by Arthur W. Pink
“He which hath begun a good work in you will perform (finish) 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 worshippers 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 whither they are bound. And well may such inquiries disturb our serenity, and agitate our minds: they are of vital moment, 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 vigour 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 thine 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 newlyconverted 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 rapt 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 in her hold 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; yea, 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?” (Rom. 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” (Rom. 7:18). Poor soul! is there no one that 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” not broken—and, on the other hand, sin be not made light of, failures be not excused, and the standard of holiness be 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 (Isa. 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, “Ye 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 Saviour” 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 them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith 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 Satantormented 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 they 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 sons with a deep concern for the honour 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-complacency, 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 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 canst 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, 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 not provision for the flesh” (Rom. 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.
Originally edited by Emmett O'Donnell for Mt. Zion Publications, a ministry of Mt. Zion Bible Church, 2603 West Wright St., Pensacola, FL 32505. www.mountzion.org