John Newton’s letters, papers and sermons have been very helpful for me over the past 10 years. For the first "Reformonday" I wanted to share his paper, The Obvious Causes, Symptoms, and Effects of a Decline in the Spiritual Life.
Maybe you feel spiritually cold at the moment, and you've been thinking of breaking out those Keith Green albums to find some relief, inspiration and encouragement. Maybe you are in bad shape spiritually and don't even know it. Truthfully, I think it is harder for the Reformed to discover their own spiritual drift because of our trust in knowledge. For most of us the old adage is very true, "knowledge of the disease amounts to half the remedy." Unless we understand what has happened to us, we cannot begin to make a recovery of piety lost.
Newton lists four causes that lead to spiritual decline: error, pride, worldly attachment, and habitual sin.
1. Error in doctrine. Not every mistake in our thought leads to a decline in the spiritual life, but bad theology will yield corrupt piety. Consider the letter to the Galatians, whose misunderstanding of the Gospel brought trouble not only to their church, but also into their experience of God. Those who have been lazy in the area of theology (and I am not necessarily pushing systematic theology here) may find it to be a cause of spiritual trouble.
2. Spiritual Pride. Ahhh, here we go, a prevalent disease among us Reformed. Having loved God, truth and the Bible, and investing great effort in attaining knowledge, we often find ourselves filled with spiritual pride which "will infallibly cause a declension in the divine life." It's inevitable because when we become proud and arrogant in the measure of knowledge we possess by the grace of God, we experience divine resistance and are very near a fall. Newton wrote,
If our attainments in knowledge and gifts, and even in grace, seduce us into a good opinion of ourselves, as if we were wise and good, we are already ensnared, in danger of falling every step we take, of mistaking the right path, and proceeding from bad to worse...
For God, who giveth more grace to the humble, resisteth the proud; he beholds them with abhorrence, in proportion to the degree in which they admire themselves. It is the invariable law of his kingdom, that everyone who exalts himself will be abased.
I have seen this happen to a number of men, who have grown so proud that, despite holding to proper doctrine, they have ruined churches, marriages, and families.
3. Worldly Attachment. Attachment to the world is not loving creation as God's gift, but worshipping creation as if it were everything. In the end Newton wrote, "In whatever degree the love of the world prevails, the health of the soul will proportionately decline."
4. Habitual sin. “The practice of a single sin, or the omission of a single duty, if allowed against the light of conscience, and if habitual, will be sufficient to keep the soul weak, unfruitful and uncomfortable, and lay it open to the impression of every surrounding temptation.”
Newton has great things to say here, so if you have access be sure to read the whole thing.
Then he moves on to explain some of the symptoms we are likely to see if there is a decline in our spiritual life.
1) We become slow and dull in our service of God and to others, deriving little, if any, pleasure from it. 2) We become uninterested in the means of grace. Spiritual disciples are laid aside, forgotten or performed ritualistically apart from faith. 3) We grow lax in our behavior, letting more sin in while ignoring our consciences. While giving ourselves a pass, we remain critical of others and hypocrisy begins to take root.
After all of this what does Newton say we should do to fight such a condition? What steps must we take to overcome our sin? He gives none, and leaves us to see our sin, repent and return to God. No specific number of steps, no program. Humble, repenting faith will lead us.
For some great reading on this subject, check out:
A Treatise on Experimental and Practical Piety, W. S. Plumer [The book that God used to rouse me from my spiritual sleep in 1995]. The Christian's Daily Walk, Henry Scudder The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit, Matthew Henry The Practice of Piety, Lewis Bayly