J.C. Philpot on “God and Satan as Agents exercising the Believer’s Discipline’!

J.C. Philpot on “God and Satan as Agents exercising the Believer’s Discipline’!

The Believer’s discipline thus exercised by the heavenly Husbandman consists of two distinct parts;

1. The first is that which is immediately and peculiarly exercised by Himself: “He will cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches.”

2. The second is that which He leaves to be accomplished by other agents. “They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth; and the fowls shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.”

I remarked that there had shot up a secret undergrowth of natural religion, as well as a plentiful crop of pride, during the spring and summer of the soul. These are the sprigs that had grown up side by side with the bud. Now if these were suffered to continue, they would starve the bud, or overshadow it. A shoot from the old stock, if permitted to remain, will always starve the graft. It is a sucker, so called because it sucks the sap and nourishment from it, and lives and thrives at its expense. A good gardener, therefore, never hesitates for a moment, but takes out his pruning knife and cut it off close to the stem.

But it may be said, “How will this comparison hold good in the kingdom of grace? The old man and the new are not maintained and nourished by the same sap.” It is true that originally they are not, but when grace visits the heart, nature will often adopt new food and take grace’s provision. Old nature is not very delicate nor dainty, but will feed on anything that suits her palate or satisfies her ravenous appetite. Sin or self-righteousness, indulgences or austerity, feasting or fasting, truth or error, religion or profaneness, superstition or infidelity, a convent or a brothel, all are alike to nature. She has the appetite of a vulture, and the digestion of an ostrich. She has as many colours as a chameleon, and as “changeable suits of apparel” as an actor’s wardrobe. She can play all parts, speak all languages, and assume all shapes. But all her crafts and wiles she employs for one single end -to feed and exalt herself. This is the utmost stretch of her grovelling ambition, and to effect the will compass sea and land, heaven and hell.

Thus when grace comes into the heart, nature first resists and quarrels with the newcomer, who is destined to rise upon her ruins, and set up his throne on her prostrate body. But as opposition only makes grace wax stronger and stronger, nature soon changes her tone, and seeks to ruin him by her friendship, whom she cannot conquer by her enmity. She becomes religious, and puts in her claim for some of grace’s food. If grace prays, she can pray also; if grace reads, she too can turn over the Bible; and if grace hears, she can sit under a gospel minister. Nay, she can go far beyond grace, for she has no conscience and he has, and can talk when grace is forced to hold his tongue, and get into a pulpit when can hardly sit in the pew. So the six hundred thousand who fell in the wilderness ate angels’ food to the full. Ps 78:25 So Saul was feasted on the shoulder, the choice piece that was reserved especially for the priest 1Sa 9:24 Le 8:32 . Thus nature, become religious, feeds on the provision bestowed upon grace. And this she does so slyly and secretly, that unsuspecting, guileless grace never discover the robbery. Here, then steps in the heavenly Husbandman, and begins to cut off with His pruning hook the sprigs that are pushing forth so luxuriantly at grace’s expense.

In using His pruning hook, the divine Husbandman has two objects in view;

1. To cut off close to the stem the rank shoots of nature.

2. To cut down to their due proportion-their bearing length, the scions of grace. Now natural faith, false hope, and counterfeit love are utterly unable to stand against heavy trials when they are sent for the express purpose of putting us into the balance. They give way and fall to pieces. They vanish away like the chaff that is driven with the whirlwind out of the floor, and as the smoke out of the chimney. It is as Bildad speaks of a hypocrite’s hope; “He shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand; he shall hold it fast, but it shall not endure” Job 8:15. And as this sharp pruning hook lops off false religion close to the stem, so it cuts down a good part of that which is true.

It is true that real grace can suffer neither loss nor diminution, but its manifestations and its actings may. Who that possesses faith is not conscious that it ebbs and flows, rises and sinks, is strong and weak, and varies from day to day and from hour to hour? Thus when a sharp trial comes, its immediate effect is to depress faith. It falls upon it like a weight, and bends it down to the ground. Faith may be compared to the quicksilver in a weather-glass or in a thermometer. The quantity of mercury in the bulb never varies, but it rises or falls in the tube according to the weight of the air, or the heat of the day. Thus faith, though it abides in the heart without loss or diminution, yet rises or sinks in the feelings, as the weather is fair or foul, or as the sun shows or hides itself.

