[Here we continue our reprint of Chapter 2 from Richard Baxter's classic tome A Christian Directory.15 This chapter consists of twenty directions to (as Mr. Baxter says) "young Christians or beginners in religion, for their establishment and safe proceeding." Though these studies were written specifically for "young" Christians, I think that you will find (as I have), there is much in here worthy of meditation also for those who have been walking with God for many years.]--Ed.
Direction XVIII - On Backsliding
Watch diligently both against the more discernible decays of grace, and against the degenerating of it into some carnal affections, or something counterfeit, and of another kind. And so also of religious duties.
We are no sooner warmed with the celestial flames, then natural corruption is inclining us to grow cold, like hot water, which loseth its heat by degrees unless the fire be continually kept under it. Who feeleth not that as soon as in a sermon, or prayer, or holy meditation, his heart hath got a little heat, as soon as it in gone, it is prone to its former earthly temper, and by a little remissness in our duty, or thoughts, or business about the world, we presently grow cold and dull again. Be watchful, therefore, lest it decline too far. Be frequent in the means that must preserve you from declining: when faintness telleth you that your stomach is emptied of the former meat, supply it with another, lest strength abate. You are rowing against the stream of fleshly interest and inclinations; and therefore intermit not too long, lest you go faster down by your ease, than you get up by labour.
The degenerating of grace is a way of backsliding, very common, and too little observed. It is when good affections do not directly cool, but turn into some carnal affections somewhat like them, but of another kind: as if the body of a man, instead of dying, should receive the life or soul of a beast, instead of the reasonable, human soul. For instance: 1. Have you believed in God, and in Jesus Christ, and loved him accordingly? You shall seem to do so still as much as formerly when your corrupted minds have received some false representation of Him; and so it is indeed another thing that you thus corruptly believe and love. 2. Have you been fervent in prayer? You shall be fervent still, if Satan can but corrupt your prayers by corrupting your judgment or affections, and get you to think this corruption to be the cause of God; and get you to think those to be the troublers of the church, which are its best and faithfullest members, thus turning your prayers against the cause and people of God by your mistake: and you may pray as fervently against them as you will. The same I may say of preaching, or conference, and zeal: corrupt them once, and turn them against God, and Satan will join with you for zealous and frequent preaching or conference or disputes. 3. Have you a confidence in Christ and His promise for your salvation? Take heed lest it turn into carnal security, and a persuasion of your good estate upon ill grounds. 4. Have you the hope of glory? Take heed lest it turn into a careless venturousness of your soul, or the mere laying aside of fear and cautelous suspicion of yourselves. 5. Have you a love to them that fear the Lord? Watch your hearts, lest it degenerate into a carnal or a partial love. Many unheedful young persons of different sexes at first love each other with an honest, chaste, and pious love; but then imprudently, using too much familiarity, before they were well aware, the love hath turned into a fleshly love, which hath proved their snare and drew them further into sin or trouble. Then also, many have honoured them that fear the Lord, who insensibly have declined to honour only those of them that were eminent in wealth and worldly honour, or that were esteemed for their parts or place by others, and little honoured the humble, poor, obscure Christians who were at least as good as they: forgetting that the "things that are highly esteemed among men are abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15), and that God valueth men not by their places and dignities in the world, but by their graces and holiness of life. Abundance that at first did seem to love all Christians, as such, as far as any thing of Christ appeared in them, have first fallen into some sect, and over-admiring their party, and have set light by others as good as them, and censured them as unsound, and then withdrawn their special love, and confined it to their party, or to some few; and yet they thought that they loved the godly as much as ever, when it was degenerate into a factious love. 6. Are you zealous for God and truth and holiness, and against the errors and sins of others? Take heed lest you lose it, while you think it doth increase in you. Nothing is more apt to degenerate than zeal: in how many thousands hath it turned from an innocent, charitable, peaceable, tractable, healing, profitable, heavenly zeal, into a partial zeal for some party, or opinions of their own; and into a fierce, censorious, uncharitable, scandalous, turbulent, disobedient, unruly, hurting, and destroying zeal, ready to wish for fire from heaven, and kindling contention, confusion, and every evil work. (Read well James 3). 7. So if you are meek or patient, take heed lest it degenerate into stupidity or contempt of those you suffer by. To be patient is not to be merely insensible of the affliction; but by the power of faith to bear the sense of it, as overruled by things of greater moment.
How apt men are to corrupt and debase all duties of religion, is too visible in the face of the far greatest part of the Christian world. Throughout both the eastern and the western churches, (though the essentials of religion through God's mercy are retained, yet) how much is the face of religion altered from what it was in the days of the apostles! The ancient simplicity of doctrine is turned into abundance of new or private articles of religion: and alas! how many of them false! So that Christians, being too proud to accept of the ancient test of Christianity, cannot now agree among themselves what a Christian is, and who is to be esteemed a Christian; and so they deny one another to be Christians, and destroy their charity to each other, and divide the church, and make themselves a scorn by their divisions to the infidel world: and thus the primitive unity, charity, and peace is partly destroyed, and partly degenerate into the unity, charity, and peace of several sects among themselves. The primitive simplicity of worship is turned into such a mask of ceremony, and such a task of formalities and bodily exercise, that if one of the apostolical Christians should come among them, he would scarce think that this is the same employment which formerly the church was exercised in, or scarce know religion in this antic dress, so that the amiable, glorious face of Christianity, is so spotted and defiled, that it is hidden from the unbelieving world, and they laugh at it as irrational, or think it to be but like their own. The principal hinderance of the conversion of heathens, is the corruption and deformity of the churches that are near them, or should be the instruments of their conversion. And the probablest way to the conversion of those nations to the true reformation of the churches, both in east and west, is if they were restored to the ancient spirituality, rationality, and simplicity of doctrine, discipline, and worship, and lived in charity, humility, and holiness. And, as for those whose hearts and conversations are in heaven, with all worldly glory and honour as under their feet, they would then be so illustrious and amiable in the eyes even of heathens and other infidels, that many would flock into the church of Christ, and desire to be such as they. Their light would so shine before these men that they would see their good works, and glorify their heavenly Father, and embrace their faith.
The commonest way of the degenerating of all religions duties is into this dead formality, or lifeless image of religion. If the devil can but get you to cast off the spirituality and life of duty, he will give you leave to seem very devout, and make much ado with outward actions, words, and deeds; and you shall have so much zeal for a dead religion, or the corpse of worship, as will make you think that it is indeed alive. By all means take heed of this turning the worship of God into lip-service. The commonest cause of it is a carnality of mind (fleshly men will think best of the most fleshly religion) or else a slothfulness in duty, which will make you sit down with the easiest part. It is the work of a saint, and a diligent saint, to keep the soul itself both regularly and vigorously employed with God. But to say over certain words by rote, and to lift up the hands and eyes, is easy: and hypocrites, that are conscious that they are void of the life and spirituality of worship, do think to make all up with this formality and quiet their consciences and delude their souls with a handsome image.
Yet run not here into the contrary extreme, as to think that the body must not worship God well as the soul, or that the decent and edifying determination of the outward circumstances of religion, and the right ordering of worship, is a needless thing, or sinful; or that a form of prayer in itself, or when imposed, is unlawful: but let the soul and body of religion go together, and the alterable adjuncts be used, as things alterable, while the life of holiness is still kept up.