Diseases of Souls by John Willison (1680-1750)



   The words being before explained, and the doctrine raised, I proceed to Doct. III. Viz. However desperate the diseases of those within the church may seem to be, yet if they die of them, it will be owing to themselves, seeing they have an able physician, an excellent balm to look to for healing.

   This being the doctrine which I chiefly intend to insist upon, I propose to do it at some length in the following method:
I. I will inquire into those dangerous diseases for which there is balm in Gilead, and a physician there.
II. Take notice of some of those dangerous symptoms which make our diseases appear desperate and incurable, for which there is yet balm in Gilead.
 III. Speak of the physician there, who hath the balm, and applies it for curing the diseased.
IV. Inquire into the nature of the balm, and means which the physician makes use of the healing.
V. Touch at the physician’s method of applying the balm, and performing the cure. 
VI. Make application of the whole.
I The first head is, to inquire into the dangerous diseases of those within the church for which the balm is provided. And for the better understanding hereof, I shall premise some things.
  1. When I speak of the church, I mean the church visible, which includes hypocrites as well as true believers.
   2.Though the strength and power of the soul’s diseases be broken in believers, by renewing grace, yet there is no disease in the unrenewed but believers are in part liable to it, and have the relics of it to groan under, while they are here below.
  3. I am not to speak of the diseases of the body natural, which is the province of physicians; nor of the body politic, or civil society, which is the business of politicians and statesmen: though in the meantime the abounding of those at this day is so visible to all, that we have ground to bewail and mourn over them before the Lord. Ah! The diseases of our body, both civil and ecclesiastic, are so great and lamentable, that we may justly apply that word to ourselves, which we have in Isa. i. 5, 6, “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint; from the sole of the foot even unto the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds, bruises, and putrifying sores.” Such a case, indeed, is mournful, yet, blessed be God, it is not separate. There is balm in Gilead for the state as well as the church, and we should plead with the great physician in Israel to pity both, and heal their respective diseases. Thanks be to God that he is both able and willing, and that he gives us such promises to plead with him, as these following, in Isa. i. 25, 26, “And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin. And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning; afterwards thou shalt be called the city of righteousness,” &c. And that in Isa. xlix. 22, 23, “Thus saith the Lord God, Behold I will lift up my hand to the Gentiles and set up my standard to the people; and they shall bring thy sons in their arms and thy daughters shall be carried on their shoulders; and kings shall be thy nursing-fathers, and their queens thy nursing-mothers,” &c. And that promise in Isa. lx. 17, 18, “I shall make thy officers peace, and thine exactors righteousness; violence shall no more be hears in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls salvation and thy gates praise.” Now it is surely the duty of all the members of both church and state, to plead these promises with God, and to wait his time for accomplishing them to us. O what is there so hard, but the outpouring of his Spirit can do?