Did Job’s faith, for instance, mount equally high when “in the days of his youth” -the spring of his soul-“the secret of God was upon his tabernacle,” and when “he cursed his day,” and cried, “Oh that I knew where I might find Him?” Was Peter’s faith as strong when he quailed before a servant girl as when he was ready to go to prison and death? Or Abraham’s when he denied Sarah to be his wife Ge 20:2, and when with but 318 he pursued and smote the army of four mighty kings? Ge 14. If faith never fluctuated, never sinks and never rises, then we have at once the dead assurance of a professor; the faith is in our own keeping; then it does not hang on the smile or frown of God; then we are no more beggars and bankrupts, living on supplies given or withholden, but independent and self-sufficient; then we “have no changes, and so fear not God.” But if faith ebb and flow, what is the cause? Is it in self? Can we add to its stature one cubit, or make one hair of it black or white? If not, then must its ebbings and flowings come from God.

But temporal afflictions do not cut down faith, hope and love, nor cut off their counterfeits so severely and closely as spiritual trials. We read of “pruning hooks,” which expression denotes more than one. Thus any discovery of the holiness and justice of God, of His terrible wrath against sin and eternal hatred of all iniquity, any piercing conviction of His heart-searching eye flashing into the conscience, any setting our secret sins in the light of His countenance, any spiritual sight of self in appalling contrast with His purity and perfection-any manifestations of this nature will most assuredly cut down to the stump the sprigs of natural religion.

Fallen nature could never yet endure the sight of God. It perishes at the rebuke of His countenance. It goes into the holes of the rocks and the caves of the earth, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His majesty. Natural faith never yet bore the touch of God’s hand, but crumbled to pieces under it. Thus the first effect of these spiritual discoveries of God is to mow to the ground the thick under-growth of nature. And as the same stroke sweeps away all the consolation which the soul enjoyed, the feeling is as if it had lost all its religion. Like a person going out of the sun into a dark room, to whom the darkness seem greater than it really is; or like a person to whom a bad piece of news is told, who is so stunned by it that he can think of no one alleviating circumstance; so when darkness suddenly falls upon the soul, and evil tidings from heaven seem communicated to the heart, not only nature totally, but grace, too, partially sinks under the stroke. As a person who swoons away retains life in reality, though it is lost in appearance, so grace faints away under trials, and often recovers but slowly her former strength.

Such is the usual effect of sudden and severe trials. But there is another mode of using the pruning hook employed by the divine Husbandman. And that is, if I may use the figure, to cut half through the branch, and so stop the supply of sap. Many who have enjoyed the spring and summer of the soul, have felt their comfort and peace decline gradually, they could scarce tell how. It was no sudden stroke that befell them, but a gradual withdrawing of light and life, and a gradual discovery of the character of God and of their own vileness. Thus the pruning hook was so slowly and insensibly put under the lower side of the branch to cut it half-way through, that it was not seen.

But its effects were soon felt. Natural religion began to wither. A secret dissatisfaction with self began to creep over the soul. Zeal did not shoot so strong, and faith seemed to hang its head, and hope appeared to droop. Gloom and despondency began to gather over the mind. The feeling grew stronger and stronger that there was something wrong somewhere. Suspicions as to the reality of its religion, and whether there was not something rotten at the very core, now begin to haunt the soul. Under these doubtings it goes to God to seek deliverance from Him. But all is dark there, and the heavens gather blackness. The pruning knife has cut off the supply of sap. The branches of nature wither away, and drop off from the stem; and the shoots of grace look sickly and drooping.

