Arthur Pink, 1937
This subject is one of great practical importance and value, though sadly neglected by the modern pulpit. By "experimental preaching" we mean preaching which analyses, diagnoses, describes the strange and often bewildering experience of the Christian. As we have pointed out before, there is a real distinction to be drawn between Christian experience and the experience of the Christian. True Christian experience consists of a knowledge of Christ, communion with Him, conformity to Him. But the experience of a Christian grows out of the conflict of the two natures within—natures which are radically different in their character, tendency, and products. In consequence of that conflict, there is a ceaseless warfare going on within him, issuing in a series of defeats and victories, victories and defeats. These, in turn, produce joy and sorrow, doubtings and confidence, fears and peace; until often he knows not what to think or how to place himself.
Now it is one important and fundamental part of the office of God's minister, to trace out the workings of sin and the actings of grace in the believer's heart; to turn the light of Scripture upon the mysterious anomaly of what is daily taking place in the Christian's soul; to enable him to determine how far he is growing in grace or is backsliding from the Lord. It is his business to take the stumbling stones out of the way of Zion's travelers, to explain to them "the mystery of the Gospel," to define the grounds of true assurance, and to undermine a carnal confidence. It is an essential part of his task as preacher to trace out the work of the Spirit in the regenerate, and to show that He is a Spirit of "judgment" as well as consolation, a Spirit of "burning" (Isaiah 4:4) as well as building, that He wounds as well as heals.
The human soul possesses three principal faculties—the understanding, the affections, and the will; and the Word of God is addressed to each of them. Consequently the preaching of the Word comes under this general threefold classification: doctrinal preaching, experimental, and hortatory.
Doctrinal preaching expounds the great truths and facts which constitute the substance of Holy Writ, and has for its prime aim the instruction of the hearer, the enlightening of his mind.
Experimental preaching concerns the actual application of salvation to the individual and traces out the operations of the Spirit in the effectuation thereof, having for its main object the stirring of the affections.
Hortatory preaching deals with the requirements of God and the obligations of the hearer, takes up the exhortations and warnings of Scripture, calls to the discharge of duty, and is addressed principally to the will.
It is only as these three fundamental offices of the minister are adequately and wisely combined, that the pulpit has performed its proper functions.
Doctrinal preaching treats of the character of God, proclaims His attributes, extols His perfections. It deals with the nature of man, his accountability to God, his obligation to serve and glorify Him. It exalts the Law, and presses its requirement that we love the Lord God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves. It is concerned with showing what sin is, its enormity, its workings, its consequences. It delineates God's wondrous salvation, and shows the grace from which it springs, the wisdom which contrived it, the holiness which required it, the love that secured it. It describes what the Church is, both universally and locally. It expounds the ordinances—their significance, their purpose, their value.
Experimental preaching deals with the actual experience of those upon whom and in whom God works. It begins with their natural estate, as those who were shaped in iniquity and conceived in sin. It shows how, as fallen creatures, we are sin's slaves and Satan's serfs. It describes the deceitfulness and desperate wickedness of the heart, its pride and self-righteousness. It treats of man's spiritual impotency, and the hypocrisy and uselessness of making this a ground of self-pity, and an excuse for slothfulness. It delineates the workings of the Spirit when He convicts of sin, and the effects this produces in the subject of it. It takes up the heart exercises of an awakened soul, and seeks to counsel, admonish, and comfort.
Hortatory preaching is concerned with the claims of God upon us, and how we should endeavor to meet the same. It bids us to remember the Creator in the days of our youth, and affirms that our chief end is to glorify Him. It bids us throw down the weapons of our warfare against Him, and seek reconciliation with Him. It calls upon us to repent of our sins, forsake our wicked ways, and sue for mercy through Christ. It emphasizes the various motives unto obedience. It describes the life which the Christian is required to live, and exhorts him to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ. In short, it enforces the righteous demands of the Lord, and urges unto a compliance therewith.
Now it is in a due combination of these three distinct lines of preaching, that the best results are likely to ensue. Care needs to be exercised that the balance is properly maintained.
If there be a disproportionate dwelling on any one of these, souls are likely to be hindered, rather than helped. There needs to be variety in our mental and spiritual food, as much as there is in our material, and He who has graciously furnished the latter in Nature, has mercifully provided the former in His Word. If a person ate nothing but meat, his system would soon be clogged; if he confined himself to sweets, his stomach would quickly be soured. It is so spiritually. An excess of doctrinal preaching produces swelled heads; too much experimental induces morbidity; and nothing but hortatory issues in legality.
Alas, one of the most lamentable features of Christendom is the lopsidedness of present-day ministry. Where the Law is faithfully expounded, the Gospel is conspicuous by its absence; and where the Gospel is freely proclaimed, the Law is rigidly excluded.
Even when a more or less balanced doctrine is maintained, there is very little experimental preaching, yes, it is generally decried as harmful, as fostering doubts, as getting us occupied with ourselves instead of Christ. In those places where really helpful experimental preaching is to be heard, the hortatory note is never raised—promises are freely quoted—but the precepts are shelved, while exhorting the unregenerate to repent and believe in Christ is denounced as inculcating creature ability and as insulting to the Holy Spirit. In other quarters, one might hear little or nothing except our duties—becoming personal workers, giving to missions etc.—which is like whipping a horse that has had no food.
But of the three it is experimental preaching which is given least place in our day. So much so is this the case, that many of God's poor people and not a few preachers themselves, have never so much as heard the expression. Yet this is scarcely to be wondered at, for experimental preaching is by far the most difficult of the three. A little reading and study is all that is required to equip one naturally (we do not say spiritually) to prepare a doctrinal sermon, while a novice, a "young convert," is deemed capable of standing at a street-corner and urging all and sundry to receive Christ as their personal Savior. But a personal experience of the Truth is indispensable before one can helpfully preach along experimental lines—such sermons have to be hammered out on the anvil of the preacher's own heart. An unregenerate man may preach most orthodoxly on doctrine—but he cannot describe the operations of the Spirit in the heart to any good purpose.
Though experimental preaching be the hardest task which the preacher has to perform, yet it is needful he attend to it, and when the blessing of God rests thereon, beneficial are its effects. It is calculated to expose empty professors—both to themselves and others—more effectually than any other type of sermon, for it shows at length that the saving of a soul is very much more than a sudden "decision" on my part or believing that Christ died in my room and stead; for it is a supernatural work of the Spirit in the heart. Such preaching is most likely to open the eyes of sincere but deceived souls, for as they are shown what the work of the Spirit is, and the effects it produces, they will discover a miracle of grace has been wrought in them. While nothing is so apt to establish trembling believers, above all, it honors the Spirit Himself.
