Home > Assurance, Backsliding > Recovering from Spiritual Decay – John Owen

Recovering from Spiritual Decay – John Owen

July 15, 2009

A believer who has allowed his spiritual life to wither and decay may recover and be revived, provided he goes about it the right way. If every time we slip back on our climb to the heights of heaven, we cannot be recovered, then we would all surely perish. If salvation were only for those who never slipped back then none would be in heaven. If the Lord should mark iniquities, who could stand? (Ps. 130:3). When a tree grows old, or is decaying, it helps to loosen the soil around its base and then to manure it. This may revive it and cause it to flourish again. But if you uproot it and plant it somewhere else—which may appear to be a good thing to do—it will probably wither and die. This is exactly what some spiritual backsliders have done. Finding themselves growing more and more unspiritual, they leave their own church and go over to Rome or to some other denomination, thinking that the fault lies with the teaching of the church they are in, when in reality the fault lies in themselves. Such people have visibly withered and died spiritually. But if they had used the right means for healing and recovery, they might have flourished and brought forth much fruit. To recover and be revived we need to mortify our sins and lusts and make every effort to carry out the spiritual duties God requires. Mortification is a means to revive spiritual life. But it must be done scripturally, by the help of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13). All other ways of putting to death our sins and lusts are condemned by God who asks, ‘Who has required these things at your hands?’ Like the Pharisees, Roman Catholicism brought the duty of spiritual mortification of sin into disrepute. They invented works, ways and duties which God never appointed, which he will never accept and which can never benefit men’s souls. Examples are: confession to a priest, various disciplines, pilgrimages, fastings, abstinence and set prayers to be repeated in stated canonical hours. But no amount of external exercise in these things brings any spiritual benefit whatever. But it is natural to turn to such helps in order to revive the soul. Those who are keenly aware of their sad spiritual state are burdened with a sense of guilt, for they know that it is sin that is responsible for their low spirituality. So the first question that arises is, how they may atone for that sin which has brought on them the divine displeasure and how they may once again be accepted by God. If they have no true evangelical light, two things immediately occur to them. First, some special course of duties, which God has not commanded. This is the way the church of Rome takes, and which guilt, in the darkness of corrupted nature, clamours for. Secondly, an extraordinary multiplication of duties, which for the most part are required of us. Micah gives us an example of both kinds (Mic. 6:6-7). In this way people hope to be restored to their previous flourishing spiritual state. Awareness of spiritual decays is of two kinds. First, there is an awareness brought about by the power of convictions only, which are multiplied among temporary believers. Secondly, there is an awareness brought about by a weakening of the power of saving grace in the soul. Those who are under convictions only, who are temporary believers, will turn for help to those man-made duties and works such as are devised by the church of Rome. When they fail, for the most part they stop wrestling with their sin and corruption and abandon themselves to the power of their lusts, for they have no evangelical light to guide them into the right way. Those who are aware of a weakening of their experience of grace themselves must redouble their efforts in the duties of mortification and spiritual obedience, but take care that what you do is what God has appointed, and that how you do it is guided and directed by Scripture. Examples of such duties are the reading and hearing of the Word, fervent prayer and diligently guarding against all temptations to sin. There should be a special effort to keep the mind spiritual and heavenly. This will demand holy earnestness, and a strong resistance to any other attitude of mind. But do not try these things in your own strength. The Holy Spirit rejects self-confidence (2 Cor. 3:5; 9:8). Self-confidence and self-sufficiency ignore Christ who alone is the Lord who heals us (Exod. 15:26). Another evil arises from self-confidence, when we do religious duties to build up merit and gain favour with God. No, what we do must be done by faith. Faith must seek Christ’s help and his grace both for mortification and obedience, or they will not be of any help in our healing and recovery.

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