J.C. Philpot on “The Believer’s Need for Spiritual Discipline”!

There are lessons to be learnt, of which the soul at present knows little or nothing. There is an experience to be passed through, little, little dreamt of; a road to be travelled, as yet but little, little known. Harvest does not succeed summer in the kingdom of grace, as in the kingdom of nature. “Afore the harvest” another season comes. A long and dreary winter intervenes, and with winter comes the pruning knife of the heavenly Husbandman, who purgeth the vine, “that it may bring forth more fruit” Joh 15:2. “For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower, He shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches.”

But why should this wintry season be necessary? What need of this sharp and severe discipline? Why should not the soul go on as it has begun? Why should it not proceed from strength to strength, and increase in faith, hope, and love, until its peace should be as a river, and its righteousness as the waves of the sea? Isa 48:18, We have indeed an abundance of preachers who tell us not only that it ought to be so, but that is actually is so. We have no lack of railway projectors, who will draw us out a line to heaven with neither hill nor dale, and scarcely an inclined place. Nor have we any want of fancy drawing masters, who will sketch us out a beautiful landscape, with heaven itself at the end, as easily as Martin paints his Egyptian colonnades and oriental palaces. But there are such persons as fire-side travellers and chimney-corner voyagers, and such architects as builders of castles in the air. Now, however pretty may be the descriptions of the one, or however beautiful the palaces of the other, the true pilgrim needs a guide who has traveled the road himself, and he that builds for eternity wants an architect who can lay a solid foundation at the first, and afterwards put every stone in its right place. We will leave, then, these speculators to their theories, and instead of speaking of things as they think the ought to be, [To be always telling us what we ought to do, is to bid us draw water with a bucket which has a hole at the bottom; and I am sure free-will never yet mended this hole.] will endeavour to describe things as they are. A little spiritual insight, then, into the human heart may explain the reason why this severe discipline is needful, and unravel this mystery. Together with the spiritual graces that had first budded, and afterwards, under the warm beams of the sun, burst forth into flower, there had shot unperceived an undergrowth of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Counterfeits, too, and imitations of divine operations had sprung up, as the offspring of a deceitful heart, or as delusions of Satan transformed into an angel of light. Side by side with spiritual trust, fleshly presumption had imperceptibly crept up. Under the shadow of divine hope, vain confidence had put forth its rank shoots. Natural belief had grown rapidly up with spiritual faith, fleshly ardour with heavenly zeal, universal charity with divine love, and the knowledge that puffeth up the head with the grace that humbleth the heart. Above all things, pride, “accursed pride, that spirit by God abhorred”, was taking occasion by the very grace of God to feed itself to the full. It was sitting on Christ’s throne, exalting itself and despising others, measuring every one by its own standard, and will nigh trampling under its feet every one of David’s soldiers that was in distress, in debt, or discontented 1Sa 22:2. Forgetting its base original, when it was a beggar on the dunghill, and that a man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven, the soul was in great hazard of sacrificing to its own net, and burning incense to its own drag Hab 1:16. Thus pride was doing that secret work which Hart so well describes;

The heart uplifts with God’s own gifts,

And makes even grace a snare. Gadsby’s 287

But beside these more obvious and glaring evils, we may remark that self was as yet little known, the deep recesses of a desperately wicked heart little fathomed, the helplessness, beggary and bankruptcy of the creature little felt. The unspeakable value, therefore, of Christ’s blood, the breadths, lengths, depths and heights of distinguishing love, the riches of the goodness, forbearance and longsuffering of God, the depths of misery and degradation to which the Redeemer stooped to pluck His chosen from death and hell-all these divine mysteries, in the experience of which the very marrow of vital godliness consists, were little known and less prized.

Judging from my own experience, I believe there is at this time an indistinctness, a dimness, a haziness in the views we have of Christ. Though the soul loves and cleaves to Him with purpose of heart, yet it does not see nor feel the depth of the malady, and therefore not the height of the remedy. It has not yet been plunged into the ditch, till its own clothes abhor it Job 9:31, nor cast into “deep mire where there is no standing” Ps 69:2. The fountains of the great deep of the human heart have not yet been broken up; the exceeding sinfullness of sin has not yet been fully manifested; the desperate enmity and rebellion of a fallen nature have not yet been thoroughly discovered; nor the wounds, bruises and putrefying sores of inward corruption been experimentally laid bare. And thus, as the knowledge of salvation can only keep pace with the knowledge of sin, Christ is as yet but half a Saviour.

A lesson, therefore, is to be taught which the soul can learn in no other way. Books here are useless, Christian friends of little value, ministers ineffectual, and the letter of the Word insufficient. A certain experience must be wrought in the soul, a peculiar knowledge be communicated, a particular secret be revealed, and all this must be done in a way for which no other can be substituted. This, then, is the reason why winter comes afore harvest, and why “the sprigs are cut off with pruning hooks, and the branches taken and cut down.”

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