Let us now point out along what lines experimental preaching is to proceed, in order to be most helpful to the saints. First and primarily, its business is to show of what "Salvation" consists in its actual application to the individual. Doctrinal preaching lays the foundation for this by an exposition of the grand truth of Election (which makes known the blessed fact that God has chosen a people unto salvation—2 Thess. 2:13), and by opening up the subject of the Atonement, showing how Christ has fully satisfied every requirement of Divine justice upon the elect, thereby purchasing redemption for them. Doctrinal preaching is the means which the Spirit uses in the enlightenment, conviction and conversion of the elect, and the practical value of experimental preaching is that it enables concerned and attentive hearers to ascertain what stage has been reached in the Spirit's work in them.
In taking up the Spirit's application of that salvation which the Father ordained and the Son secured, the preacher first shows how the soul is prepared to receive it. By nature his heart is as hard and unresponsive to the Truth as the "highway" is to the reception of wheat—so there has to be a preliminary plowing and harrowing, a breaking up and turning over of the soil of his soul before the Word will obtain entrance and take root therein.
Experimental preaching, then, will show which of his hearers is still accurately pictured by the "wayside" ground, namely, those whose hearts are thoroughly antagonistic to God's claims upon them, those who are unconcerned about their eternal interests, those who wish to be left alone and undisturbed in their pleasures and worldly interests. The preacher will then press upon them the woeful state they are in, the terribleness of their condition, that they are dead toward God, devoid of any actual interest in spiritual things.
As the preacher develops and follows out the above line of thought, those who have been quickened and awakened by the Spirit of God will be better able to place themselves.
As they measure themselves by the message, as they apply to themselves what the minister is saying (which the hearer should ever do if he is to "take heed how you hear"—Luke 8:18), he will perceive that by the sovereign grace of God it is now no longer with him—as it once was. He will recall the time when he too sat under the preaching of the Word with stoic indifference, when it was a meaningless jumble to him, a weariness to sit through. He will remember he rarely gave more than a passing thought as to where he would spend eternity. But now it is otherwise. He is no longer unconcerned—but is truly anxious to be saved. The preacher will point out that this is a hopeful sign—but must press the fact that it is not one to be rested in, that it is the height of folly and most dangerous, to be contented with anything short of the full assurance of faith.
Again; the preacher will show that the great work of the Spirit in preparing the heart for a saving reception of the Gospel, consists in revealing to the individual his dire need of Christ, and this is accomplished by His making him to see and feel what a vile sinner he is in the sight of God. A life belt receives little notice from those who are safe on dry ground—but let a man be drowning in the water and he will eagerly grasp at and deeply appreciate one. Those who are whole need not a physician; but when they are desperately sick—he is most welcome. So it is spiritually. Let a man be unconscious of his moral leprosy, unconcerned of how he appears in the eyes of the Holy One, and salvation is little considered by him. But let him be convicted of his lifelong rebellion against God, let him discover that there is "no soundness" in him, let him realize that the wrath of God abides on him—and he is ready to give the Gospel a sincere hearing.
Now the great instrument or means used by the Spirit in bringing the people to see their ruined and lost condition is the Law, for "by the Law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). A striking illustration of this is found in Nehemiah 8. There we read of Ezra ministering to those who had returned from the Babylonian captivity, "Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law" (vv. 2, 3). He, in turn, was assisted by others, who "instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (vv. 7, 8). And what was the outcome? This, "all the people wept when they heard the words of the Law" (v. 9). The Spirit had applied it to their hearts in power; they were convicted of their wicked self-will and self-pleasing, their disobedience and defiance to the Lord, and they repented of the same and mourned before Him.
God wounds before He heals, and abases before He exalts. When the Spirit applies the Law to a sinner's heart, his self-delight is shattered and his self-righteousness receives its death-wound. When he is brought to realize the justice of the Law's requirements, discovers that it demands perfect and perpetual conformity to the revealed will of God in thought and word and deed—then he perceives that "innumerable evils have encompassed him about," his iniquities "take hold of him" so that he cannot look up, and he recognizes that his sins are "more than the hairs of his head" (Psalm 40:12). Such an experience is beyond misunderstanding—those subject to the same cannot mistake it. Unspeakably painful though it be, it is most necessary if man's proud heart is to be humbled and made receptive to the Gospel of God's grace. Such an experience evidences that God has not abandoned him to a heart that is "past feeling" (Eph. 4:19)—yet this is not to be rested in as though the goal had been reached.
So far from a state of becoming aroused to see our danger and be concerned about our eternal destiny being, of itself, something to complacently rest in, assured that all will certainly end well, it is one that is full of peril. Satan is never more active than when he discovers souls are being awakened, for he is loathe to lose his captives, and redoubles his efforts to retain them. It is then that he transforms himself as an angel of light, and performs his most subtle and successful work. There are multitudes, my reader, who were shaken out of their indifference, and became diligent in seeking the way of salvation. But false guides misled them, and they were fatally deceived—as Ezekiel 13:22 expresses it, they "strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life." The sinner must "forsake his way" before he can return to the Lord and find pardon (Isaiah 55:7).
Not until we actually comply with the terms of the Gospel, not until we really close with Christ as He is presented therein, is forgiveness obtainable. To stop anywhere short of that, is to gravely endanger the soul's going to sleep on the Devil's "enchanted ground"—to borrow a figure from Bunyan. It is therefore the pressing duty of the preacher to sound the alarm here, and warn awakened souls of the danger of taking their ease, assuming that all is well. The foolish virgins "went forth to meet the Bridegroom" but they went to sleep, and when they awoke it was too late to procure the requisite oil! It is good that the ground should be plowed, yet that is only the preliminary work—seed must actually be sown and take root therein, before there can be any fruit. The anxious soul, then, must be continually exhorted to make sure that "the root of the matter" (Job 19:28) is in him.
This brings us to the next important stage or branch of experimental preaching—the making clear unto the concerned how it may be ascertained whether or not "the root of the matter" is in them; in other words, whether a work of grace has actually been started in their souls. This is a point of vast importance, for it concerns the vital difference between the general and special work of the Spirit—on which we wrote at some length when expounding Hebrews 6:4-6.
"He who has begun a good work in you—will complete it" (Phil. 1:6). And how is an exercised soul to ascertain whether this "good work" has actually begun in him? How is he to distinguish between the natural workings of conscience, and the supernatural conviction which the Holy Spirit produces? How is he to distinguish between the spasmodic religiousness of the flesh—which appears conspicuously in many of the devotees of Mohammed and the worshipers of the Virgin Mary, and finds its counterpart in thousands of those who come under the magnetic influence of "Evangelists" and "Revivalists" —and true spiritual aspirations after God? How is he to distinguish between a radical moral reformation and a Divine regeneration—for some of the effects of the one closely resemble those of the other? How is he to distinguish between the general work of the Spirit on the non-elect (like king Saul and those described in Heb. 6:4, 5) and the special work of the Spirit in the elect?
