Returning to Our First Love!
By Archibald Alexander
"Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent." Revelation 2:4-5
Although our blessed Savior never wrote anything Himself for the Church, yet we have in the evangelists many of His discourses in substance, if not entire; and here we have seven epistles dictated by Him, and communicated to His beloved John after His ascension to glory. The first of these was addressed to the church at Ephesus, and the other churches to which epistles were addressed were situated in the vicinity. As the apostle John had taken up his abode at Ephesus, these churches would naturally fall under his inspection and care.
The angels, through whom these epistles were addressed to the churches, are commonly supposed to have been the pastors; but a late writer of our own country has an ingenious conjecture that these angels were, in fact, the messengers of these seven churches who had been sent by them to attend to and comfort their beloved apostle in his exile in the island of Patmos.
Many interpreters, because these epistles are placed as a preface to a book of prophecy, have been of the opinion that they were of a prophetic character, representing seven successive periods of the history of the Christian Church. But there is nothing in these letters to the churches of Asia which has the least appearance of prediction, except the threatenings and blessings which are appended to each epistle. The attempts to apply the supposed prophecies to the several periods of the history of the Christian Church have utterly failed. Such force has been necessary to make out any correspondence between the matter of the epistles and the events of history, that every impartial reader must see that there exists no solid foundation for the opinion that these seven epistles to the churches of Asia were intended to be prophetic.
It may be satisfactory to some to mention that the name Asia, as that of Europe, was at first confined to a comparatively small district, of which Ephesus was the capital. Most of the cities to which these epistles were addressed are now in a state of utter desolation, and none more so than Ephesus, which was in the days of the apostle one of the most celebrated cities in the world.
The threatening against the church in this place, mentioned in our text, has been most signally fulfilled. Not only has the candlestick been removed, but the city in which the church was situated is a total ruin! There is something fearful, and at the same time admonitory, in viewing the utter desolation of many ancient cities, which seemed to have as fair a prospect of perpetuity as any which now flourish upon earth. Does the same doom await our great cities also? Will the candlestick be removed from them? Doubtless, these things were recorded for the admonition and warning of all succeeding churches to the end of the world.
There is a greater uniformity in God's government of cities, churches, and nations than most are willing to acknowledge. Without claiming anything of the spirit of prophecy, it may be predicted that when the cup of iniquity in our large cities is full (and the filling goes on very rapidly), they also will become desolate; and the ground now so highly appreciated, will become worthless. The churches which have left or shall leave their first love and refuse to repent will be removed; no vestige of them shall remain, as is literally the fact in regard to Ephesus. Already Ichabod may be inscribed on some churches in our land, for the glory is departed. And as it relates to the different denominations of evangelical Christians, it may be predicted that those which decline most from the truth and from the spirit of genuine piety, will, notwithstanding all their efforts to increase, and although they may for a while flourish in numbers and wealth, be cast off and be doomed to become desolate! Let all Christians, therefore, fear the wrath of that venerable personage described in the first chapter of this book, out of whose mouth proceeds a sharp two-edged sword.
Before speaking of the declension of these Ephesian Christians, it will be proper to say something of what is here called "first love." The prominent characteristic of every soul truly converted to Christianity, is love to the Savior. The faith which is the gift of God and which is wrought in Christians by the Holy Spirit, always works by love. Love is, therefore, set down as the first and principal fruit of the Spirit.
Now, there is something peculiar in the exercise of this first love of the young convert. Its exercise is fervent and tender—not founded, indeed, on such accurate views of the character of Christ as are afterwards acquired, and commonly less pure from mere natural excitement than that of the mature Christian, but accompanied with more joy and exultation.
These joyful frames, so common in new converts, may be ascribed to several causes. The first is the recent transition of the soul from a conviction of condemnation, ruin, and helplessness—to a state of favor and reconciliation. When the views of the way of salvation are clear and faith strong, there is commonly a joyful persuasion of safety and pardon; and even the hope of pardon after a dark season of distress and conscious condemnation is like life from the dead. This case is well illustrated by that of a criminal reprieved from death when under the gallows. His first feelings will be ecstatic, and though his safety is as certain years afterwards, he never will experience the same liveliness of joy.