But there is another branch of this sentence which God does not Himself execute, but leaves to the agency of others. All things that happen flow from the divine decrees. There is no chance work or contingency in the government of God; but “He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth”. Nevertheless He is not the author of sin; for He “cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man” Jas 1:13. Thus we must divide the decrees of God into His executive decree, and His permissive decree. All that is good He executes with His own hand. All that is evil happens according to His decree, and cannot but come to pass as necessarily as all that is good, but He leaves the execution of it to an evil heart, or to an evil devil. These act unconscious of the divine decree, and think only to fulfil their own evil purposes. Thus to them belongs the wickedness, and to God the glory. Satan when he tempted Judas, and the Jews when they crucified Christ, both fulfilled the divine decree, and formed connecting links of the great chain of redemption; but God did not by any secret impulse instigate them to act wickedly.

Thus in the execution of the second part of the sentence passed upon the tree in the text, God, who cannot be the author of sin, leaves it to be performed by other agents. “They”, that is the branches pruned off and cut down, “they shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth, and the fowls shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.”

The portion of the sentence which God leaves to be performed by other agents is as important, I may say as indispensable, as the portion which He executes Himself. These agents are two-fold:

1. The fowls of the mountains.

2. The beasts of the earth.

We may perhaps discover who are intended by “the fowls of the mountains” by referring to the Lord’s own explanation of the parable of the sower. We read in that parable Mr 4:4 of “the fowls of the air”, which came and “devoured the seed that was sown by the wayside”, which the Lord thus explains: “When they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts”. But there is something we must not pass over unnoticed in the word “left”: “They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains”, etc. How much is contained in the expression “left”! It is as though the soul were given up, abandoned, forsaken, not indeed fully nor finally, but cast off as it were for a time, and delivered, like Samson, to make sport for its enemies. The tree with its sprigs cut off close to the stem, with the branches that shot up from its roots cut down and taken away, and the graft itself pruned down to a remnant of what it was, stands a melancholy stump. Winter has come; the sun no longer shines. The sap has sunk down into the root; life seems pretty well extinct, and the axe appears ready to finish what the pruning hook has left undone. And now what does it seem fit for? To become a roosting place for every unclean bird. “There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, everyone with her mate” Isa 34:15. These keen-eyed fowls of the mountains are always watching their opportunity to alight upon a soul forsaken of God. The eagle “dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place. From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off. Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she” Job 39:28-30. And as the “fowls of the mountains” seem to signify the fallen angels, those accursed spirits, whose delight is to destroy all whom they can, and to harass all whom they cannot destroy; so by “the beasts of the earth” we may understand those earthly lusts, carnal desires, and base workings of a fallen nature which war against the soul.

Now it is most difficult, if not altogether impossible, for a tempted soul to distinguish clearly and accurately between the temptations which spring from Satan and those which arise from the carnal mind. And for this reason, that Satan can only work on our fallen nature, and thus we are unable to distinguish between the voluntary lusts of our carnal heart, and those which arise from the suggestion of Satan. He tempts most when least seen. But though when under the temptation, we cannot often, nor indeed usually, distinguish between the suggestions of Satan and the spontaneous lustings of our own hearts, yet, looking at each at a distance, we may draw this distinction between them, that spiritual wickedness, what Paul calls “filthiness of the spirit” 2Co 7:1, may be ascribed to “the fowls of the mountains”; and carnal wickedness, the “filthiness of the flesh”, to the beasts of the earth. Thus all those peculiar temptations respecting the being and character of God, which are usually unknown, or at least unfelt by us in our days of unregeneracy, but afterwards often sadly haunt the soul, we may ascribe to the suggestions of Satan.

A temptation, for instance, comes into the soul like a flash of lightning. It may perhaps be an infidel doubt that starts up suddenly in the mind. This hidden poison at first perhaps has little apparent effect, as we at once reject the thought with horror. But as soon as the Word of God is opened, or the throne of grace approached, the black thoughts, the powerful questionings, the harassing suspicions which fill the mind, show us in a moment how the subtle poison is coursing through every vein. The Word of God has lost all its sweetness and power, and the voice of prayer is dumb. Darkness and disquietude fill the soul. The heavens are clothed with blackness, and sackcloth is made their covering. Well do the words of Jeremiah describe this state of soul: “I beheld the earth, and lo, it was without form and void; and the heavens, and they had no light. I beheld the mountains”-the stable foundations of truth-“and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly. I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled” Jer 4:23-25.