Such questions as the above may never have arisen in the minds of some of our readers, and now that they have seen them raised, may consider them as "hair-splitting" or theological distinctions of little practical interest. But others of our readers are deeply exercised by such considerations. They dare not take it for granted that all is well with them, until they are satisfied from God's Word that a miracle of grace has been wrought in them. They fear that Satan may be deceiving them with his lies, comforting with a false assurance. As they seek to contemplate an endless eternity unto which time is so swiftly conducting them, they are deeply anxious to make sure where they are bound!
And well may such inquiries disturb our serenity, and agitate our minds—they are of vital consequence, of vast importance—for they concern the difference there is between life and death, Heaven and Hell.
It is an essential branch of experimental preaching, that must deal with such momentous issues. It is the bounden duty of the pulpit to afford help unto such exercised souls. It is the office of the minister to take up such distinctions and show clearly wherein the difference lies. It is the business of God's servant to define and describe of what the "good work" of the Spirit consists, and how it may be identified. That "good work" is but another name for the new birth, which consists of the Spirit's communicating to the heart a new nature, a principle of grace and holiness. It is the impartation of that which is radically different from anything that was in us by nature. It is something which has come from God, is Godlike in its nature, and which instinctively turns unto God. It is discoverable by the fact that there is now in the soul a relish for spiritual things, which was not there previously; a "relish" which goes far, far deeper than a mere intellectual interest being awakened in a new subject. It evidences itself by a hungering after righteousness, a thirsting for holiness, pantings after God Himself, yearnings for Christ.
But while an entirely new nature is imparted at regeneration, the old one is not removed, nor is it even improved or refined. The old nature, the "flesh," indwelling sin, remains in the Christian to the end of his earthly life and is a constant source of grief to him. It opposes every aspiration and effort of the new nature. It is earthly, sensual, devilish, and craves only that which the swine feed on. Nor does the finishing of that "good work" in the soul effect any change for the better in the flesh, or even render it less active.
No, the carrying on of that "good work" is the preserving of a spark of grace—in an ocean of sin, the maintaining of the new nature in a heart that is desperately and incurably wicked. Notwithstanding every effort of carnal enmity to quench it, love for God survives, "faint, yet pursuing" (Judg. 8:4); and despite all the ragings of unbelief, faith's head is kept above the waters.
Just as the natural infant clings instinctively to its mother and yearns for her breast, so the spiritual babe seeks after Christ and desires the pure milk of the Word. That is another evidence of the Spirit's "good work" in the soul. The Spirit's quickening is in order to capacitate the heart for Christ, for one who is yet "dead in trespasses and sins" has neither spiritual desires not spiritual ability. But once a person has been born again, and truly convicted of his ruined and lost condition, he is spiritually fitted to receive the Gospel. It is at this point he is ready to hear how the Spirit works in revealing Christ to such, bringing them to believe on Him, and thereby putting them into actual possession of Him. The Spirit causes the quickened soul to live over the truth of the Gospel in his own mind, moves him to give full credit thereto, mix faith with the same, and derive spiritual nourishment from it.
As the truth of the Gospel is received into the heart—in some cases rapidly, in others much more slowly—it becomes the means of the believer's growing into an experimental and practical acquaintance with Christ, to be rooted and grounded in Him, to live upon Him. When God is pleased to shine upon the souls of the elect, and make an open discovery to them of His work of grace within them, or when Christ is first made a living and precious reality to their hearts, there is a going forth of their spiritual affections unto Him.
All seems to be life and vigor in their souls, difficulties vanish, doubts are dispelled, they are quite carried out of themselves, lifted above their sins and iniquities, and made to rejoice in Christ and praise God for His wondrous grace. This is "the love of your espousals" (Jer. 2:2), the "joy of salvation." It is very rare, however, that this blissful season is of long duration, and wisely has God so ordered this. Such spiritual ecstasy which is often experienced by newly converted souls would, if it lasted, unfit them for the discharge of life's duties in this world. For example, one engaged in office work would be unable to concentrate on his books if his mind were enrapt with visions of glory. There was only one Elim—with its well of water and palm trees—for Israel in the wilderness. God grants His people a foretaste of Heaven and its realities, and then brings them down to a consciousness that they are still on earth. Even the Apostle Paul needed a thorn in the flesh, lest he be exalted above measure, after he had been caught up to Paradise. Heavy ballast is needed, if the ship is to sail steadily, and this the believer obtains by painful discoveries of his corruptions.
It is therefore the duty of the preacher to faithfully warn the young convert that the peace, joy and assurance which usually follows the first realization of sins' forgiveness, will in turn be succeeded by fierce temptations, inward conflicts, sad failures which will produce grief, darkness, and doubtings. It was so with Abraham, with Moses, with Job, with Peter, with Paul; yes, with all the saints whose biographies are recorded at any length in the Scriptures. Great changes are to be expected in the young convert's feelings and frames, so that his comforts are dampened, and the dew of death seems to settle upon his graces. A deeper realization of his awful depravity—what he is by nature—will make him groan and cry out "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24); yet that only makes way for a fuller and further weaning from SELF.
Very often the young Christian is allowed by God to sink yet lower in his experience. Satan is let loose upon him and sin rages fiercely within him, and strive and pray as he may, it often obtains the upper hand over him. Guilt weighs heavily on his conscience, no relief is granted from any source, until he now seriously questions the genuineness of his conversion and greatly fears that Satan has fatally deceived him. He feels that his heart is as hard as the nether millstone, that faith in him is dead, that there is no help and no hope for him. He cannot imagine that one who has been born again and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit could be so enslaved by sin. If God were his Father, He would surely hear his cries and grant deliverance from his spiritual enemies. But the heavens are as brass over him—until the very breath of prayer seems frozen within him.
Hoping against hope, he seeks relief from the pulpit. But in vain. The sermons he hears only aggravate his woes for they depict the Christian's experience as vastly different from his own—they deal with the bright side and say little or nothing on the dark side. If he converses with the professing Christians of the day, he is likely to get laughed at, and told to cease being occupied with himself and look only to Christ—to lay hold of the promises of God and go on his way rejoicing. That is the very thing he most of all desires, "to will IS present" with him, "but how to perform that which is good" he "finds NOT" (Romans 7:18). Poor soul! is there no one who understands his case? no one qualified to minister comfort to him? Alas, alas, there are few indeed in this frothy age!