Another thing which stamps a peculiarity on the first love of the Christian is the novelty of the objects and scenes which are now presented to his enlightened mind. All his lifetime he has been in darkness respecting the true nature of spiritual things; for "the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." But now the eyes of his understanding being opened and the true light shining into them, everything appears new and attractive; and sometimes a divine glory is exhibited to the contemplation of the enlightened mind. This light is, therefore, called "marvelous" by an apostle, and the love which accompanies it partakes of its marvelous nature. "Whom," says the apostle Peter, "having not seen, you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8).
Again, God deals with His children in the infancy of their spiritual life as mothers with their children while they are young. They nurse them with tender affection and do everything in their power to render them comfortable. They furnish them with the sweetest nutriment, cherish them in their bosoms, carry them in their arms, and rock them in the cradle. But when they have been weaned and have grown strong, they are turned out to make ends meet for themselves. They must now learn to work and endure hardships, and are no longer nourished at the breast or dandled on the mother's knee.
Thus, our heavenly Father, who exercises a warmer and more tender affection for His children than the kindest mother, is pleased to deal very tenderly with young converts; and often pours streams of divine comfort into their moldable hearts. They are for a season led in smooth and pleasant paths; though dark clouds may occasionally come over them, and "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." In their prayers and other religious exercises, they enjoy liberty of access to their heavenly Father; and much of their time is spent in grateful songs of praise for redeeming love and converting grace.
The state of the soul at this period is beautifully expressed by the poet in the hymn which begins:
"Sweet was the time when first I felt
The Savior's pardoning blood!"
Earthly things now have little or no attraction. The thoughts and feelings, the conversation and actions, are chiefly occupied with vital religion. These are indeed peaceful days, and will be often afterwards remembered with a mournful pleasure, when the scene is greatly changed; and especially when inbred corruption grows strong, when temptations vex the soul, and when the heart seems to have lost all tenderness; and when, instead of joy, darkness and trouble almost overwhelm the soul. Then is often uttered the exclamation of Job, "Oh that I were as in months past!" (Job 29:2).
The union of the believer to Christ is, in Scripture, often compared to marriage; and the joy of the young convert is like the joy experienced in the day of espousals (Jeremiah 2:2).
The early days of the true Christian may also be well illustrated by the feelings of the newly enlisted soldier. He rejoices in the "pomp and circumstance" of the military life, is animated by the sound of martial music and by the sight of splendid banners and the gorgeous uniforms of his officers; and leads a life of idleness, while his bounty money supplies him with such luxuries as he desires. But how different are the condition and feelings of the same person when he receives marching orders, and especially when he is led into battle, when all his energies are required, and his life is placed in imminent danger!
But the change in the Ephesian church of which the ascended Savior complains, and on account of which He brings a charge against them, is not that which naturally occurs by a change of circumstances, which may take place without any real declension in the vigor of piety. When He says, "You have left your first love"—He charges them with actual backsliding. And the declension of a church supposes that of the members of which it is composed. Let us, then, consider the causes and symptoms of backsliding and the imperative duty of all who may unhappily have fallen into this state.
Declensions in vital piety are owing to a variety of causes, internal and external. The whole, however, may be attributed to . . .
the temptations of Satan,
the allurements of the world, and
the inbred corruptions of the heart.
Declensions in vital piety are very commonly produced by too much interaction with a careless, money-loving, pleasure-seeking world. Vital religion is a delicate plant, and being surrounded by many unfavorable circumstances, is liable to receive injury from contact with a polluted world.
He who is clothed in garments white and clean will find it difficult to avoid contracting spots which deform and defile his robes when he is obliged to live in a filthy house.
Piety is not the natural state of the heart, but is brought in by a foreign influence and finds many things inimical to its preservation and growth in the soul in which it has taken up its abode.
For a while, at first, the young convert thinks but little about the business and cares of the world. Perhaps he is culpably inattentive to those duties which are required in making provision for the body. But soon he finds that he must serve God in a lawful calling—he must make honest provision for his own needs and those of his family.