I never found anything to sweep away all my religion in any way to be compared with such thoughts as these. Unbelief has often shaken it to the very centre, guilt has covered it with midnight darkness, and fears of death in sickness have cut it down to the root. But infidel doubts sweep away the foundation itself, and “if the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Or, perhaps, some dreadful imagination rushes into the mind, such as Hart justly calls “masterpieces of hell”. These rush in in a moment, when perhaps we are on our knees, or reading the Scripture, or hearing the word. There is something so horrible in them that a man dares not for a moment think of them, even to himself, but strives to the uttermost of his power to banish them from his mind. He will start up from his knees, throw aside the Bible, plunge his thoughts into the world, yea, even into the lusts of the flesh, rather than not drive away such fearful imaginations. It seems as if we were committing the unpardonable sin, as if God would be provoked to cut us off in a moment, and send us to hell; as if the earth itself would open its mouth and swallow up such monsters of iniquity. I will allude no farther to these thoughts than to express my belief that many of God’s children are sadly pestered by them.

The great change which has befallen the soul, the mighty contrast between its present state and what it was “in months past as in the days when God preserved it, when His candle shined upon its head, and the rock poured it out rivers of oil”-this great and unlooked for revolution is of itself sufficient to kindle all the rebellion and enmity of the carnal mind. Upon these, therefore, Satan works. He and his tribe of evil spirits, these “fowls of the mountains”, come flocking down with their flapping wings, and brood over the stump which God has for a time abandoned to them. They are said “to summer upon it”, which expression may signify that they spend a certain season upon the tree cut down; that their visits are not for a day or a week, but for a whole season, a definite and prolonged time. But I think the expression points also to the delight, the infernal glee with which these foul birds come trooping down to their prey. It is their summer when it is the soul’s winter.

If the devil ever feels joy, it is in making souls miserable. The cries of the damned are his music, their curses and blasphemies his songs of triumph, and their anguish and despair his wretched feast. Thus when these fowls of the mountains darken the wretched stump, and spread over it their black and baleful wings, it is their summer. And as they brood over it, they breathe into it their own wretched enmity against all that is holy and blessed. Hard thoughts of God, heavings up of enmity against His sovereignty, boilings up of inward blasphemy, and of such feelings as I dare not express, are either infused or stirred up by them. It is the soul’s mercy that “the holy seed, the substance thereof, is in it, though it has east its leaves”; and that “there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again” and “through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant” Job 14:7-9. Nothing but divine life in the soul could withstand such assaults as these. And thus there is in the midst of, and in spite of, all the heavings and bubblings of inward rebellion, a striving against them, a groaning under them, an abhorrence of them, a self-loathing on account of them, and at times an earnest cry to be delivered from them.

But there are “the beasts of the earth” as well as “the fowls of the mountains”, who sit on this forsaken stump. These are said “to winter upon them”; that is, on the remnants of the broken branches. This expression “winter” points apparently to the season of the year during which the beasts of the earth take up their abode upon it. And it seems to intimate that they and the fowls of the mountains divide the year between them. The one take the summer, and the other the winter. Thus there is change of visitants, but no respite for the tree; a diversity of temptation, but no relief for the soul.

These beasts of the earth, I observed, seemed to signify the lusts of our fallen nature, the wretched inheritance which we derive from our first parent. “The first man is of the earth, earthy.” And, “as is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy” 1Co 15:47,48. The sin of our fallen nature is a very mysterious thing. We read of the mystery of iniquity as well as of the mystery of godliness; and the former has lengths, depths, and breadths as well as the latter; depths which no human plumbline ever fathomed, and lengths which no mortal measuring line ever yet meted out.