Here, again, experimental preaching is urgently needed, preaching which enters into the very experiences described above—experiences shared, in some measure, by all quickened souls while they are in this "Wilderness of Sin." But O what wisdom from on High (not from books!) is needed if, on the one hand, the "smoking flax" is not to be "quenched" and the "bruised need" be not broken—on the other hand, sin is not made light of, failures are not excused, and the standard of holiness is not lowered. The pulpit should declare frankly, that there are times when the mind of the believer is filled with deep distress, that there are seasons when the light of God's countenance is turned away from His people, and the Devil is permitted to sorely wound them, tell them that they have committed the unpardonable sin, and that there is no hope for them; but that such experiences are no proof at all that they are still unregenerate.
The preacher has to bear steadily in mind that if there are among his hearers, carnal professors who are ready to seize eagerly anything which would bolster them up in their false assurance, there are also feeble and ailing babes in Christ which require tender nursing (Isaiah 60:4; 1 Thess. 2:7), and little ones of God's family who lack assurance, and because of this think the worst of themselves. It is therefore wise business to "take forth the precious from the vile" (Jer. 15:19)—that is, by a discriminating ministry expose and terrify the sin-hardened—but speak words of comfort to the real mourners in Zion.
"In our congregations there are wheat and chaff on the same floor—we cannot distinguish them by name—but we must by character" (Matthew Henry). We must make it clear that those who regard sin lightly, have not the fear of God before their eyes; those not grieved because they find so much in their hearts opposed to Divine holiness, are unregenerate—no matter how much head-knowledge of the Truth they possess or how loud be their Christian profession! It is at this very point that the true under-shepherd of Christ stands out in marked contrast from the "hireling" of the flock, concerning whom God says, "You have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life" (Ezek. 13:22).
On the one hand, the regenerate are "made sad" by pratings about "the victorious life," or "the second blessing," or "the baptism of the Spirit." These blind leaders of the blind claim to have so "got out of Romans 7 into Romans 8," to have so left behind them all inward conflicts and agonizing doubtings, as to virtually have entered into the state of the glorified—causing real Christians to conclude that they know nothing of that Gospel which is "the power of God unto salvation" and must be complete strangers to a miracle of grace within them.
On the other hand, these false prophets declare that all who have "accepted Christ as their personal Savior" are saved, even though they have not yet received the second blessing, that they are justified though not "entirely sanctified." They assure the godless, the worldling, the pleasure-intoxicated, that they may be saved at this very moment on the sole and simple condition that they believe God so loved them as to give His Son to die for them. Thus peace is assured to the unconcerned "when there is no peace," the hearts of the careless are hardened, and the wicked are promised life without any regard to God's demand that they must "forsake" their idols. "Nor can anything strengthen the hands of sinners more than to tell them they may be saved in their sins without repentance; or that there may be repentance, though they do not return from their wicked ways" (Matthew Henry).
The duty of God's servants is clearly enough defined in this respect, "They shall teach My people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean" (Ezek. 44:23). Surely it is of vast importance that a deeply exercised soul should know whether or not his sins have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. But for that, teaching is necessary, teaching from a Divinely-qualified teacher; for if an inexperienced "novice" lays his hand to such a task he will only make bad matters worse, and add to the fearful confusion which now prevails on every side.
Only one who has himself sailed much in these deep waters—is fitted to serve as pilot to floundering ships; none but one who had been harassed by Satan as Bunyan had, could have written "The Pilgrim's Progress." "That we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God" (2 Cor. 1:4) states the principle. One who has actually suffered from a serious disease is best fitted to recognize symptoms of it in others and recommend the remedies which he found most efficacious. Furthermore, one must be personally taught by the Spirit before he can explain to sin-sick and Satan tormented souls, the "mystery of the Gospel"—the strange paradoxes of the Christian life.
It is one thing to read "for when I am weak—then am I strong" (2 Cor. 12:10), it is quite another matter to prove the truth of it in actual experience. Nor is that statement any more paradoxical than the fact that it is the spiritually "poor" who are spiritually rich (Matt. 5:3). And equally true is it that those who most clearly perceive their filthiness and mourn over their pollution—are those who have the best evidence that their sins have been washed away; as the most humble souls are the ones who most bewail their pride.
It is by no means easy to combine tenderness—with faithfulness, sympathy for doubting ones—with a deep concern for the honor of God. Of old the Lord complained, "For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of My people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace" (Jer. 8:11). We have personally met not a few who were pitying themselves when they should have been condemning themselves, hugging their doubts instead of contritely confessing them to God. Unbelief is not a virtue—but a heinous sin; it is to be reproved, and never excused. There is no real relief for a badly festered limb by scratching the skin—the lancet must pierce right down to the seat of the trouble, if the poisonous matter is to be pressed out. Self-love, self-delight, self-righteousness must be thoroughly probed by the knife of the Word—before the heart will be broken before God.
The great issue between God and man is SIN, and salvation is deliverance from sin.
True, that in the fullest meaning of the term, salvation is not complete in this life, for glorification is included within its scope; nevertheless there is a very real sense in which the believer is initially saved even now. In other words, there is a present aspect of salvation, as well as a future; and that present salvation is an experimental thing, as well as judicial.
But it is just at this point, that the conscientious Christian confronts his most acute problem—how dare he profess to be saved from sin, or even regard himself as now being saved from it, when sin rages so fiercely within and so often gets the upper hand of him? Here, again, the business of the preacher is to throw light upon this problem. First, by showing that the believer is not yet saved from the presence of sin, for it still indwells him; nor is he saved from the power of sin, except relatively, for it is still a mighty force within him, utterly beyond his control. Second, by showing that the believer is now saved from the love of sin. THAT is the essence of the matter. The thrice holy God is "of purer eyes than to behold evil, and can not look on iniquity" (Hab. 1:13), and therefore He abhors all sin, saying, "Oh, do not this abominable thing that I hate" (Jer. 44:4). But man by nature loves sin, therefore the first thing God does in salvation is to put within His people a principle or nature that hates sin.
But here, too, we must pass from generalities and get down to details. The honest soul will at once ask, If I really hate sin—then why do I so often yield to it? If I have been delivered from the love of sin, why can Satan's temptations still appeal to me? The answer is, because the "flesh" is still left in you, and it remains unholy to the end of its history. Our responsibility is to "make no provision for the flesh" (Romans 13:14), to "mortify" its members (Col. 3:5), to unsparingly judge it, root and branch (1 Cor. 11:31, 32), to confess its evil works (1 John 1:9). The fact that the believer resists sin, prays and strives against it, mourns and groans over it, loathes himself for it—are so many proofs that he no longer loves it as he once did.
Here, then, is the task of experimental preaching, to make clear what salvation is—and what it is not; to trace out the heart's history of one who is being saved, and this in such a way that the unregenerate are not emboldened in their sins, nor the regenerate crushed by their defeats. There is urgent need to show what the love of sin consists of, and then to describe how a holy hatred of sin may be recognized, and what is compatible and what is not compatible with this hatred.