    4. The diseases which I propose to speak of in this place, are the sins of spiritual plagues and distempers of men’s souls. Which are very dangerous and deadly. These we ought all to know, with symptoms and effects, that we may seek after the balm in Gilead, which is mercifully provided of God for our healing. God would have every man to know the plague of his own heart, 1 Kings viii. 38. This every man should know and be acquainted with in the first place, in order to healing; though yet we are not wholly to confine our thoughts and care about those diseases which are private and personal, but show our concern also about those which are public and national; of which more afterwards. 
    5. These soul distempers are called in scripture, diseases, wounds, and sickness, Ps. xxxviii. 5; ciii. ; cxlvii. 3; Ezek. xxxvi. 4; Matt. ix. 12. Because they produce effects in the soul like to those which diseases produce in the body; such as, (1.) As diseases waste the beauty of the body, and produce uncomeliness and deformity in it, Ps. xxxix. 11. As they make the eyes sink and turn dull, the skin shrink up and gather blackness, the flesh melt away, and bones stick out, and the most beautiful person to look pale and ghastly; so our sins and spiritual distempers destroy the comeliness of the soul, deprive it of its primitive beauty, the image of God, and bring upon it a most ghastly deformity, and make it resemble both brutes and devils, the one in sensuality and lust, the other in pride and malice. (2.) As diseases weaken the body, and make it unfit for spiritual work and exercises, as prayer, hearing, meditating, &c. so that duty becomes a burden to it. (3.) As the diseases deprive men of their appetite for food, and of their digestion; so sin takes away the soul’s appetite and digestion, that it hath no hunger for the bread of life, for communion with God, and the influences of his Spirit; and though the man attends ordinances, he doth not digest what he hears, nor is nourished by it. (4.) Diseases occasion pain in the body that it cannot rest; so sin brings anguish and torture into the soul. Hence David complains of his bones being vexed, and his soul being sore vexed, Ps. vi. 2, 3. These things being promised, I shall mention some of those dangerous diseases of the soul for which we need the balm of Gilead. 
   Atheism. Infidelity, or misbelief of divine truths, revealed to us, is a deadly disease, for it hinders the success of the gospel, and the saving of souls. What is it that keeps many halting so long between two opinions, and hovering betwixt Christ and the devil, but heir not believing firmly the Bible to be God’s word, and the gospel tidings to be certain truth; namely, that God sent Jesus Christ, his eternal Son, into the world, to assume our nature, and die for sin instead; and their not giving firm credit to the being of a God, the immortality of the soul, and the life to come. Though many will not openly question any of these truths, yet the wavering thoughts they have about them hinder them from failing in with the gospel-method of salvation which God hath established. Ah! This is a deadly disease! Also, there is much practical atheism among us; many profess to won God, and yet live as if they believed there was no God that made the world, and no providence that governs it: they pay God no homage nor respect; they put the creature, or self, in God’s room; they ascribe their mercies to fortune, or to their own wisdom or industry, rather than to God. A woful disease! God’s children indeed are cured of prevailing atheism, yet the dregs of the disease remain; and sometimes atheistical thoughts come to a great height in them, as in Asaph, though afterwards he was heartily grieved and ashamed for entertaining them, and calls himself both a fool and a beast for it, Ps. lxxiii. 21, 22. And no wonder he did so, for atheism and infidelity, though it abound in the church, yet there is no such disease in hell, no such madness there, for the devils believe and tremble, James ii. 19. But though the disease be grievous, yet Christ hath balm for it, and to him we must go both to help our unbelief and increase our faith.