It is hard to pursue the world just as far as duty calls—and then to stop. When the efforts to acquire property are successful, a pleasure is naturally experienced in the acquisition of good things. After a while, an undue love of the world is apt to be generated insensibly—and the evil creeps in insidiously.
But the undue love of the world, whether of its riches, its honors, or its pleasures—will soon injuriously influence the love of the soul to its Savior. The thoughts are too much drawn off from the contemplation of divine things, and the relish for spiritual duties and enjoyments is insensibly diminished. The duties of the closet are no longer anticipated with delight; and the hours consecrated to private devotion, which used to be the most pleasant in the whole day, do not now afford the same comfort as formerly. The lack of enjoyment in religious duties, the wandering thoughts in the midst of them, and the lack of lively feeling naturally tend to produce a backwardness to engage in them; so that were not the person forced, as it were, by conscience to enter his closet, he would often omit the duty altogether.
But when secret prayer is attended to, the person on whom the world has had an undue influence, hurries over the service; and often the omission would be better than the performance, where the service is merely formal, and the knee is bowed and words uttered without one devotional emotion.
Worldly company and too much occupation in secular affairs, are almost sure to deaden our pious affections and to disqualify us for spiritual exercises.
At first, the soul which has in it the "root of the matter," is alarmed at the defect of spiritual enjoyment, and makes, it may be, some inefficient efforts to recover the ground which has been lost; but these not proving successful, it gives itself up to a kind of indifference. It avoids serious reflection on its former state of lively feeling, or perhaps is tempted to think that there was more enthusiasm than real religion in those joyful frames which were once so highly valued. This temptation derives strength from the recollection of our ignorance, and the many false impressions to which we were then subject.
Just so far as this temptation has influence, the backslider loses all present desire of having his former exercises of religion renewed. This is a fearful and dangerous delusion. In this state of delusion, the person tries to persuade himself that he has lost nothing, that sober thought and rational feeling have taken the place of enthusiastic fervors.
But where there is any spiritual life, there will be seasons of uneasiness and an irrepressible feeling that all is not right. These, however, are but waking moments in the sleep of carnal security, into which the soul has fallen. For the most part, the conscience is lulled into a false security and is so little awake to give warning of danger that many things now appear to be lawful and innocent, which would have been avoided as highly criminal in the time of its first love!
Indeed, while in this state of slumbering, you can perceive very little difference between the declining professor and the mere moralist who makes no pretensions to religion.
The people of the world are surprised and gratified to find that those whom they once shunned, on account of their seriousness—are so much like themselves, and can join with them in frivolous conversation and participate in their amusements without scruple.
But let a lively Christian attempt to engage such declining professors in spiritual and experimental conversation on religion, and see what repugnance they will manifest to lay open the state of their hearts. Soon they will contrive to change the subject; and while it continues, they assent with painful feelings to what may be said. "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." There is no surer sign of declension from our first love than an aversion to conversation respecting Christ and His love, and our great obligations to love, honor, and praise Him to the utmost of our power.
Many leave their first love to Christ, who never fall into open transgression, but some are not so much favored. They are "overtaken in a fault," under some sudden temptation, as Peter. Others gradually sink into a state of carnal security, until like David, they become entangled by some insidious lust. When off their guard, the enemy comes in and presenting the bait of sensual pleasure, they are overcome and remain for a season under the dominion of sin. Often it becomes necessary to exclude such from the communion of the church, for conduct which is dishonorable to their sacred profession. This judicious exercise of discipline is sometimes made the effectual means of recovering true Christians from a state of shameful backsliding. Discipline is not intended for the destruction of those on whom it is exercised, but that they may be saved by destruction of their pride and sinful propensities.
The most common means of restoring backsliders, is God's rod of affliction. The reason why God scourges every son who He receives, is that all have faults and imperfections, which a kind Father aims to correct by the use of the rod.
