The Three Stages Of The Spiritual Life

From the sermon, "The Nature and Means of Growth in Grace"
by Archibald Alexander.

Several stages, in the progress of the spiritual life, may be particularly noticed. The first is the state of the Christian immediately after his conversion when both novelty and contrast are combined with the excellence of the objects presented to his view, in the new world into which grace has translated him, to make a more sensible impression on his mind than will be produced by the same truths afterwards. A new creation has, indeed, risen up before him; “old things are passed away, and behold all things are become new.” His wonder is excited, his joy overflows, his hopes are buoyant, and his heart melts with tender compassion for those who are yet out of Christ. His frames are often delightful, but they are transient and, from the mount of vision, he quickly descends into the dark valley of doubt and sorrow. He lives rather by sensible feelings than by faith. His eyes often overflow both with joy and grief. In the exercises of religion, he is full of ardour, nor does he suspect a reverse, nor foresee the dangers which beset his path, In fervency of spirit, and alacrity in the service of God, he seems greatly to outstrip older disciples, who have been long engaged in the Christian race and is sometimes disposed to chide them, because they do not manifest that quick susceptibility of feeling and that glowing zeal with which he feels his own bosom penetrated and warmed.

This period of the Christian's life bears a strong resemblance to infancy and childhood, when a succession of lively emotions fills up our days; when vivacity and activity are predominant traits in our character; when our transitions from one state of feeling to the opposite are sudden and frequent and when our happiness depends very much upon our ignorance of the evils which surround us. The cup of joy would be embittered to the young convert if he had a clear view of the depth of iniquity which still remains in his heart and of the dangers and conflicts which await him in his future pilgrimage.

The second stage is that of temptation and severe conflict. Before, he resembled the young soldier just enlisted, and enjoying his bounty-money; but now his case is like that of the combatant on the field of battle. The same power which opened a passage for the children of Israel through the Red Sea could have transported them to Canaan in a day or an hour, but it was the plan of their invisible leader to conduct them through the wilderness and subject them to numerous difficulties and temptations, that he might put their faith and obedience to a severe test. So, also, our heavenly father could translate his redeemed children at once to heaven, or could render their passage through the world uniformly pleasant; but, instead of pursuing either of these courses, he leaves them to learn, by bitter experience the treachery and wickedness of their own hearts, and the malicious devices of the invisible enemy, who is ever ready to assault and vex them.

These trials, from causes which exist without and within, often come upon the people of God at the time when they have “left their first love" and have become remiss in watchfulness and prayer. A conscience goaded with inward stings is a fit subject for Satan to operate upon with his fiery darts and his usual method is, first to seduce the unwary souls by baits of worldly glory or sensual pleasure and then to attack the debilitated believer with desperate suggestions calculated to make the impression that the favour of God is “clean gone" and that “he will be merciful no more,” or that his sins are unpardonable, or that the day of grace is gone by forever. Now, also, the providence of God seems to combine with other causes to afflict Zion's pilgrim. Dark clouds of adversity gather over him. Earthly comforts decay. The sun of prosperity no longer shines. The fondest hopes are disappointed, and the brightest prospects of earthly bliss obscured. Malignant enemies arise from among those before considered friends, health is broken, slander and reproach assail, dear friends and relatives are buried in the grave, children are disobedient and profligate or die prematurely and, to complete the list of troubles, the church, broken with schism, and overrun with heresy and hypocrisy, sits in sackcloth and mourns. Now the Christian pilgrim spends his days in trouble and his nights in groans and tears. If, under these accumulated evils, the light of the divine countenance was lifted upon him, he could still rejoice in the midst of tribulations but, to add poignancy to all his other griefs, his heavenly father seems to frown upon him. To his most earnest prayers he receives no answer or, if an answer comes, it is only this, “My grace is sufficient for you.” But no evils so grievously afflict the renewed soul, as the emotions of the heart. Evils unsuspected to exist now show themselves, and manifest a strength and obstinacy, which baffle all the resolutions and efforts directed against them. Pride, envy, unbelief, insensibility, impurity, sloth, and evil thoughts without number pollute and harass the afflicted spirit.