Incidentally, we are endeavoring to make them of interest and profit to the general reader as well. Much skill and spiritual wisdom are required to speak on those subjects which more immediately affect the experience of Christians, and those are acquired only by the anointing of the Spirit and a careful analysis and diagnosis of our own inward life.
It is just as requisite for the preacher to make a study of the human heart, as to be assiduous in the reading of books, otherwise he will not know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary.
To know what our spiritual state really is, and what our practical acquaintance with Christ actually amounts to—is most desirable and profitable, for it arms us against our spiritual enemies, puts a stop to doubting, and causes us to glory in the Lord. But to describe clearly and declare fully the influences and operations of the Spirit within us, as they truly are, is a very difficult task. It is much easier to preach the doctrine of grace, than to describe the effects of it when applied to the heart by God. It is to those portions of the Word which treat most directly and largely with the exercises of the heart, that the preacher should turn, both for guidance and material. Much in the Book of Job and in the Lamentations will afford help; but it is in the Psalms more particularly that the Spirit has recorded the varied breathings and traced out the diverse experiences of "the living in Jerusalem."
True Christian experience may be defined as the teaching of God in the soul, an inward acquaintance with Divine things. It is a feeling sense of their reality, in contrast from a mere notional and theoretical knowledge of them, so that we know them not "in word only—but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance" (1 Thess. 1:5). It is the Spirit's application of the Truth to the soul—so that what is written in the Word, is now inscribed on the heart. This supplies demonstration of what before was intangible and unreal, the Divine verities have become known realities. The soul can now say of God, "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear—but now my eye sees You!" (Job 42:5). He knows that God is holy, for he has been made painfully conscious of the exceeding sinfulness of sin; he knows that "the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18), for he has felt the same, scorching his own conscience. He knows that He is "the God of all grace," for he has "tasted that the Lord is gracious" (1 Peter 2:3).
Christian experience is the teaching of God in the soul—and the effects which this produces. Those effects may be, broadly, summed up in two words—pain and pleasure, sorrow and gladness, mourning and rejoicing. The natural world illustrates the spiritual world—as there is a continual alternation between spring and autumn, summer and winter—so there is, in the history of the soul. He who gives rain and sunshine, also sends droughts and biting frosts; likewise does He grant fresh supplies of grace—and then withhold the same; and also sends grievous afflictions and sore tribulations. Herein is His high sovereignty conspicuously displayed; as there are some lands which enjoy far more sunshine than others—so some of His elect experience more of joy than sorrow. And as there are parts of the earth where there is far more cold than heat, so there are some of God's children who are called on to suffer more of adversity—both inward and outward—than of prosperity. Unless this is clearly recognized, we shall be without the principle key which unlocks the profoundest mysteries of life.
But while there is great diversity in the lot of different Christians, there is an underlying unity. In incidentals there is infinite variety—but in fundamentals there is a real agreement. This may be illustrated by the analogy furnished from the members and groups of the human family. What differences of form, feature, and complexion, distinguishes individuals one from another! Where, out of all mankind, can we find two persons precisely alike? Nevertheless, how much greater is their resemblance than their dissimilarity.
Take any man, black or white, red or yellow, and then place him by the side of a horse or cow—and it at once appears that an impassable gulf separates the lowest man from the highest animal. Yet of any two men, taken at random from the remotest nationalities, and their greatest contrast is but as nothing when compared to their general resemblance. The differences are but superficial and on the surface.
Let us now apply the above illustration to the spiritual family of God. Here too there are many variations—yet an underlying oneness; differences of species—yet but a single genus.
Each of the twelve tribes of Israel had its distinctive individuality—yet they formed a single nation. Peter was quite different from Nathanael, and Thomas from John—yet they were equally dear to Christ and equally gave proof they belonged to Him. The differences are patent because they lie on the surface, as freckles and wrinkles are seen on the face; whereas bones and muscles, arteries and nerves—the real stamina of the body—are unseen.
Some believers have more faith than others, some more courage, some more gentleness. Some believers have a lighter burden to carry. Allowance must be made for temperament, heredity, environment, privileges, etc.; yet notwithstanding, all have the same cast of spiritual features, speak the same language, evidence the same stock, and stand out as distinct from the unregenerate, as men differ from beasts.
"We must not make the experience of others, in all respects—a rule to ourselves; nor our own a rule to others; yet these are common mistakes. Though all are exercised at times—yet some pass through the voyage of life much more smoothly than others" (John Newton). Excellent counsel is contained in those words, and some of God's dear children would be spared many a heartache, if they would but heed it. There are some who know the very hour and place where they were first converted—but there are others who cannot even single out the year when their hearts were first really turned to the Lord, and because they cannot—they grieve, and doubt the reality of their conversion. This is very silly, for God does not deal with all of His people in the manner he dealt with the dying thief and Saul of Tarsus. Moreover, the genuineness of conversion is not to be determined by its suddenness or drastic character—but rather by its lasting effects and fruits.
"The wind blows where it wills . . . . so is everyone that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). The figure which Christ there employed is very suggestive. Sometimes the wind blows so softly it is almost imperceptible; at other times it comes with hurricane velocity and power. It is so in connection with the new birth. In some cases there is long travail and much hard labor, in others the deliverance is speedy and easy. There is no uniformity in the natural realm; nor is there in the spiritual. If "order" is Heaven's first law, endless variety and diversity is surely its second.
As we have said above, considerable allowance must be made (in our calculation and consideration) of what is termed the "accidentals" of life, though of course there are no accidents in a world where everything has been ordained by God. Those reared in a godly home, and who have sat under sound preaching from earliest days, can hardly expect the Spirit's application of the Word to produce so drastic a conscious change—as those who were comparative strangers of the Truth when God first meets with them.
The same thing is true of the experiences which follow conversion. Some long retain their newborn peace and joy, while others quickly come under a cloud and are shut up for years in "doubting castle." It is often due to the lopsided and deficient teaching they sit under, for there are some preachers who, if they do not plainly say so, at least convey the impression that it is sinful for anyone to be joyful in this world. There is a class of spiritual dyspeptics who are never happy unless they are miserable, and the influence of such is very chilling upon those who are still enjoying their "first love." But more generally the blame for losing his assurance lies at the young convert's own door—failure to separate from worldly companions will grieve the Spirit and cause Him to withhold His witness; while neglect of private prayer and daily feeding on the Word will give the Enemy an advantage which he will be quick to seize.