Thus the way in which sin sometimes seems to sleep, and at other times to awake up with renewed strength; its active, irritable, impatient, restless nature, the many shapes and colours it wears, the filthy holes and puddles in which it grovels, the corners into which it creeps, its deceitfullness, hypocrisy, craft, plausibility, intense selfishness, utter recklessness, desperate madness, and insatiable greediness, are secrets, painful secrets, only learnt by bitter experience. In the spiritual knowledge of these two mysteries-the mystery of sin and the mystery of salvation-all true religion consists. In the school of experience we are kept day after day, learning and forgetting these two lessons, being never able to understand them, and yet not satisfied unless we know them, pursuing after an acquaintance with them, and finding that they still, like a rainbow, recede from us as fast as we pursue. Thus we find realised in our own souls those heavenly contradictions, those divine paradoxes, that the wiser we get, the greater fools we become 1Co 3:18; the stronger we grow, the weaker we are 2Co 12:9,10; the more we possess, the less we have 2Co 6:10; the more completely bankrupt, the more frankly forgiven Lu 7:42; the more utterly lost, the most perfectly saved; and when most like a child, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven Mt 18:4.

Now, as the nature of the fowls of the mountains cannot be known by merely gazing at them as they hover in the air, so the disposition of the beasts of the earth cannot be learned by seeing them in a travelling show, locked up in the dens of a menagerie. We know them best by feeling their talons. These wild beasts during the summer, when the sun was up, and the day hot, lay crouching in their holes and caverns. “The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens” Ps 104:22. The lewd monkey, the snarling dog, the greedy wolf, the untameable hyena, the filthy jackal, the cunning ape, the prowling fox, the ranging bear, the relentless tiger, and every beast of the forest that roars after its prey-all lay in the depths of the wood, unnoticed and unknown, while the sun was high in the heavens. But winter has come, and the beasts of the earth gather round the hewn-down stump.

In the first awakenings of the soul we do not usually know nor feel much of our fallen nature. We look too much to the branches, and not enough to the root; taste the bitterness of the stream more than that of the fountain, and are more engaged with the statue than the hole of the pit whence it was digged. We feel more the guilt of sin committed than of sin indwelling, and think more of the daily coin that passes through our hands than of the mint-the evil treasure of our evil heart-which stamps it with its image and superscription. Caesar’s penny denoted Caesar’s power, though those who boasted they never were in bondage to any man, saw not that the money which circulated among them carried with it a proof of his dominion over them. Nor do we see at first very clearly that the sin which stamps every action has the image of Adam engraved upon it. Still less do we know much about sin in the days of spiritual prosperity.

The good treasure of the good heart is then circulating its gold, stamped with Christ’s image. But when the day of adversity comes, and beggary and bankruptcy ensue, and the evil treasure again issues forth, we begin to look at the die, and feel-bitterly and painfully feel-that every word, look, thought, desire and imagination, as they pass through the heart, are immediately seized, cast under the press, and come forth bearing sin’s coinage upon them. This bank never breaks, this die never wears out, but fresh coin is issued as fast as the old disappears. Guilt, indeed, and a tender conscience would fain stop this circulation, but they can do little else than stand by and count, with sighs and groans and bitter lamentations, the incomings and outgoings of sin’s exchequer.

But what are the effects of these trying dispensations? Such as could be produced in no other way. Whatever wonderful effects are ascribed to the letter of the Word, in this Bible-spreading and Bible-reading day, one thing is certain, that it is utterly inadequate to produce in the soul the fruits and graces of the Spirit. Humility, repentance, filial fear, self-loathing, simplicity and godly sincerity, brokenness of heart, contrition of spirit, meekness, patience, deadness to the world, spiritual discernment, boldness and faithfulness in the cause of truth, an open heart and an open hand-such and similar Divine fruits cannot be gathered out of the Bible as a man picks hips and haws off a hedge. The notions of them may; and in this day, notions and opinions, doctrines and sentiments, creeds and articles, ceremonies and ordinances, cant and whine, superstition and self-righteousness, formality and tradition, have usurped the place of vital godliness. But the reality, the power, the life, the inbeing, the feeling, the experience, in a word, the spiritual possession of these gracious fruits must be wrought into the soul; made, as it were, part and parcel of it, be the blood that circulates through its veins, the meat it eats, the water it drinks, and the clothing it wears.

Now this the letter of the word never has done, and never can do. A peculiar experience must be passed through; and by means of this spiritual experience alone are these divine effects wrought. Thus the fair tree that shot up its boughs to heaven being pruned down to a stump, and the abandoning of it to the fowls of the mountains and to the beasts of the earth, teaches the soul: Humility, Helplessness and Self-loathing!

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