Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
EPHESIANS iv. 3.
TWO questions may here be raised, -
I. What is to be kept ? - " The unity of the Spirit."
II. How is it to be kept ? - " With endeavour, in the bond of peace."
I. What is to be kept is "the unity of the Spirit." This phrase may admit of different interpretations, but I am inclined to understand it in its most strictly literal sense, as indicating the unity of which the Holy Spirit is the author; that oneness of believing men in Christ which is the Spirit's new creation. Of course, in that view, it must be a unity corresponding in its nature and character to the nature and character of him who is its author and creator. It cannot therefore be merely outward and formal. It may be that; but it must be something more than that. It must be inward and spiritual. And the outward, and the inward, the formal and the spiritual,. must meet in this unity, and harmonize and be at one.
For the Holy Spirit is one. And what the Holy Spirit makes or forms is one; like the pure and perfect manhood of the incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus, which he fashioned in the virgin's womb. The Church is Christ's body; fashioned also by the Holy Ghost, in the womb, as it were, of the pure and glorious gospel, out of which, by the power of the Spirit, it comes. And it comes as being one; indivisibly one, as was the manhood of that holy child Jesus, born of the Spirit in Bethlehem's stable. In that unity, however, there may be said to be two elements, or what we may call factors; the outward form and the inward spirit or life, corresponding to the true flesh and the rational soul in the one man Christ Jesus. So the Church, which the Spirit makes one in Christ, which is Christ's one body, may have its external, visible, tangible, embodiment or substance, as well as its internal principle of vitality. It may have the Spirit's own dove-like shape and form, as well as the Spirit's unseen power.
Thus the unity may be regarded as two-fold. It may be viewed in two lights - as outwardly manifested, and as inwardly wrought. But in either view, it is the unity of the Spirit. It is unity of which the Spirit is the immediate author. It is unity of the Spirit's making.
1. Look at its outward manifestation. Where, you ask? Where are we to look for, that we may look at, this outwardly manifested unity of the Spirit? There is unity - visible unity - of various kinds and degrees, within the realms of Christendom. There are different outwardly manifested unities. There is the unity of which Rome makes her boast: the unity of which the Papal throne is the symbol and priestcraft the cement. There is the unity which the sanction and control of civil authority, the strong arm of civil law, may give to a corporation embracing diverse sects and vexed with endless strife, resounding with the din of confused and conflicting voices. There is the unity which the holding of a common creed suggests, and which the signing of a common formula is meant to seal. There is the unity which, disclaiming and disdaining all such ties or helps, affects to rest on the higher, broader basis of an agreement to think more freely than the common mass. There is the unity that springs out of the claim of superior sanctity, hugging itself in its own select circle, and saying to yonder publican, Stand by, for I am holier than thou. There are thus Church Unities, of the ecclesiastical, the national, the voluntary sort. There are unities of the conclave, the council, the cabinet, the coterie; the party, or the sect.
Which one of them all is the unity of the Spirit? Is any one of them such a unity as may be worthily ascribed to the Holy Ghost as its author? Such a unity as he may be supposed to make? Alas ! that we have to answer, No.
Is there then no such thing as an outstanding, realizable, unity of the Spirit? Has the unity which he originates and creates, no outward manifestation or embodiment at all? No. I believe in the visible church, and in its visible unity. I believe in the holy catholic church as one; and visible as one. It is visibly one, as being holy and catholic. It is holy, as consecrated to God. It is catholic, as embracing all in its universal love. That is its real and essential unity. It is the unity of holiness and of love.
And, as such, it is a unity that may be seen, and known, and read of all men. For, holiness and love, godliness and charity, if they exist at all, must make themselves visible. A holy and loving man, or woman, or child, is not an inward ideal, but an outward, palpable reality. The Spirit makes holy and loving men, and women, and children. And that is his unity in its outward manifestation, as well as its inward birth. Thus he manifests his unity, inwardly and outwardly. That is the visible unity which he produces ; which alone is worthily and truly his.
Let no man disparage, or doubt, or undervalue it; even as thus put in its germ or seed. Let no man complain of it as being too vague, shadowy, and undefined. No doubt the unity of a common badge, or of a common dress, a shaven crown, a red cross, a peculiar gown or hat, scarlet stockings, and the like, may be more discernible, and discernible with less trouble. It may be deceptive, nevertheless; specious, yet hollow; a seeming oneness, covering all but infinite diversities. But true holiness and true love are everywhere and always the same. And there is nothing under them. They cover nothing. Where holiness and love prevail, there can be no diversities. All holy and loving persons speak and act alike, because they think and feel alike. Is not that the true ideal of the holy catholic church - holy and loving persons associated together? Do you still question if such unity as this is more than a name, a dream, as regards the church of Christ subsisting upon earth?
