Rev. denHartog is pastor of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
In our last article we considered something of the reality and seriousness of spiritual decline in the Christian’s life. Such decline is not to be dismissed merely as something quite natural and inevitable because of the normal character of the Christian life. We ought to be on our guard against such decline and be deeply concerned about it. It can have very serious consequences. It makes us vulnerable to the attacks of the devil and endangers us for falling into great sin. The example of David ought to be a fearful warning to us. Decline in the life of the child of God can make him for a time the object of God’s anger and displeasure, and make necessary grievous chastisement in his life. Spiritual decline is a sin that the child of God commits by giving way to the working of the Evil One in his life. It is a sin that we ought to know and acknowledge and repent from.
We ought to know the causes of spiritual decline in our lives in order that we might turn again to the Lord. The chief cause of course is sin, sin that arises out of our old depraved nature that we bear with us until the day of our death. We must wage a constant spiritual battle against this sin and guard against its spoiling our Christian life. When that sin is unconfessed and unrepented of it will separate us from God and diminish our spiritual life and strength.
The devil knows how to lead us little by little into sin and away from God. When sin is continued, it will begin to dull our conscience. Perhaps at first when we walk in sin we will have great pangs of conscience. But slowly man becomes accustomed to sin. He is no longer troubled by it. He succeeds to a measure in silencing the voice of his conscience. He makes more and more compromises in his life. At first perhaps he commits his sin in secret, vainly imagining that even God does not see or know his sin. He lives as a hypocrite among his fellow Christians.
Such secret sin will have devastating effects on our walk with God. It is impossible to experience His grace and fellowship when we live in such secret sin. God is holy. He that walks in darkness and says that he has fellowship with God is a liar and the truth is not in him. If we attempt to continue secretly with sin in our heart, or perhaps in a secret closet, that sin will develop and grow more and more. If such sin is allowed to continue, it will soon happen that a man sins more and more openly and becomes brazen about his sin.
Such is the awful development of sin in the lives of men. James speaks of this in the first chapter of his epistle: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:13-15). When a man gives himself over to sin, he becomes a slave of the sin. He gives himself over to the bondage of the devil, and the devil leads him to spiritual devastation and ruin in his life.
This is something that can and does happen in the lives of God’s people. The Word of God warns us that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. God is not mocked. He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption. (See Galatians 6:7, 8.) When we give ourselves over to sin, we may become so hardened that it is necessary for God to break us. It may be necessary for God to expose our sin openly and put us to shame, as He did with David after his great sin. When the Lord does this to one of His own, He acts in mercy and lovingkindness to turn a man away from sin and back to Himself, and to save him from complete destruction. But this will for that man be painful and humiliating. We ought greatly to fear the consequences of sin in our lives, so that such dealings of the Lord with us are not necessary.
Closely related to the above mentioned cause of spiritual decline is the great and constant danger of worldliness in our lives. Worldliness is of course just another great sin that we must be on our guard against. The Bible warns us again and again about this. The friendship of the world is enmity against God. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (I John 2:15, 16).
Worldliness does not usually overwhelm the Christian in one day. It is something that happens slowly and gradually. There is a subtle working of the devil in regards to this sin also. He has the ability to influence our minds and hearts when we give way to him. He can convince us that things in the world are not really as bad as they seem. Maybe we should re evaluate. There is, after all, still a lot of good in this world. There is much we can learn from it. There are in it harmless pleasures that we have a right to enjoy just like anyone else. Soon it happens that we begin to lose our spiritual sensitivities. We lose our abhorrence for the evil of the world. We begin to overlook and tolerate a little evil. And this grows more and more, without our even realizing it sometimes. That is how the devil leads us away from God. It is only by the grace and Spirit of God that we will be alarmed as we look back and consider how far we have fallen. Apostasy is not merely a matter of doctrinal departure in our life. It also involves letting go of the principles of the Word of God in our practical daily Christian lives and making compromise with the world and the devil. How needful it is to stop often in our lives and consider why it is that we are sometimes enjoying worldly things that we once condemned. The church as a whole must do that. Are we living in a manner of life that the church in former days condemned? Do we imagine that the reason for this is that we today are more enlightened, have greater liberty or better understanding of the things of the world as they really are? Or is it because we as individuals and maybe we as church are in a state of spiritual decline?
