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"Christian Experience"

by John Winthrop


[This is Winthrop's account of his spiritual progress delivered to the Boston
church and obviously based heavily upon the "Experiencia", which he
undoubtedly had with him to consult. It is of interest because it sheds some
additional light on his life and spiritual struggles (perhaps the new
information is covered in parts of the "Experiencia" that were lost or not
published by Robert C. Winthrop), and because of the opportunity if gives us
to compare some of his later reflections on episodes with the contemporary
accounts he rendered in the "Experiencia".]


In my youth I was very lewdly disposed, inclining unto and attempting (so far
as my years enabled me) all kind of wickedness except swearing and scorning
religion, which I had no temptation unto in regard of my education. About ten
years of age, I had some notions of God, for in some great frightening or
danger, I have prayed unto God, and have found manifest answer; the
remembrance whereof many years after made me think that God did love me, but
it made me no whit the better:

After I was 12 years old, I began to have some more savor of Religion, and I
thought I had more understanding in Divinity then many of my years; for in
reading of some good books I conceived, that I did know divers of those points
before, though I knew not how I should come by such knowledge (but since I
perceived it was out of some logical principles, whereby out of some things I
could conclude others) yet I was still very wild, and dissolute, and as years
came on my lusts grew stronger, but yet under some restraint of my natural
reason; whereby I had the command of my self that I could turn into any form.
I would as occasion required write letters etc. of mere vanity; and if
occasion were I could write others of savory and godly counsel.

About 14 years of age, being in Cambridge, I fell into a lingering fever,
which took away the comfort of my life. For being there neglected, and
despised, I went up and down mourning with myself; and being deprived of my
youthful joys, I betook my self to God whom I did believe to bee very good and
merciful, and would welcome any that would come to him, especially such a
young soul, and so well qualified as I took my self to bee; so as I took
pleasure in drawing near to him. But how my heart was affected with my sins,
or what thoughts I had of Christ I remember not. But I was willing to love
God, and therefore I thought bee loved me. But so soon as I recovered my
perfect health, and met with somewhat else to take pleasure in, I forgot my
former acquaintance with God, and fell to former lusts, and grew worse then
before. Yet some good moods I had now, and then, and sad checks of my natural
Conscience, by which the Lord preserved me from some foul sins, which
otherwise I had fallen into. But my lusts were so masterly as no good could
fasten upon me, otherwise then to hold me to some task of ordinary duties for
I cared for nothing but how to satisfy my voluptuous heart.

About 18 years of age (being a man in stature, and in understanding as my
parents conceived me) I married into a family under Mr. Culverwell his
ministry in Essex; and living there sometimes I first found the ministry of
the word to come to my heart with power (for in all before I found only light)
and after that I found the like in the ministry of many others. So as there
began to bee some change which I perceived in my self, and others took notice
of. Now I began to come under strong exercises of Conscience: (yet by fits
only) I could no longer dally with Religion. God put my soul to sad tasks
sometimes, which yet the flesh would shake off, and outwear still. I had
withal many sweet invitations which I would willingly have entertained, but
the flesh would not give up her interest. The merciful] Lord would not thus
bee answered, but notwithstanding all my stubbornness, and unkind rejections
of mercy, bee left me not till hee had overcome my heart to give up itself to
him, and to bid farewell to all the world, and until my heart could answer,
Lord what wilt thou have me to doe?