But even where there is a complete break from ungodly companions, and where the means of grace are diligently used—the joy of conversion is usually short-lived. Nor is this surprising, for deeper discoveries of our depravity must sober those with the most exuberant spirits, and cause groans to mingle with their songs. At conversion, sin is only stunned, and not killed—and sooner or later it revives and seeks to recover its lost ground, and gain complete mastery again over the heart. This presents a painful problem to the babe in Christ, for unless he has been previously instructed, he naturally thought he was completely done with sin when he gave himself to the Lord. It was his sincere and deep desire to henceforth live a holy life, and the sight he now obtains of his corruptions, his weakness in the face of temptations, the sad falls he encounters, awaken serious doubts in his heart, and Satan promptly assures him that he has been deceived, that his conversion was not a genuine one after all.
It is at this stage, that the distressed and fearing young saint is in need of real help. Alas, only too often he is hindered and stumbles. Some will laugh at his fears and say "to the winds with your doubts." The absurdity of such a course may be exposed by drawing an analogy. What good would it do to jeer at one who has a splitting headache or a raging toothache? Would it afford him any relief to say, You are foolish to harbor the thought that all is not well with you? Or to tell the poor sufferer that he is simply heeding the Devil's suggestions? "Physicians of no value" are all such Job's comforters. They do not understand the malady, nor can they prescribe the remedy; and if we yield ourselves to their guidance, being blind themselves, they can but lead us into "the ditch." Beware, my reader, of those who mock at souls in despair.
"Prepare a way for the people! Build up the highway; clear away the stones!" (Isaiah 62:10). This word to God's servant is most pertinent to the case we are now considering. To "clear away the stones" from the path of experience of a tried saint, is a great part of the minister's work. Now that which is stumbling our young convert is the discovery of his (unsuspected) inward corruptions, the power which sin still has over him, and the fact that earnest prayer seems to produce no change for the better.
Only one who has himself known these stumbling stones in his own soul is qualified to take them out of the way of others; in fact the preacher knows nothing in reality of any branch of the Truth, except as he has felt its necessity, suitableness and power in his own experience. We must ourselves be helped by God—before we can be of service to His needy people.
It is the preacher's business to point out that corruptions are no evidence of grace—yet that grace manifests corruptions, causes its recipient to strive against them, and groan beneath them. The sighs of a wounded spirit, the cries for deliverance from the ragings of indwelling sin, the sinkings of soul amidst the turbulent waves of depravity—are evidences of spiritual life, and he who sneers at such is a Pharisee, despises a poor publican.
Many of God's people are greatly harassed with temptations, frequently buffeted by Satan, and deeply exercised over the workings of sin in their hearts; and for them to learn that this is the common experience of the regenerate, strengthens their hope and moves them to renew their struggles against their spiritual foes. It means much to a sorely tried and deeply perplexed Christian, to learn that his minister is "also his brother and companion in tribulation" (Rev. 1:9).
Much wisdom and grace are needed here, if the preacher is to be both faithful and helpful. On the one hand, he must not lower God's standard to his own poor attainments, nor must he give any countenance to failure. Sin in the believer—is as vile in God's sight as sin in the unbeliever, and the allowance of it doubly reprehensible, for in the case of a believer it is against more light, fuller knowledge, greater privilege, deeper obligations. Unbelief is not to be pitied, doubtings are not to be condoned, falls are not to be excused. Sin must be frankly confessed to God, failures penitently acknowledged, all that is of the flesh condemned by us.
On the other hand, the minister must be much on his guard lest by unnecessary roughness, the bruised reed is broken and the smoking flax is quenched. Feeble knees are to be strengthened and not ignored; and the hands which hang down are to be lifted up. Patience, too, must be exercised, for as old heads do not grow on young shoulders, neither are raw recruits as well versed in spiritual warfare as the veterans of Christ's army.
There are some godly ministers who have failed to express themselves consistently with their own actual experience and with that of other holy persons, and thereby the faith and hope of gracious souls are weakened and dismayed, and occasion is given unto unbelief to more completely prevail over them. Perhaps some ministers are fearful that if they speak too plainly and freely about their own failures and falls, the impression will be conveyed that Divine grace is an empty expression, rather than a powerful deterrent to sin. But such a fear is quite needless—surely none should hesitate to be as frank as was the Apostle Paul in Romans 7—and none was more jealous of the glory of Divine grace than he! But we suspect that in some instances it is pride which dominates, causing the preacher to be ashamed of acknowledging his own vileness, fearful lest his people will cease to look up to him as a spiritual giant.
Here too these are two extremes to be guarded against; while we are far from advocating that the preacher should make it a practice of referring to his own spiritual ups and downs in every sermon—yet we are convinced that he has failed in discharging an important branch of his duty—if he never makes reference to his own experiences. The servant of God is not only a herald—but a witness as well, and how can he feelingly testify to the longsuffering of God, unless he affirms that He has exercised infinite patience to such a wretch as himself? In like manner, he should bear personal witness to the ceaseless conflict between the two natures in the regenerate, the ragings of sin against grace, the surgings of unbelief against faith, the eclipses of hope by doubtings.
True, this should always be done in a spirit of humiliation and self-loathing, never minimizing the sinfulness of sin, and still less glorying in his "putrefying sores." There should be a balance preserved between describing how a Christian ought to live—and how the Christian does live—how far short the falls of measuring up to the standard which God has set before him, that "in many things we all stumble" (James 3:2).
There should also be a balance preserved between the reproving of failure—and a setting forth of the gracious provisions which God has made for the meeting of the same. There must be no hesitation in proclaiming the sufficiency of Christ to deal with the most desperate cases, His compassion for the most wretched sufferers, His readiness to hear the feeblest cry which goes up from a penitent heart. The groaning saint is to be exhorted unto cultivating the freest possible dealings with the Friend of publicans and sinners, and assured that He is as ready and willing to minister unto the needy now as when He tabernacled here on earth, for He is "the same yesterday and today and forever" and "His compassions fail not."
As the young convert, distressed by the discovery of the deceitfulness and desperate wickedness of his heart, is to be informed that that is no proof he is still unregenerate; so he is to be told that the ragings of sin within him are no occasion why he should turn away from the Throne of Grace—but rather a reason why he should go boldly thereto, that he may "obtain mercy." While he is to be frequently exhorted unto keeping his heart with all diligence, and the necessity, importance, and method thereof explained to him—he is also to be warned that his most diligent efforts therein will meet with very imperfect success.
He is to be instructed that the spiritual warfare to which God has called him, the good fight of faith in which he is to be daily engaged, is a lifelong task, and that sincerity and faithfulness therein, rather than victory—is what God requires. The wounds which he receives in this warfare, are so many reasons for him to constantly have recourse to the Great Physician.
