Wilhelmus à Brakel was one of the most influential men to come out of the Dutch Further Reformation. He wrote with a scholarly mind and a pastoral heart. He exemplified the maxim: Correct doctrinal thinking leads to godly living. His work, The Christian’s Reasonable Service is both challenging in its doctrine, and convicting in its piercing observations.
I had been reading his section on Sanctification and Holiness, when I read these very rich and poignant observations about the “old man”. I thought them worthy of posting. You can find an electronic version of all 4 volumes at this site.
The Functioning of the Old Man in the Believer
The old nature stirs up to the commission of sin.
(1) Sometimes it does so by violent assaults. The lusts are so agitated and are stirring so vehemently that there is no time to think upon the fear of God. Even if the fear of the Lord surfaces, the lusts increase so forcefully in strength that any good inclinations are immediately extinguished. Thus, sin is committed before one can think about anything else, the heart being carried about as chaff in the wind.
(2) Sometimes the old nature seeks some rest; to be so intently focused upon God tires the body and the mind, so that it appears impossible to live in such a manner. The old nature, in seeking some rest and relaxation, begins initially to think upon natural things; however, the lusts of the flesh begin to stir, and the thoughts pertaining to natural things become sinful, due to one‘s ego entering the picture. A person will begin to build castles in the sky, imagining himself to have possessions, to be in a position of prominence, of being honored, and of having riches. Even though he knows that he will never attain to this, he nevertheless entertains himself with such imagery. From this point the old nature proceeds to reflect upon that sin which most readily presents itself be it immorality, a lust for money, or pride. Being thus drawn away from his steadfastness, he commits sin to the degree that the moment permits, and if the opportunity were not lacking, he would fall into sins which he never thought himself to be capable of. Or, if the opportunity is there, he will fall into sin from which he thought to have been delivered be it in a natural sense or by grace.
(3) Sometimes the old nature gains in strength due to recklessness. A person will bring himself into situations, knowing from experience that they have repeatedly ensnared him. This can either be solitude, or the company of certain people, yet he is of the
opinion that he will now be able to abstain from the previous sins. In making use of the opportunity, however, he is inclined to it before realizing it, and sin having found an opening must proceed; the sin which is then at hand gains the upper hand. Contact with grease cannot but leave a stain.1
(4) Sometimes the old nature presents something as being beneficial but conceals its sinfulness. It presents it as a necessity, as being delightful, as being advantageous, or as being honest, etc. Sometimes it is presented as a white lie, as being a necessity
(not being able to do business otherwise), as being an honest deed, or as something which would otherwise prevent you from intermingling with people in a civil manner. Sometimes it suggests that one will thereby come into a position, in which he will be able to do more good subsequently and similar pretenses, which are not advanced in a premeditated manner, but suddenly present themselves at a given opportunity. And thus, man takes more liberty or at least he does not resist sin as much, and the old nature breaks through, one sin begetting another.
Secondly, the old nature is likewise always engaged in keeping man from that which is good.
(1) There will be no time for one to engage in his godly exercises of praying, reading, singing, and meditation. Therefore these exercises either do not occur at all, or only in a casual manner to satisfy the conscience. It is as if he is rushed, even though he frequently would have the time.
(2) At another time one will postpone the matter, determining to do it, but to do it in a more quiet and composed manner; certain things first have to be accomplished. In the meanwhile time slips away or the Spirit has departed, and one does not get to it, or it is void of all spirituality.
(3) Then again the task appears as being exceptionally difficult; one looks up against it, and seeks to avoid and postpone it. Having burdened himself with many difficulties, he approaches the duty as a lazy person and, so to speak, crawls forward. It is too difficult and one is not fit to do it.
(4) Again he thinks that all that he does is in vain, that God does not hear, that one shall not obtain it, and he suggests to himself that he shall not obtain anything in the future anyhow. Our words do not carry any weight with others; we shall be put to shame, and our careful walk will only be construed as hypocrisy.
(5) Or one will try to compromise. The way to heaven is not so narrow as one generally claims. Would all those perish who are not so precise? No! It is not contrary to godliness to have determination, and to be courteous and cheerful. Thus, the old nature will prevent one from making vigorous progress and from carefully following the footsteps of Jesus.
Thirdly, if the old nature cannot keep man away from that which is good, she will endeavor to spoil that which is good.
(1) At one time she will cause the thoughts to wander from one thing to the next.
(2) At another time there will be good thoughts which, however, will not be applicable at the moment. They are only fit to break the resolution toward that good thing which at that moment is to be performed.
(3) Again, ulterior motives and our ego can enter the picture which will hinder a person in his duty, causing him to lose his resolve and the stimulus to be removed; thus the purity of the duty is contaminated.
(4) Then there will be thoughts that all is devoid of the Spirit and but the work of nature yes, even hypocrisy.
(5) At another time the atheistic heart and unbelief come to the surface, which contaminate the performance of spiritual duty and instead of being refreshed by the performance of one’s duty, there is consternation and abhorrence that he has performed this good duty in such an evil manner. And thus the old nature agitates within.