Now came I to some peace and comfort in God and in his ways, my chief delight
was therein, I loved a Christian, and the very ground hee went upon. I honored
a faithful minister in my heart and could have kissed his feet: Now I grew
full of zeal (which outran my knowledge and carried me sometimes beyond my
calling) and very liberal to any good work. I had an unsatiable thirst after
the word of God and could not miss a good sermon, though many miles off,
especially of such as did search deep into the conscience. I had also a great
striving in my heart to draw others to God. It pitied my heart to see men so
little to regard their souls, and to despise that happiness which I knew to
bee better then all the world besides, which stirred me up to take any
opportunity to draw men to God, and by success in my endeavors I took much
encouragement hereunto. But those affections were not constant but very
unsettled. By these occasions I grew to bee of some note for religion (which
did not a little puff me up) and divers would come to me for advice in cases
of conscience; and if I heard of any that were in trouble of mind I usually
went to comfort them; so that upon the bent of my spirit this way and the
success I found of my endeavors, I gave up my self to the study of Divinity,
and intended to enter into the ministry, if my friends had not diverted me.
But as I grew into employment and credit thereby; so I grew also in pride of
my gifts, and under temptations which set me on work to look to my evidence
more narrowly then I had done before (for the great change which God had
wrought in me, and the general approbation of good ministers and other
Christians, kept me from making any great question of my good estate, though
my secret corruptions, and some tremblings of heart (which was greatest when I
was among the most Godly persons) put me to some plunges; but especially when
I perceived a great decay in my zeal and love, etc.) And hearing sometimes of
better assurance by the seal of the spirit, Which I also knew by the word of
God, but could not, nor durst say that ever I had it; and finding by reading
of Mr. Perkins and other books that a reprobate might (in appearance) attain
to as much as I had done: finding withal much hollowness and vain glory in my
heart, I began to grow very sad, and knew not what to doe, I was ashamed to
open my case to any minister that knew me; I feared it would shame my self and
religion also, that such an eminent professor as I was accounted, should
discover such corruptions as I found in my self, and had in all this time
attained no better evidence of salvation; and I should prove a hypocrite it
was too late to begin anew: I should never repent in truth having repented, so
oft as I had done. It was like hell to me to think of that in Hebrews: 6. Yet
I should sometimes propound questions afar off to such of the most Godly
ministers as I met, which gave me ease for the present, but my heart could not
find where to rest; but I grew very sad, and melancholy; and now to hear
others applaud me was a dart through my liver; for still I feared I was not
sound at the root, and sometimes I had thoughts of breaking from my
profession, and proclaiming myself an Hypocrite. But those troubles came not
all at once but by fits, for sometimes I should find refreshing in prayer, and
sometimes in the love that I had had to the Saints: which though it were but
poor comfort (for I durst not say before the Lord that I did love them in
truth) yet the Lord upheld me, and many times outward occasions put these
fears out of my thoughts. And though I had known long before the Doctrine of
free justification by Christ and had often urged it upon my own soul and
others, yet I could not close with Christ to my satisfaction. I have many
times striven to lay hold upon Christ in some promise and have brought forth
all the arguments that I had for my part in it. But instead of finding it to
bee mine, I have lost sometimes the faith of the very general truth of the
promise, sometimes after much striving by prayer for faith in Christ, I have
thought I had received some power to apply Christ unto my soul: but it was so
doubtful as I could have little comfort in it, and it soon vanished.
Upon these and the like troubles, when I could by no means attain sure and
settled peace; and that which I did get was still broken off upon every
infirmity; I concluded there was no way to help it, but by walking more close
with God and more strict observation of all duties; and hereby though I put
myself to many a needless task, and deprived my self of many' lawful comforts,
yet my peace would fail upon every small occasion, and I was held long under
great bondage to the Law (sin, and humble myself; and sin, and to humiliation
again, and so day after day) yet neither got strength to my Sanctification nor
bettered my Evidence, but was brought to such bondage, as I durst not use any
recreation, nor meddle with any worldly business etc.: for fear of breaking my
peace (which even such as it was, was very precious to me) but this would not
hold neither, for then I grew very melancholy and mine own thoughts wearied
me, and wasted my spirits.

While I wandered up and down in this sad and doubtful estate (wherein yet I
had many intermissions, for the flesh would often shake off this yoke of the
law, but was still forced to come under it again) wherein my greatest troubles
were not the sense of God's wrath or fear of damnation, but want of assurance
of salvation, and want of strength against my corruptions; I knew that my
greatest want was faith in Christ, and fain would I have been united to Christ
but I thought I was not holy enough. I had many times comfortable thoughts
about him in the word prayer, and meditation, but they gave me no satisfaction
but brought me lower in mine own eyes, and held me still to a constant use of
all means, in hope of better things to come. Sometimes I was very confident
that bee had given me a hungering and thirsting soul after Christ and
therefore would surely satisfy me in his good time. Sometimes again I was
ready to entertains secret murmurings that all my pains and prayers etc.
should prevail no more: but such thoughts were soon rebuked: I found my heart
still willing to justify God. Yea I was persuaded I should love him though bee
should cast me off.