By affliction, the vanity of the world is seen—and the infatuation produced by the love of the world is broken. In the dark day of adversity, when the idols of the backsliding Christian have been snatched away, when sickness has invaded his dwelling, and either in his own person or those as dear to him as his own soul, he is excruciated with strong pain and no earthly resource remains on which he can rely for consolation, he is filled with sorrow for having departed from the fountain of living water and is driven to seek refuge and comfort in the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The last thing which we propose to consider is the return of the soul to its first love. Backsliding Christians might, in justice, be cast off forever; but God, who has entered into covenant with His people, is faithful; and one of the promises of the new covenant is that He will "heal their backsliding" (Hosea 14:4).
The good Shepherd looks after His wandering sheep and restores them. But this He does by bringing them to a deep conviction of their sin. Their renewed conversion is, like the first, attended with many painful and anxious feelings; but after many discouragements, they are enabled to come to Christ and cast themselves upon His mercy. And to their astonishment, their reception is most gracious. They are welcomed as though they had never offended, and are restored to the joy of the divine favor.
But let us attend to the directions given in the text to the Ephesian Christians.
The first is to REMEMBER from where we have fallen. In a state of declension, there is a strange forgetfulness of former experience in the divine life. It is, therefore, very significantly represented by a state of sleep. The very first step toward a return to God is to be awakened from this spiritual slumber, to remember what we once possessed and enjoyed, and to compare our present condition with our former. This awakened recollection will lead the soul to understand the cause of its departure from God, and to trace all the steps of its retrograde course. Memory is a valuable faculty of our minds, and its exercise is of much avail in religion.
Readers, our exalted Savior seems to address this word to us. Let us, then, remember what we once were: what lively feelings of penitence, love, and joy sweetly mingled their emotions in our early experience in religion. Let us remember what hopes we then cherished, what resolutions we formed—yes, what solemn vows we made and recorded in the house of God. Did we then suppose that we could ever become so cold and indifferent in our religious feelings, as at present?
When aged Christians warned us of our danger, we were disposed to think that their solicitude in our behalf was superfluous, for we were confident that we would never decline from the walk of faith. Our foresight was, indeed, short; by insensible degrees we left our first love and have wandered like straying sheep.
But now, again, the Good Shepherd causes us to hear His voice. And His first call to us is to "Remember!"—to remember from whence we have fallen.
This is in order to the next step, which is to REPENT. Be sorry for what you have done. We should be willing to admit the painful, humbling conviction that we have grievously and foolishly sinned in departing from the living God. Sin is embittered to none more than to the penitent backslider; especially the sin of ingratitude breaks his heart. He is astonished at his own blindness and unbelief which prevented him from seeing the snare which the enemy spread to entangle his feet. Oh what stupidity, after having tasted the joy of pardoned sin and after being favored with the spirit of adoption, to turn again to folly!
This fills him, on the recollection, with astonishment and regret; and he now asks himself, "What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?" (Romans 6:21). Where now are the promised pleasures of sin? Alas! That which was sweet in the mouth, is turned to gall and wormwood in the stomach! Remember, then, from where you have fallen and repent.
But our obedience must not be confined to the feelings and affections of the heart, however pious and penitent these may be. A good tree will produce good fruit. Our Lord, therefore, adds, "and DO THE FIRST WORKS." Immediately, on a sinner's first conversion, he begins to work. "Lord, what will You have me to do?" is the language of every renewed heart. "He who has My commandments and keeps them," says our Lord, "it is he who loves Me" (John 14:21). "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15).
But in a state of backsliding, the commandments of Christ are neglected, or obeyed in a very imperfect manner. Undue conformity to the world takes the place of self-denial, and formality is substituted for spirituality in the worship of God.
But when the backslider is reclaimed—which is really like a new conversion—he is again led to engage cordially in the service of God. He now returns to the performance of his first works, as well as to the exercise of his first love. He again abounds in prayer and praise, makes the Sabbath a delight and counts it honorable, draws near to God in the Holy Supper, and is found walking blameless in all the commandments of the Lord. He does justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with his God.
The heart of a reclaimed backslider is sure to be more humble and distrustful of itself than before. There is also, now, more caution and watchfulness in regard to the heart. It has been found to be "deceitful above all things," and therefore ought not to be trusted! The vain self-confidence of such is now completely cured. The reclaimed penitent knows experimentally that his standing is not in himself—that unless he is preserved by the grace of God, he will certainly fall away again.