The mere quoting of Scripture in the pulpit is not sufficient—people can become familiar with the letter of the Word by reading it at home; it is the expounding of it which is so much needed today. "And Paul, as his manner was . . . reasoned with them out of the Scriptures, opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead" (Acts 17:2, 3). But to "open" the Scriptures helpfully to the saints, requires more than a young man who has had a few months' training in some "Bible Institute", or a year or two in a theological seminary. None but those who have been personally taught of God in the hard school of experience, are qualified to so "open" up the Word that Divine light has cast upon the perplexing experiences of the believer, for while Scripture interprets experience, experience is often the best interpreter of Scripture. "The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, and adds learning to his lips" (Proverbs 16:23), and that "learning" cannot be acquired in any of man's schools.
As an example of what we have just referred to above, what would be the use of quoting, what benefit would be derived from simply hearing the words of such a passage as this?, "Listen and hear my voice; pay attention and hear what I say. When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually? Does he keep on breaking up and harrowing the soil? When he has leveled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cummin? Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way. Caraway is not threshed with a sledge, nor is a cartwheel rolled over cummin; caraway is beaten out with a rod, and cummin with a stick. Grain must be ground to make bread; so one does not go on threshing it forever. Though he drives the wheels of his threshing cart over it, his horses do not grind it. All this also comes from the Lord Almighty, wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom." (Isaiah 28:23-29).
Where are the preachers today endowed with wisdom from on High to "open" a Scripture like this one? Obviously, the above passage is a parable—that which obtains in the natural world is made a similitude of what pertains to the spiritual realm. God's Church upon earth is His "husbandry" (1 Cor. 3:9). The subordinate "farmers" are His ministers, who, instrumentally, break up the fallow ground of the hearts of His people. As the farmer varies his work as occasion requires, plowing, sowing, reaping, threshing, as the need arises—so the ministerial gardener does likewise. The "seed" is the Word of God (Luke 8:11), and as God gives wisdom to the farmer to sow "wheat" or "barley" or "rye"—according as the soil be clayey, loamy, or sandy, so He teaches His ministers to preach according to the condition of the hearts of His people. Painful afflictions, both inward and outward, are God's "threshing" instruments, to loosen from the world, to separate the wheat from the chaff in our souls, to fit us for His garner.
There are two ways of learning of Divine things—true alike for the preacher and hearer—the one is to acquire a letter knowledge of them from the Bible, the other is to be given an actual experience of them in the soul under the Spirit's teaching. So many today suppose that by spending a few minutes on a good concordance they can discover what humility is, that by studying certain passages of Scriptures they may obtain an increase of faith, or that by reading and re-reading a certain chapter they may secure more love. But that is not the way those graces are experimentally developed. Humility is learned by a daily smarting under the plague of the heart, and having its innumerable abominations exposed to our view. Repentance is learned by feeling the load of guilt and the heavy burden of conscious defilement bowing down the soul. Faith is learned by increasing discoveries of unbelief and infidelity. Love is learned by a personal sense of the undeserved goodness of God to the vilest of the vile. It is thus with all the spiritual graces of the Christian. Patience cannot be learned from books—it is acquired in the furnace of affliction! "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3, 4).
Ah, my reader, we beg the Lord to teach us—but the fact is that we do not like His method of teaching us. Fiery trials, storms of afflictions, the dashing of our carnal hopes, are indeed painful to flesh and blood; yet it is by them that the heart is purified.
We say that we wish to live to God's glory—but fail to remember that we can do so only as SELF is denied and the Cross be taken up. The crossing of our wills and the thwarting of our plans stirs up the enmity of the carnal mind—yet that makes way for our taking a lower place before God. God's ways of teaching His children are, like all His ways, entirely different from ours.
I asked the Lord that I might grow,
These lines may not suit the sentiments of a few of our readers—but we are sure they accurately express the actual experience of many of God's people.
The more we really grow in grace—the more tender becomes the conscience, the more conscious we are of our corruptions, and the more distressing is the hiding of the Lord's countenance. The brighter the sun's shining into a room, the more apparent becomes any dust or cobwebs in it; and the greater the illumination granted by the Holy Spirit, the more will the filth of our hearts be manifested.
So too when the Word of God is accompanied with life and power to the soul, it pierces "even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit" (Heb. 4:12). That is, there is a separating between the wheat and the chaff, a dividing between what God has wrought and that which is merely natural religion. But an honest soul loves a searching ministry, even though it cuts him to the quick! He does not want to be soothed in his sins—and he dreads a false peace. His earnest prayer is "Search me, O God, and know my heart—try me, and know my anxious thoughts" (Psalm 139:23).
The more God searches us—the more will He bring to light the "hidden things of darkness," and the more will we be made to loathe ourselves. As the conscience becomes more tender it increasingly feels the enormity of sin, and correspondingly grieves over the same. Then it is, that "the heart knows its own bitterness" (Proverbs 14:10), and like Hannah—we become "of a sorrowful spirit" (1 Sam 1:15). And then it is, very often, that the Job's comforters of our day add to the grief of the groaning saint. They unseasonably prate to him of "the joy of the Lord," and tell him he should commend Christianity by a glowing countenance and a cheerful demeanor. Well may we remind such meddlers into matters they understand not—of those words, "Singing cheerful songs to a person whose heart is heavy is as bad as stealing someone's jacket in cold weather or rubbing salt in a wound" (Proverbs 25:20). My reader, God does not require us to play the part of hypocrites before others, nor to mock Him by singing when our hearts are full of heaviness.
It is not only the workings of indwelling sin which occasion the honest-hearted believer so much distress—but also the feebleness of their graces—yes, as it often seems, the total absence of them. The weakness and fickleness of his faith occasions the true Christian much exercise of heart. He knows that God is worthy of his fullest confidence, that His Word is inerrant and His promises sure; and it is a painful trial to him—that he fails so sadly to trust Him more fully, and count upon His covenant faithfulness more constantly.
Herein his experience is quite different from that of the empty professor. That natural "faith," which stands only in the wisdom of men, knows no such fluctuations, ebbings and flowings, risings and sinkings, as those which characterize the faith which is of "the operation of God" (Col. 2:12). God is very jealous of His glory, and makes us realize that what He has given can only be exercised by His enabling. It is not within the Christian's power to call forth his faith into action—when he has a mind to. In this, as in all things, God keeps us entirely dependent upon Himself.
The all-important matter in connection with faith, is not the quantity—but the quality of it. An intellectual assent to the Divine Authorship and veracity of the Scriptures produces no spiritual fruits. A faith which is assured of the historicity of Christ, like it is of that of Augustus Caesar or Napoleon, is no evidence of regeneration. A faith which "could remove mountains and have not love" (1 Cor. 13:2) is worthless. It is because of this, that an honest heart is so deeply exercised as to whether or not his faith is the "faith of God's elect" (Titus 1:1), or whether it is merely a product of the flesh; and the very fact that he is so often conscious that he has no faith at all in exercise, causes him to think the worst of himself. At this point, too, he stands in real need of definite help from the pulpit. Then let him be informed that a mere assent to the letter of Truth never yet melted the soul into godly sorrow for sin. If any of our readers have a "faith" which is not dampened and chilled by the ragings of indwelling sin—they are welcome to it!