Being in this condition it pleased the Lord in my family exercise to manifest
unto me the difference between the Covenant of grace, and the Covenant of
works (but I took the foundation of that of works to have been with man in
innocency, and only held forth in the law of Moses to drive us to Christ).
This Covenant of grace began to take great impression in me and I thought I
had now enough: To have Christ freely, and to bee justified freely was very
sweet to me; and upon sound warrant (as I conceived) but I could not say with
any confidence, it had been sealed to me, but I rather took occasion to bee
more remiss in my spiritual watch, and so more loose in my conversation.
I was now about 30 years of age, and now was the time come that the Lord would
reveal Christ unto me whom I had long desired, but not so earnestly as since I
came to see more clearly into the covenant of free grace. First therefore hee
laid a sore affliction upon me wherein hee laid me lower in mine own eyes than
at any time before, and shewed me the emptiness of all my gifts and parts,
left me neither power nor will, so as I became as a weaned child I could now
no more look at what I had been or what I had done nor bee discontented for
want of strength or assurance mine eyes were only upon his free mercy in Jesus
Christ. I knew I was worthy of nothing for I knew I could do nothing for him
or for my self. I could only mourn, and weep to think of free mercy to such a
vile wretch as I was. Though I had no power to apply it yet I felt comfort in
it. I did not long continue in this estate, but the good spirit of the Lord
breathed upon my soul, and said I should live. Then every promise I thought
upon held forth Christ unto me saying I am thy salvation. Now could my soul
close with Christ, and rest there with sweet content, so ravished with his
love, as I desired nothing nor feared anything, but was filled with joy
unspeakable, and glorious and with a spirit of Adoption. Not that I could pray
with more fervency or more enlargement of heart than sometimes before, but I
could now cry my father with more confidence. Me thought this condition and
that frame of heart which I had after, was in respect of the former like the
reign of Solomon, free, peaceable, prosperous and glorious, the other more
like that of Ahaz, full of troubles, fears and abasements. And the more I grew
thus acquainted with the spirit of God the more were my corruptions mortified,
and the new man quickened: the world, the flesh and Satan were for a time
silent, I heard not of them: but they would not leave me so. This Estate
lasted a good time (divers months), but not always alike, but if my comfort
and joy slackened a while, yet my peace continued, and it would return with
advantage. I was now grown familiar with the Lord Jesus Christ, hee would oft
tell me he loved me, I did not doubt to believe him; If I went abroad hee went
with me, when I returned bee came home with me. I talked with him upon the
way, bee lay down with me and usually I did awake with him. Now I could go
into any company and not loose him: and so sweet was his love to me as I
desired nothing but him in heaven or earth.

This Estate would not hold neither did it decline suddenly but by degrees. And
though I found much spiritual strength in it, yet I could not discern but my
hunger after the word of God, and my love to the Saints had been as great (if
not more) in former times. One reason might bee this, I found that the many
blemishes and much hollow heartedness which I discerned in many professors,
had weakened the esteem of a Christian in my heart. And for my comfort in
Christ, as worldly employments, and the love of temporal things did steal away
my heart from him so would his sweet countenance bee withdrawn from me. But in
such a condition hee would not long leave me, but would still recall me by
some word or affliction or in prayer or meditation, and I should then bee as a
man awakened out of a dream or as if I had been another man. And then my care
was (not so much to get pardon for that was sometimes sealed to me while I was
purposing to go seek it, and yet sometimes I could not obtain it without
seeking and waiting also but) to mourn for my ingratitude towards my God, and
his free, and rich mercy. The consideration whereof would break my heart more,
and wring more tears from mine eyes, then ever the fear of Damnation or any
affliction had done; so as many times and to this very day a thought of Christ
Jesus, and free grace bestowed on me melts my heart that I cannot refrain.
Since this time I have gone under continual conflicts between the flesh and
the spirit, and sometimes with Satan himself (which I have more discerned of
late then I did formerly) many falls I have had, and have lived long under
some, yet never quite forsaken of the Lord. But still when I have been put to
it by any sudden danger or fearful temptation, the good spirit of the Lord
hath not failed to bear witness to me, giving me comfort, and courage in the
very pinch, when of my self I have been very fearful, and dismayed. My usual
falls have been through dead heartedness, and presumptuousness, by which Satan
hath taken advantage to wind me into other sins. When the flesh prevails the
spirit withdraws, and is sometimes so grieved as bee seems not to acknowledge
his own work. Yet in my worst times bee hath been pleased to stir, when bee
would not speak, and would yet support me that my faith hath not failed
utterly.

The Doctrine of free justification lately taught here, took me in as drowsy a
condition, as I had been in (to my remembrance) these twenty years, and
brought me as low (in my own apprehension) as if the whole work had been to
begin anew. But when the voice of peace came, I knew it to bee the same that I
had been acquainted with before, though it did not speak so loud nor in that
measure of joy that I had felt sometimes. Only this I found that I had defiled
the white garments of the Lord Jesus. That of justification in undervaluing
the riches of the Lord Jesus Christ and his free grace, and setting up Idols
in mine own heart, some of them made of his silver, and of his gold, and that
other garment of Sanctification by many foul spots which God's people might
take notice of and yet the inward spots were fouler than those.
The Lord Jesus who (of his own free grace) hath washed my soul in the blood of
the everlasting Covenant, wash away all those spots also in his good time.
Amen even so do Lord Jesus.

JOHN WINTHROP.

The 12th of the 11th month, 1636. in the 49th year of my age just complete.
 

 

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