where to start

The best line in one of my recent posts, I knew I’d lifted from someone else, but when I went back to refresh my memory of the original context, it seemed like a big chunk was worth quoting in its own right. This is WTG Shedd, first published in the 1870s. (I borrowed what Shedd applied to the will and affections to apply to the mind – I think the point still holds.)


There is no part of man’s complex being which is less under his own control than his own will and his own affections. This he discovers, as soon as he attempts to convert them – as soon as he tries to produce a radical change in them.

Let a man whose will, from centre to circumference, is set on self and the world, attempt to reverse it, and set it with the same strength and energy on God and heaven, and he will know that his will is too strong for him, and that he cannot overcome himself. Let a man whose affections cleave … to earthly good, and find their sole enjoyment in earthly pleasures, attempt to change them into their own contraries, so that they shall cleave to God, and take a real delight in heavenly things – let a carnal man try to revolutionise himself into a spiritual man – and he will discover that the affections and feelings of his heart are beyond his control.

And the reason of this is plain. The affections and will of a man show what he loves and what he is inclined to. A sinful man cannot, therefore, overcome his sinful love and inclination, because he cannot make a beginning. The instant he attempts to love God, he finds his love of himself in the way. This new love for a new object, which he proposes to originate within himself, is prevented by an old love, which already has possession. This new inclination to heaven and divine things is precluded by an old inclination, very strong and very set, to earth and earthly things.

There is therefore no starting point in this affair of self-conversion. He proposes, and he tries, to think a holy thought, but there is a sinful thought already in the mind. He attempts to start out a Christian grace – say the grace of humility – but the feeling of pride already stands in the way, and, what is more, remains in the way. He tries to generate the supreme love of God, of which he has heard so much, but the supreme love of himself is ahead of him, and occupies the whole ground.

In short, he is baffled at every point in this attempt to radically change his own heart and will, because at every point this heart and will are already committed and determined. Go down as low as he pleases, he finds sin – love of sin, and inclination to sin. He never reaches a point where these cease, and therefore never reaches a point where he can begin a new love and a new inclination. … Go down as low as you please into your heart and will, you will find your self below you: you will find sin not only lying at the door but lying in the way. If you move in the line of your feelings and affections, you will find earthly feelings and affections ever below you. If you move in the line of your choice and inclination, you will find a sinful choice and inclination ever below you. In chasing your sin through the avenues of your fallen and corrupt soul, you are chasing your horizon – in trying to get clear of it by your own isolated and independent strength, you are attempting (to use the illustration of Goethe, who however employed it for a false purpose) to jump off your own shadow.


This, then, is the reason why the heart and will of a sinful man are so entirely beyond his own control. They are preoccupied and predetermined, and therefore he cannot make a beginning in the direction of holiness. If he attempts to put forth a holy determination, he finds a sinful one already made and making – and this determination is his determination, unforced, responsible, and guilty. If he tries to start out a holy emotion, he finds a sinful emotion already beating and rankling – and this emotion is his emotion, unforced, responsible, and guilty. There is no physical necessity resting on him. Nothing but this love of sin and inclination to self stands in the way of a supreme love of God and holiness – but it stands in the way. Nothing but the sinful affections of the heart prevents a man from exercising a holy affection – but it prevents him effectually. An evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit…


There is a need therefore of a divine operation to renew, to radically change, the heart and will. If they cannot renew themselves, they must be renewed; and there is no power that can reach them but that mysterious energy of the Holy Spirit which likes the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. The condition of the human heart is utterly hopeless, were it not for the promised influences of the Holy Ghost to regenerate it.


… We close with the single remark that it should be man’s first and great aim to obtain the new heart. … It matters not how active your conscience may be, how clear and accurate your intellectual convictions of truth may be, how elevated may be your moral sentiments and  your admiration of virtue, if you are destitute of an evangelical experience. Of what value will all these be in the day of judgment, if you have never sorrowed for sin, never appropriated the atonement for sin, and never been inwardly sanctified? Our Lord says to every man, ‘Either make the tree good, and its fruit good, or else make the tree corrupt and its fruit corrupt.’ The tree itself must be made good. The heart and will themselves must be renewed. These are the root and stock into which everything else is grafted, and so long as they remain in their apostate natural condition, the man is sinful and lost, do what else he may.

It is indeed true that such a change as this is beyond your power to accomplish. With man it is impossible, but with God it is a possibility and a reality. It has actually been wrought in thousands of wills, as stubborn as yours – in millions of hearts, as worldly and selfish as yours. We commend you, therefore, to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We remind you that he is able to renovate and sweetly incline the obstinate will, to soften and spiritualise the flinty heart. He says, ‘I will put a new spirit within you, and I will take the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you an heart of flesh, that ye may walk in my statutes, and keep my ordinances, and do them, and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.’

Do not listen to these declarations and promises of God supinely, but arise and earnestly plead them. Take words on  your lips, and go before God. Say to him, ‘I am the clay, be thou the potter. Behold thou desirest truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden parts thou shalt make me to know wisdom. I will run in the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart. Create within me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a right spirit.’ Seek for the new heart. Ask for the new heart. Knock for the new heart. ‘For, if ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.’ …


WTG Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man. BOT. (‘The approbation of goodness is not the love of it,’ p302ff) (Italics original, paragraphing not.)

(When I first read this, especially the first two chunks, it seemed to capture with unerring and uncanny accuracy exactly what I was starting to feel. The culpability of inability as well as the reality of it. That was several years ago now.)

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