and of gospel truths, is a mortal disease, and destroys many, even of those who profess to know him, according to Hos. iv. 6. There are multitudes living in the midst of gospel light, who yet continue in gross darkness. They are ignorant of the infinite justice and holy nature of God; and of the misery of man in his fallen state, of the evil of sin, and the ransom necessary for it. They are ignorant of Jesus Christ and his mediatory offices, and of the nature and necessity of Christ’s righteousness, and of faith which applies it to us. They know nothing of the Spirit’s office in our redemption, nor of his work in regeneration; yea, they do not so much as know if there be a Holy Ghost. Alas! That this disease of ignorance should still prevail, notwithstanding all the means of knowledge we enjoy. I grant that believers are spiritual illuminated, and get the strength of this disease broken at their first conversion, yet still much blindness remains with them; and frequently clouds of darkness so overshadows them, that they have but faint waves of divine mysteries. This is a sad disease, but yet there is balm in Gilead, and eye-salve in Israel for it, Rev. ii. 17, 18; Jer. xxiv. 7.

is a woeful disease; it clogs the mind, and unfits the soul for spiritual work. The thoughts of the world shut out the thoughts of God and eternity; they tempt many poor souls, like Martha, to be carefully troubled about many things, even things which will not avail them at a dying hour, while the one thing necessary is quite neglected and forgot. Ah! What numbers are there dying of this disease? When other plagues kill their thousands, this slays its ten thousands. O what havoc doth it daily make among professed Christians? Pharaoh’s words concerning the Israelites may well be applied to many of them, Exod. xiv. 3, “They are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.” So hot are they in pursuing the world, so busied  in providing for their families in paying their debts in making bargains, purchases and in courting the favour of men, that they can find no time in their lives, nor room in their hearts for precious Christ, and the concerns of their souls. O sinner! This disease of earthly-mindedness quite defeats the design of the gospel, and mars your profiting by Sabbaths and sermons; it turns the house of God into a place of merchandize, by your thoughtfulness in it about worldly gain and profit. What a fearful distemper is this, that turns a man’s head and heart where his feet should be! That makes him bestow his soul and all its noble faculties upon a little white and yellow clay! and so all his days dig for dross and dung with mattocks of gold! Nothing can cure this disease but the balm of Gilead. The prevailing power of it is indeed broken in believers at conversion, the world is then put down from the throne and chief place in the soul; yet afterwards it does rally its broken forces, and struggles hard to recover the throne again; and this proves very troublesome even to the best. It distracts their thoughts, molests them in holy duties, and steals away their affections from Christ and heaven. This is a sore plague, yet there is balm in Israel and help in God’s word and promise for it; Cant.  iv. 8; Jer. xxxii.4; Col. iii. 1, 2.

is a sore disease, when the heart becomes backward to pay God a visit in secret, and the man unwilling to go to his closet to converse with his Maker. Ah! This is the case with many, who would rather toil their bodies a whole day, than spend a quarter of an hour upon their knees with God in secret. Their animal spirits are vigorous and lively in pursuing their worldly business, or even their diversions; but they are low and faint in soul-work and spiritual exercises. We see many who do not weary to spend whole days, yea, and nights too, in drinking, dancing, gaming, and serving their lusts; but they grudge to give God so much as one day, or any part even of his own day. They say of Sabbaths and sermons, “What a weariness hath it? When will the Sabbath be gone?” This is a prevailing disease, and how strong are the drags of it in believers! For though at conversion, their hearts are reconciled to God and his ways, yet, at times, they feel much of a recurring backwardness for spiritual work, so that when they would do good, evil is present with them. But yet there is balm for the disease, in the physician of Israel, and his gracious promises, Psal. cx. 3; Isa. xl. 31; Ezek. xxxvi. 27.

prevailing and venting itself various ways, is a sad disease. Sometimes it rises like a flood, swells high, and carries all before it, like the current of a tide that cannot be withstood. So it is with those in whom the strength of corruption was never subdued by converting grace. And though the tide be turned with renewed persons, yet upon some occasions we find them making complaints of the prevalency of indwelling sin, through the power of temptation, as Paul, Rom. vii. And David, Psal. lxv, “Iniquities prevail against me;” and Isa. lxiv. 6, “Our iniquities like the wind have taken us away.” This is a most humbling disease; yet the physician of Israel hath provided balm for it in his word, Psal. lxv.3; Mic. vii. 19; Rom. vii. 23, 25.

is a woeful disease. When men draw near to God with their lips only, and give him no more but bodily service, which is no better than that of a statue on a tomb, with eyes and hands lift up, only it wants a voice.  And how unpleasant is a voice to God without the heart and affections? He heavily complains of it, Isa. xxix. 13. Among the unrenewed, hypocrisy is a deadly and reigning disease. And though the converted be delivered from its reigning power, yet they are sadly distressed with its remains, and often put to complain that they give God more of the body than the heart in duty; and that their prayers are little better than lip labour. But the physician of Israel hath promised balm for this disease, Jer. xxxi. 33; Prov. iv. 18; 2 Cor. iv.16.

Alas! For the unfixedness of the heart, that goeth out in many vain excursions towards the world and its trifles, and even in time of the most solemn approaches unto God! Hereby our religions performances are woefully marred, and God provoked to loathe and abhor them. There is a voluntary and habitual wandering of heart that is the reigning plague of the unregenerate: and there is an involuntary wandering that is a disease of God’s people, which they bemoan and lament before the Lord. But there is balm in Gilead for it in all shapes; Jer. xxxii. 29; Ezek. xi. 19.