The penitent backslider is especially on his guard against those sins and temptations by which he was overcome when he departed from God, so that in all his future life, he is more secure from these than from other sins.
Two feelings are predominant in the exercises of a returning backslider: shame and a lively feeling of the baseness of ingratitude. Such a soul is ashamed to look up, and is often so confounded and overwhelmed with this feeling, that it remains silent before God. This frame of mind is vividly described by Ezekiel in the following language: "That you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done" (Ezekiel 16:63).
The mercy of God in graciously receiving the returning backslider appears to him more astonishing than it did upon his first being converted, and his admiration of the patience of the Lord is greatly enhanced. It is true, then, that God in His wisdom overrules even the falls and declensions of His people to increase their humility and watchfulness.
The reclaimed backslider is also rendered more charitable and forbearing to his brethren, when they appear delinquent in duty or are overtaken in a fault.
Let all churches make the inquiry seriously and honestly, whether they have not left their first love. With many, the fact is notorious—their departure from God is both visible and great. Where is now that fervent affection and ardent zeal which once characterized them? Where now is that spirit of earnest, wrestling prayer, which seemed as if it would give God no rest until He should cause the righteousness of Zion to go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burns? Where now is that fruitfulness in works of piety, mercy, and benevolence which adorned your profession?
"Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen—repent and do the first works." Otherwise, the threatening against Ephesus, so fearfully executed, may be realized in your case. Your candlestick may be removed. Error may overspread the church. Faithful ministers may be withdrawn, and false teachers may come in their place.
For your own sakes, and that of your posterity, awake out of your sleep! Seek the Lord for the return of His grieved Spirit. Cry mightily to God for His reviving influences.
As every church consists of individuals—I would call upon all professors to consider their ways. Examine yourselves, whether you are in the faith, and whether you are in a growing, thriving condition; for if not, you are surely in a state of declension.
There is no standing still in religion. If you are not pressing forward, you are certainly retrograding. You are, this day, solemnly called upon to remember the times and seasons which are past—to remember the love and joy of your espousals unto Christ, when the candle of the Lord shone upon your tabernacle, and when your chief delight was in the service of God; when the very name of Jesus was as ointment poured forth—when He gave you songs in the night; and in the morning, your first thoughts spontaneously arose to God your Redeemer.
Then you could say, "It is good for me to draw near to God!" "Whom have I in Heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You!" "For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness!" "I was glad when they said to me: Let us go into the house of the Lord!" (Psalm 73:28, 25; 84:10; 122:1).
But how is it with you now? What does conscience testify as to your present condition? What testimony would your prayer closet give, if it could speak? Alas! What a change! Where now are your religious comforts? What has become of that sweet peace you once enjoyed? Perhaps you even doubt of the reality or genuineness of your former experiences. You have, like the virgins in the parable, fallen into a slumbering state, in which the solemn truths of religion are dimly perceived, and make but a slight and transient impression on your mind when they occur to your thoughts.
To you I would say, "Awake you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light!" (Ephesians 5:14). Remember from where you have fallen; repent and do your first works.
Your present situation is one of extreme danger. While in this deadening state, you cannot possess satisfactory evidence of the genuineness of your piety. While in this state you cannot glorify God, nor be useful to men according to your ability and opportunity. And how sad your condition, if death should find you in this unprepared state! "Oh, that they were wise—that they would consider their latter end!" (Deuteronomy 32:29).
If there should be any who have been made sensible of their sinful departure from God, and who are sunk in discouragement and agonized with fear, lest they have sinned beyond the reach of mercy and bounds of forgiveness, and who, by these views are prevented from returning—to such I would say, "Do not dishonor God by entertaining such harsh and unbelieving thoughts. His mercy is infinite. As high as are the heavens above the earth—so high are His thoughts of mercy above our conception. He has left special promises for the encouragement of such as you, and He has never rejected one who came back Him. You cannot gratify the heart of your sympathizing Savior more than by exercising confidence in His power and willingness to save you."
I would conclude by addressing you in the language of God by the prophet Hosea: "Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips." Hosea 14:1-2