves, are apt to be overtaken with the sins of the whole, and so to backslide from God, and so to fall into spiritual decays. So Israel had now done, though she had not absolutely broken covenant with God. He was yet unto her “The LORD thy God;” yet she had fallen by her iniquity. Times of public apostasy are often accompanied with partial defects in the best: “Because iniquity aboundeth, the love of many shall wax cold,” Matt. 24: 12.

c) When God designs to heal the backsliding of his people by sovereign grace, he gives them effectual calls unto repentance, and the use of means for their healing: so he does here by his prophet, “O Israel, return; take with you words.” And if I could see that God did stir up his faithful ministers to apply themselves in a peculiar manner unto this work of pressing vehemently all their congregations with their duty herein, and let them know that there is no other way to prevent their ruin but by returning unto the Lord, according to the ways of it here prescribed, I should not doubt but that the time of healing were at hand.

4. The means prescribed unto this end, that our backsliding may be healed in a way suited unto the glory of God, is renewed repentance: and this acts itself, –

a) In fervent prayer. Take with you words, and say.” Consider the greatness and importance of the work before you, and weigh well what you do in your dealing with God. The matter of this prayer is twofold.

(i.) The pardon of all iniquity; that is, the taking of it away; and no sin is omitted, all being now become equally burdensome: “Take away all iniquity.” When the souls of sinners are in good earnest in their return unto God, they will leave out the consideration of no one sin whatever. Nor are we meet for healing, nor shall we apply ourselves unto it in a due manner, without some previous sense of the love of God in the pardon of our sin.

(ii.) Gracious acceptation: “Receive us graciously.” The words in the original are only “wekach tov” טוֹב וְַקח . “And receive good;” but both the words being used variously, the sense eminently included in them is well expressed by “ –Receive us graciously.” After we have cast ourselves under tokens of thy displeasure, now let us know that we are freely accepted with thee. And this also lies in the desires of them who design to obtain a healing of their backsliding; for under them they are sensible that they are obnoxious unto God ’s displeasure.

b) Affectionate confessions of the sin wherein their backsliding did consist, or which were the occasions of them. “Asshur shall not save us;” – “We will say no more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods.” Fleshly confidence and false worship were the two great sins that had now ruined the body of the people. These believers themselves had an accession unto them more or less, as now they have unto the prevailing sins of the days wherein we live, by conformity unto the world. Of these sins God expects a full and free confession, in order unto our healing.

c) A renewed covenant engagement to renounce all other hopes and expectation, and to retake themselves with their whole trust and confidence unto him; whereof they express, first, the cause, which was his mere grace and mercy, “For in thee the fatherless findeth mercy;” and, secondly, the effect of it, which is praise and thanksgiving, “So will we render the calves of our lips.” And some things we may hence farther observe as unto the case under consideration. As, –

(i.) Although God will repair our spiritual decays and heal our backsliding freely, yet he will do it so, or in such a way, as wherein he may communicate grace unto us, to the praise of his own glory. Therefore are these duties prescribed unto us in order thereunto; for although they are not the procuring cause of the love and grace from whence alone we are healed, yet they are required, in the method of the dispensation of grace, to precede the effect of them. Nor have we anywhere a more illustrious instance and testimony of the consistency and harmony which is between sovereign grace and the diligent discharge of our duty than we have in this place; for as God promised that he would heal their backsliding out of his free love, verse 4, and would do it by the communication of effectual grace, verse 5, so he enjoins them all these duties in order thereunto.

(ii.) That unless we find these things wrought in us in a way of preparation for the receiving of the mercy desired, we have no firm ground of expectation that we shall be made partakers of it; for this is the method of God ’s dealing with the church. Then, and then only, we may expect a gracious reviving from all our decays, when serious repentance, working in the ways declared, is found in us. This grace will not surprise us in our sloth, negligence, and security, but will make way for itself by stirring us up unto sincere endeavours after it in the perseverance of these duties. And until we see better evidences of this repentance among us than as yet appears, we can have but small hopes of a general recovery from our present decays.