These conflicts are not experienced in an equal degree by all Christians, but everyone has his share, and everyone knows the plague of his own heart so much better than that of others, that his secret thought is, that his case is, of all others, the most deplorable and desperate.

In his extremity he is often ready to exclaim, “If I am a child of God, why am I thus? Surely no others are so beset with sinful entanglements, and distracted with contending passions."

There is, probably, in every case of Christian experience, something peculiar, something which distinguishes it from every other case but there is, notwithstanding, so great a general resemblance in the conflicts of the pious that he who knows his own heart sees, as in a glass, the condition of all his brethren. For “as in water face answers to face, so the heart of man to man."

This may be termed the winter season of grace. The tree is now stripped of its foliage and its bloom, and very little fruit appears on the branches. But while it is shaken by the fierce blasts, so as to be almost overturned, it may be gaining strength by the concussions and may be striking its roots more firmly in the earth. So the tempted and afflicted Christian, while he experiences a great loss of comfort and sensibility, maybe, and often is, actually growing in grace. Much knowledge of the deceitfulness of the heart and of the exceeding sinfulness of sin is obtained, a deadly blow is struck at the root of self-confidence and self-righteousness, a broken and contrite spirit is produced, Christ and his grace are more highly appreciated and the desire of total and universal purification from sin becomes more constant and intense.

The third and last stage m the progress of the divine life, is a state of settled peace when the violence of the conflict is over and the risings of sinful passions are greatly subdued by the power of divine grace. This is the sweet calm which succeeds the storm. Now there is, instead of doubts and darkness, a comfortable assurance of the favour of God. This period is characterised by a steady trust in the promises and providence of God and a meek submission to his holy will. The mature Christian is not less sensible of the depth of remaining depravity than before, (for the more holy he becomes, the more quick-sighted he is to discern the minutest spots which defile the inner man) but he has now learned to “live by faith in the Son of God" and has formed the habit of continual application to the ''blood of sprinkling" and to “the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness." Many of his former besetting sins are indeed subdued and he has learned the necessity of vigilance in guarding against the occasions of sin, as well as against the first buddings of evil desire; but his peace does not result from any views which he takes of an increase of sanctification in himself, but from keeping his eyes steadily fixed on ''Jesus, the author and finisher of his faith.”

This advanced state of piety is also characterised by an increasing deadness to the world and all selfish interests and by an enlarged and sincere goodwill to all men, but especially by a tender solicitude for the prosperity of Zion, and an anxious desire for the salvation of men.

This has sometimes been denominated the state of contemplation because in it the meditations of the Christian are much occupied with heavenly things. The glory of the invisible world makes a deeper and more constant impression on his mind than formerly and his thoughts are often elevated to delightful contemplations of the heavenly state. The aged saint who has become mature in grace and whose faith has grown strong, spends much of his time, by day and by night, in meditating on that “rest which remains for the people of God." In this exercise, his soul is frequently absorbed and he is fired with an intense desire “to be absent from the body and present with the Lord;” yet his submission to the divine will, and his desire to promote the glory of Christ on earth, will not permit him to be impatient. He is willing to wait, even in the midst of suffering, until his change come.

How beautiful, how lovely, how venerable, is old age, thus laden with the fruits of piety and like a shock of corn fully ripe waiting to be gathered into the garner of the Lord!

When the veteran soldier of the cross is unable to perform any more active service for his Master, he still watches about the doors of the sanctuary; he still lifts up his withered and trembling hands in prayer for the peace of Jerusalem. He is ever waiting for the consolation of Israel and when the Saviour appears by some remarkable manifestation of favour to his church, he can exclaim with Simeon of old, “Now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation." And often, when the vigour of the mental faculties begins to fail, the flame of piety continues to bum brightly and, on a dying bed, such Christians exhibit a spectacle than which there is nothing more lovely and interesting on this side heaven. Calm submission, humble confidence, holy aspirations, the kind emotions of benevolence and the sublime joy of the divine favour, often render the chamber of death like the vestibule of the temple above. Who, then, would not join in the prayer, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his”?

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