"Awaken, north wind—come, south wind. Blow on my garden, and spread the fragrance of its spices" (Song. 4:16). This prayer of the Church's plainly intimates the acknowledgment of her own helplessness. It is the believer supplicating the Spirit (under the emblem of the "wind," cf. John 3:18) for His awakening and reviving influences. He begs Him to operate upon his "garden," that is, his soul, in order that "spices" which are a figure of his spiritual graces, may flow forth. He realizes that only as the "north wind" blows, that is—the Spirit chills his lusts and nips his corruptions, only as He, in power, rebukes his faults and reproves his failings—that he will tread more softly before God. He realizes that only as the "south wind" blows, that is, as the Spirit breathes upon his soul and warms his graces, that faith, hope, love, patience, meekness, humility, will become active and fruitful.
"Lord, all my desire is before You; and my groaning is not hidden from You" (Psalm 38:9). "Desire" signifies the longing, yearning, panting of a renewed heart. That soul ardently wishes to be right with God, to have a heart that is cleansed from the love and filth of sin, to have a conscience void of offence toward God and man, to be conformed to the image of Christ, to be in complete subjection to Him, to be fruitful unto His praise. Ah, but such a "desire" is only very imperfectly realized in this life, and that causes disappointment and grief, hence the Psalmist added "and my groaning is not hid from You." There is the "groaning" which the wounds of sin occasion, the groanings from the ceaseless conflict between the flesh and spirit, the groanings caused by Satan's buffetings. And there is also the "groanings" over unrealized longings, unaccomplished ideals, unsatisfied attainments.
Ah, my reader, it is one thing to read in Scripture "The desire to do what is good is with me—but there is no ability to do it" (Romans 7:18), and quite another to have a personal corroboration of the same. But that is how God teaches His people, giving them an experimental acquaintance with the Truth, that they may "set to their seal that He is true." It is one thing to receive as an "article of faith" that not only the unregenerate—but the regenerate also, are, in themselves, impotent unto holiness—but it is quite another to discover from painful experience—as poor Peter did—that "the spirit indeed is willing—but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). It is then that we pray in earnest, "Quicken us, and we will call upon Your name" (Psalm 80:18); "Draw me—and I will run after You" (Song. 1:4).
Do you, my reader, find your experience to be a bundle of contradictions—one day heartily thanking God for His mercies, the next day wickedly abusing them? one day fondly cherishing the hope that you have a little spiritual life, the next quite sure that you have none at all? If so, you know something of what it is to be "emptied from vessel to vessel" (Jer. 48:11). But if you do not, if on the contrary, your course is a smooth and easy one, your heart always light and cheerful, there is grave cause to conclude you belong to that class of whom it is said "because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God" (Psalm 55:19).
As we have previously pointed out, Christian experience alternates between pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy—pain arising from a sense of our sinfulness, from manifold temptations, and the hidings of God's face; pleasure from a sense of pardon, promises applied by the Spirit, communion with Christ. It is only by degrees that believers are "established," and even then that does not prevent them from being severely tried and grievously assaulted by their spiritual enemies.
Satan causes many to doubt Christ's willingness to save them, and if they receive a little encouragement from the Word, then he seeks to stir up afresh their corruptions, and renews their fears and doubtings. The most advanced Christian often experiences a sore conflict from his lusts; those who enjoy the most intimate communion with God are frequently attacked by Satan. If the Apostle Paul had to cry out "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death!" (Romans 7:24), we must not be surprised if we have cause to do the same. But observe, that his next words were "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (v. 25). Ah, we never value Christ more highly than after a season of acute soul distress, as we never prize Divine grace so much as when we have been afflicted by indwelling sin. It is a sense of pollution and filth—which moves us to turn again to the Fountain open for sin and for impurity.
Professing Christians are to be frequently exhorted to diligently examine the work of the Spirit in them, and compare the same with what is recorded of the saints in Scripture. Nor is there, as we have said before, any "legality" in this, for the work of the Spirit proceeds as truly from the everlasting Covenant of Grace—as did the work of Christ, and the discovery of His operations enables the believer to "set to his seal that God is true" (John 3:33). A lively interest in the things which concern our eternal welfare, a trembling at God's Word and being suitably affected thereby, hatred of sin, loathing of self, a childlike love for the Lord, are some of the evidences of God's work in the soul. Let it also be boldly affirmed that God exercises His high sovereignty even in the very degrees of grace granted us—if it is true that He endows His servants with talents, some more, some less—it is equally true that He bestows upon the rank and file of His people a different "measure" of His Spirit.
While the minister is to be much on his guard against building up the hope of empty professors, he must ever seek to encourage and comfort the mourners in Zion, urging them to continue by "the pool" (the means of grace), waiting for the moving of the waters; assuring them that if they do, sooner or later there will be a breaking in of the light of God's countenance, dispelling the darkness of the mind and melting the hard heart.
Remind them of such a promise as, "For I will restore health unto you, and I will heal you of your wounds, says the Lord" (Jer. 30:17). Remind them of the case of Abraham "who against hope believed in hope" (Romans 4:18). Tell them that though they may have but feeble apprehensions of God's love, nevertheless they can thank Him for His longsufferance to them.
Let us point out that doctrinal preaching also has its place and use in strengthening the experience of saints, and must never be pushed into the background. It is needful not only for instruction—but equally so for those who have knowledge of the Truth, "It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you" (Phil. 3:1). Our memories are very fickle; the impressions created by a sermon quickly pass away, so that there must be "line upon line, precept upon precept". Doctrine is the principal means used by the Spirit in feeding the soul, strengthening faith, fortifying against Satan.
Make Christ preeminent in all your sermons! Do you, my reader, know something of Joseph Hart's experience when he wrote "I often poured out, in transports of blissful astonishment, Lord, 'tis too much, 'tis too much, surely my soul was not worth so great a price!"
Finally, the Christian must be definitely warned against resting in his present attainments. Even though he now be rejoicing in the knowledge of sins forgiven. Press such a verse as "Then shall we know (have assurance), if we follow on to know the Lord" (Hosea 6:3), explaining its meaning, enforcing its duty. It is only little by little that the believer learns how to put on his armor and use spiritual weapons against his enemies. A regenerated soul longs to know more of the power of Christ's resurrection, for he so often feels sinking in the deadness of sin, and therefore those branches of Truth best calculated to quicken the heart, are also to be oft set before him.