is the common disease of god’s people. They are liable to backslide from the power of life of godliness, and to lose their former spirituality and liveliness in servicing God in their closets, families, and public assemblies; so that sometimes, their religions duties are like to wither and dwindle away into a dead form, and “the things that remain are ready to die,” as it was with the church of Sardis, Rev. iii. 2. This decay comes upon them when known sin or sloth are indulged by men. Then it is that spiritual exercises become a weariness, and aversion grows to hear-work and secret duties, such as prayer, reading the Bible, meditation, and communing with their own hearts; then the graces languish, the faith of divine revelation becomes weak, the truths which God reveals concerning his glorious perfections, the excellencies of Christ, and concerning sin and duty, heaven and hell, make but small impression on the mind. Then repentance is restrained, and the soul is little affected with God and its evil; then love turns cool to Christ and his image, it doth not constrain to duty, nor to hate and mortify sin as before; than hope becomes faint and languid, and hath not such desirous expectations of the eternal world, and things unseen, as to fortify the soul against the allurements of the devil, the world and the flesh. This spiritual consumption is a mournful disease, and calls us speedily to apply to the Physician of Israel for the balm he hath promised for it, Deut. xxx. 6; Hos. xiv. 4-6; Psal. lxix. 32; John xiv. 19; Gal. ii. 20.

is one of God’s people’s diseases that requires this balm. They are often cast down by outward afflictions, and especially by the prevalency of sin and Satan’s temptations, by the hidings of God’s face, the shutting out of their prayers, the darkening of their evidences, the revival of former guilt, and the renewing of mount Sinai’s thunderings against them. Under these trials, they are apt to think that God holds them for his enemies, and writes bitter things against them, and hence are put to cry with the psalmist, “Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? And will he be favourable no more? This is a disease which sadly enfeebles their hearts and weakens their hands; yet the great Physician of the church hath provide balm for it, Psal. xlii. 5 &c.; Isa. xli. 10, 17, 18; liv. 7, &c. lvii. 16, &c.; Jer. xxxi. 25; Heb. xiii. 5, 6.

Alas! We turn unthankful both for common and special mercies, and for the unspeakable gift of Jesus Christ to Adam’s fallen race. What bad requitals do we make of God for his goodness! There are many who make use of God’s mercies as darts to shoot at heaven, and weapons to fight against God himself. The more he gives them of health and money, they turn the more profane and debauched; so that instead of serving God with his benefits, they make a sacrifice of them to the devil, Hos. ii. 8. I fear such will be found guilty of this evil, who bestow their time and money upon games and pastimes, balls and assemblies, plays and comedies, and such vanities that prove nurseries of sin, and serve greatly to debauch the minds and morals of men and women. O let us not ungratefully requite the Lord our gracious benefactor. Ah! How much of this disease remains even with the best! Even Hezekiah rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him 2 Chron. xxxii. 25. Great need have we all of the balm of Gilead to cure us of this plague.

The unbeliever goes about to build an imaginary tower of his own righteousness, and will not submit to the righteousness of Christ the glorious Surety, who hath brought in an everlasting and law-biding righteousness for sinners to fly to. Nay believers who have actually fled to it, still groan under the remains of this woeful disease within them. They have still a hankering after some dependence upon their duties and performances, although they cannot but own that their best duties need the blood of Christ, as well as their worst sins; and if they be not washed from the sins that cleave to them, they would damn them. O! then, what need have we all of the balm of Gilead, and the Physician there, for these deadly diseases which we cleave to?
 The time would fail me to mention and insist upon many other grievous disease which abound among us; such as pride, self-conceit, and lifting up ourselves, because of some attainments, above others; discontentment with our lot and condition in the world; impatience under crosses, sinful self-love, intemperance, covetousness, envy, rash anger, malice, revenge, and many other deadly plagues. However light some may make of these distempers, yet there is none of them but what will prove deadly, if the balm of Gilead, and Physician there, be not applied to for cure. But, blessed be the God of Israel, that this balm is a universal medicine, a catholicon for all manner of soul-diseases, if sinners would but seek to it, and submit to the application of it in the Physician’s own way. May we all be brought to see and feel our diseases in time, that we may hasten to the great Physician of the church, while his balm and power are present to heal us. May God of his infinite mercy determine us to it, for Christ Jesus sake. Amen.

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“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,” Titus 2:11