Materialism is an aspect of worldliness and often a reason for decline in the Christian life. How strongly we are attracted to material things. The love of money is a great danger for all. It is possible even for a poor man to be materialistic. Nevertheless, it is a fact that, as we grow more and more wealthy, the danger of materialism increases. How easy it is for us to imagine that we need more in life. Often young people imagine that they have to have so much nicer cars and houses and furniture than their parents had. And they must have these things almost immediately after they are married. On the other end of the spectrum, those in retirement years imagine they need more and more in order to live lives of ease and luxury; to make regular visits to expensive restaurants at least once a week; to enjoy lavish vacations to remote and exotic places in the world. Years ago many families did not even think of vacations. Now we imagine that they are a necessity of life. We must have motor homes, campers, boats, and all kinds of expensive sports and recreational equipment. The more we have, the harder we are to satisfy.
Yes, it is true that all these things are not sinful in themselves. We may enjoy the things that God has given us. We may not however set our hearts on these things and demand these things. We may not murmur and complain when we do not have them. Remember that one of the chief sins of Israel in the wilderness was the sin of murmuring and complaining because they could not have the luxuries, ease, and pleasures of life that their hearts lusted after. We may not imagine that we must always have as much as our ungodly neighbors. We may not begin to make compromises in our lives to obtain earthly treasures. We may not allow ourselves to become so busy with work and business to obtain these things that mother has to leave her calling in the home and father is seldom ever at home to instruct and discipline his children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. All of this is materialism, and we had better recognize it as such. Such materialism is one of the chief causes of spiritual decline in the church. Materialism destroys spirituality. Materialism is the sin of making an idol out of the things of this world. It is impossible to serve God and mammon. Idolatry of material things will inevitably lead us away from God.
Another aspect of worldliness is worldly friendships. How much we are influenced by our friends and the people we have fellowship with on a day-today basis. This is more true than most of us realize. Many a Christian has been led astray through the influence of ungodly friends. This is especially true for young people. Friendship with members of the opposite sex in the world has led many into the great sin of unequal yokes in marriage. This has always been one of the chief reasons for falling away in the church. Young people, you had better realize the great spiritual danger of this. How many have been brought to spiritual ruin by this and have ended up in marital situations that have caused them to make serious compromise in their lives, even caused them to leave the church of Jesus Christ, or at least to forsake the true church and go to one that is on the road to apostasy. What awful consequences that has had in many families. The true Christian who because of sin and. weakness has allowed himself to become attracted to a marriage partner that is wholly unsuitable for a truly Christian marriage and godly home will only suffer great sorrow and grief in later life. Often in such cases the judgment of God comes upon the children from such a marriage, who depart even mulch further from the Lord than their parents did. The Lord in His judgment cuts off these families in their generations from His covenant of grace. These are the serious consequences of spiritual decline.
Spiritual decline comes when the Christian neglects daily devotion to the Lord through the reading of His Word, through prayer, and through faithful attendance at the house of the Lord and the preaching of His Word. We have communion with God chiefly through His Word and by prayer. These are the means that the Holy Spirit uses to build us up, and to strengthen and encourage us daily in our Christian life. It is impossible to be spiritually strong and to walk with the Lord without these means. Spiritual decline comes when we imagine that going to church once on the Lords day is sufficient. Spiritual decline comes when we imagine that we know enough of the Word of God, that we need no more earnestly to study the doctrines it contains because we have arrived, and that we have attained to sufficient understanding so that we can get along without this.
I shall write one more time on this subject under the title “Returning to the Lord.”