Octavius Winslow (1808-1878), a contemporary of Charles Spurgeon and J. C. Ryle, was a Baptist minister in England and America. He was affectionately known as ‘The Pilgrim’s Companion’ because his writings were of a similar spiritual depth as those great men of old. One of his greatest works was Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul in which he unmasked the following types of personal declension: incipient declension, declension in love, declension in faith, declension in prayer, and doctrinal declension. The latter chapters of his book are devoted to the work of God’s grace in restoring our souls to true religion. It is important to note that the title of his work concerns personal declension and personal revival. All true revival is personal, no matter how many souls are touched by that amazing work of God. A common error of many people, especially pastors, is to place their hopes in the revival of a denomination. The word ‘revival’ becomes meaningless when used in that manner—as meaningless as the word ‘grace’ to the modern-day ‘hyper-grace boys.’ The grace boys speak much about grace, but can never actually define it. In the Scripture, grace usually refers to the grace of God in Christ which leads to salvation. Those who often talk about the need for revival in their denomination are guilty of a similar error, in my opinion. After forty-six years as a Presbyterian pastor, it is my conviction that this undefined hope for denominational revival is one of the problems that leads to the downfall of Presbyterian denominations—and all denominations. People excuse doing nothing or doing very little on the basis that they are praying for revival or hoping for revival or even that they are certain that God can revive the denomination. Or, they assert that the denomination has been revived or is being revived whenever a group of young ministers faithful to the Scripture are raised up. Is that a revival? How does that differ from a local congregation receiving new members? It is always great to receive new members who are Christians into a gospel church, but that is not a revival. If you question these ministers a little closer who are always talking about their denomination being revived, you will find that they really are unable to define what they mean by revival. Therein is the problem. I fear that they do not mean what Octavius Winslow wrote concerning personal declension and revival of religion. Revival that is not personal in nature is not revival. True revival is an outpouring of God’s Spirit that brings a number of sinners into a state of saving grace or restores backslidden Christians to a closer walk with Christ.
First, incipient declension is that type of spiritual declension which is closest to the heart of most of us who are striving to be true to Christ. Our hearts are prone to spiritual declension just as fruit is prone to spoil soon after it reaches the optimum ripeness. Incipient declension means that a Christian still holds to the necessity of personal holiness, but there is a subtle backsliding in his heart. He is not as filled with the Spirit as he once was. He does not relish the Word of God and prayer as much as he once did. He does not rejoice with “joy inexpressible and full of glory” as he once did. The secret worm of sin is at work in his heart—and, indeed, can never be fully irradicated this side of eternity—which places all his graces subject to the principle of declension. This incipient declension is why there are so many failings of ministers and believers. It is the natural playground of Satan because he knows where we are most subject to temptation. Our prospects of revival are best if we pray with Habakkuk, “O Lord, revive your work in the midst of the years” (Habakkuk 3:2b), while our personal declension is only incipient in nature. Thus, all Christians should be praying for revival at all times. We are all guilty of incipient declension and the greatest grace of yesterday will not protect us from the enemy we face today and tomorrow. The cure for incipient declension is to be returning to the Lord with renewed commitment every day.
Second, there is declension in the various graces of the Christian life—love, faith, prayer, etc. All these graces are so frequently mentioned in Scripture as the truest marks of believers. Paul referred to the great trilogy of graces in several of his epistles—faith, hope and love—and said that love was the greatest of all. A close study of the other epistles of the New Testament will confirm that Paul was right. 1 Peter 4:8 says: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 John 4:11 says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” The problem Christ rebuked in his letter to the church at Ephesus was: “you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4). This declension in love effects both the love we have for God and the love we show to other believers. Declension also happens in our faith. Elijah was like that. He had faith to challenge all the prophets of Baal and laugh at their inability to call down fire from heaven. He had faith to trust that the Lord could burn up his sacrifices even though they were doused with water. But, then he trembled at the threat of Jezebel and ran away to die alone. The Lord had to minister to him in the ‘still, quiet voice.’ He found Elijah and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” His words are reminiscent of the way the Lord searched for and found Adam hiding in the garden, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Of course, Adam had sinned greatly whereas Elijah had just become weak in faith. And, then, personal declension will result in declension in prayer. In one sense, this is the beginning of all spiritual declension. When we restrain prayer, we cease to fight, as the old poem states. Praying to God and listening to God (in His Word) are the chief marks of personal revival. It is not performing those duties in a perfunctory manner that satisfies the Lord and enriches our souls, but it is doing them, as all things, from the heart and with the heart. The Lord, says to us, “Give Me, your heart, my son, and let your eyes delight in My ways” (Proverbs 23:26). And once again: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). We watch best when we pray best, as Jesus taught His disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. Any declension in our graces is grievous to the Lord. He wants our hearts and devotion above all else. When we return to the Lord, He renews our love, our faith, and our prayerfulness. He causes “the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” (Jeremiah 8:34) to be restored to us. Our backsliding in heart has been forgiven and we have been cleansed of such.
But there is one more declension, the declension in connection to doctrinal error. This declension is more than the backsliding in heart of a true believer. There is such an intimate and necessary connection between truth and holiness that the foundations of all grace are destroyed when there is serious departure from the truths of the gospel. This declension is close to the sins warned against by several authors of Scripture. John wrote, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this” (1 John 5:16). Paul wrote that of those “who have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:6). Peter wrote: “For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed to them” (2 Peter 2:21). Jesus taught that the only unpardonable sin is the blasphemy of the Spirit. Jeremiah told the people to not pray for Ephraim who had turned away. The unpardonable sin is a sin which is not clearly identified in Scripture. We know of its existence and that there are some who are guilty of it, but we are not told what its boundaries are. Yet, there must be some connection between the unpardonable sin and doctrinal error because Jesus prayed: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (John 17:17). How can anyone be sanctified or revived if they have fallen into doctrinal error or heresy unless they repent of their errors? Yet, that is something that is very difficult and has rarely happened. There are some, like Augustine or Thomas Chalmers or C. S. Lewis, who began as theological liberals and then had amazing conversions to the truth. Yet, I know of only one instance in church history where a minister departed from the doctrinal truths of the gospel and returned to the Lord with repentance of his errors. Doctrinal declension is a serious error and is connected with apostasy and the blasphemy of the Spirit. Whenever a denomination has a number of ministers who depart from “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3) without being censured, there is very little hope that body will ever be turned around. There may be individual ministers who are revived or an influx of young ministers who preach the truth. Yet, that is not revival. Revival is personal. It always concerns individuals. Revival becomes noteworthy when there are many individuals who are simultaneously revived or in close connection with one another.
No revival in the history of the Church has ever turned around a whole denomination. Rather, revivals that have affected large numbers of people, ministers, and churches have always resulted in division. Pentecost was a great revival. Thousands in Jerusalem and other places came to the Lord through the preaching of Peter’s sermon. There were many thousands who were converted on subsequent occasions. Yet, the Jewish religious leaders continued in their hatred of Christ for the most part and they persecuted anyone who professed Him. The Reformation was also a time of a great revival. Yet, the Catholic Church, as a whole, continued in opposition to the cause of truth and even worked against it with all her powers. The same thing has happened over and over again. Revival does not restore denominations to theological purity. Declension in connection to doctrinal error is the worst declension of all. A saint might fall into grievous sin and be restored, but a fall into doctrinal error generally proves to be deadly for the soul. That is why it is so important to prevent doctrinal error from entering into a denomination.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
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