Where, you ask, are the people who are manifestly and unequivocally one, in holiness and love, as you would have me to believe ? Shew me them. Bring them together before me; and let me compare them and count them. Nay, my friend.This incredulous demand of yours is scarcely reasonable. And yet, alas I can find some apology for it, when I myself see how little many Christians whom I know, and whose Christianity I dare not doubt, do really lead such thoroughly holy lives as Christ led, and do really walk in love as Christ has loved them. But I entreat you, brother, to consider. May nqt the fault be partly in yourself? May it not lie in your having so little of an eye to apprehend - so little of a heart to appreciate and to sympathize with - the holiness and love - the holy living and the loving working - which do, however imperfectly and inadequately, yet must truly characterize some few at least of your acquaintances, or have characterized some few historical names - some few of the remembered dead? They may be very few; very faithful among many false or weak professors. But if there are only two or three, of whom you cannot but own that, dwelling far apart, of different natural temperaments, belonging to different sects, frequenting different circles, and mingling in different societies - they yet all agree in giving the unmistakable impression of their living habitually under the influence of loyalty to God and charity to man;- all of them acknowledging Christ as their all in all, and being themselves in large measure consistently Christ-like as well as Christ-loving; - that is to you the church visible; - visible as one; made one by the Holy Ghost. That is "the unity of the Spirit," sufficiently manifested to you! Sufficiently, I say, to draw you over to this unity yourselves, or to leave you without apology if you continue in your unbelief!
Sufficiently, I add, to make your case a very sad one, if - refusing to see in such a gracious work any higher hand than man's - or, it may be, ascribing it to agencies and influences even meaner still - you incur the guilt of those who said that Christ cast out devils by Beelzebub their prince.
2. I have dwelt thus long on the visible aspect of "the unity of the Spirit" which you are to endeavour to keep, because it is in that line that your endeavour must mainly be put forth. But I must remind you that the real seat of this unity is within, in the heart. There, of course, it is invisible, save only to God the Father, who is indeed himself its living centre. For the unity which the Spirit effects among all the redeemed is primarily and essentially unity in God the Father; unity, in a high sense, with God the Father. It is the unity of which Christ speaks when he prays: " That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one : I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me " (John xvii. 21-23).
That oneness which Christ thus seeks is the unity of the Spirit. The Spirit is himself one with the Father and the Son, in the divine unity or oneness with which, in some sense, the human is here so wonderfully identified. It is as being himself one with the Father and the Son, in their mutual indwelling in one another in love, that he makes us one; through the Son's dwelling in us as the Father dwelleth in him; and the indwelling in us consequently of the very love with which the Father loveth the Son. That is " the unity of the Spirit"; the only unity that can be worthily ascribed to him. It is, as the Lord intimates, a unity which, in its fruit or issue, may be and must be visible; for by it the world is to "know that the Father hath sent him." But in its deep source and seat it is invisible. It is the secret of the Lord which is with them that fear him. It is a communication made by the Spirit of God to and within the deepest spirit in man. It is his causing you to know and believe the love with which God has loved you. It is not your loving God but his loving you - loving you as he loves his own Son, that constitutes your unity or oneness, first with God the Father, and then, in him, with one another as brethren. It is no narrow, earthly, selfish unity, but a unity wide and high and heavenly.
II. This unity of the Spirit is to be kept.
(I.) There must be endeavour to keep it. And
(II.) there is a bond provided for keeping it.
(I.) In the first place, there must be endeavour to keep it. And the endeavour must be most earnest and most strenuous. The word used is very emphatical. It implies a strong and sustained effort of will. And well it may. If it is indeed the unity of the Spirit, it may well require, as it well deserves, sedulous and anxious keeping. For it is a beauteous, heavenly vase, in the custody of rude, earthly hands. It craves tender handling. It is easily marred, cracked, and broken. It needs to be scrupulously watched and most assiduously guarded and fenced.
On the one hand, the inmost shrine in which it is fashioned and nursed, the shrine of this poor heart of mine! What a receptacle, what a home for this seed, transplanted into it from heaven's own soil! To keep that there, - what an endeavour! Let me try to realise the thought.
This "unity of the Spirit"! It is, I repeat, the love wherewith the Father loveth the Son dwelling in me, through the Son himself dwelling in me by the Spirit. Surely this is, almost without a figure, heaven on earth! It is the Father's love to the Son, which is heaven's glory, finding a lodgment on earth ! And where? In me; consciously in me; in my heart. And what a heart! How weak, irresolute, infirm! How cold and carnal and worldly, even when renewed! To keep such a treasure in such a place; a gem so pure in a casket so open to all defilement; - assuredly needs endeavour; the keeping of the heart with all diligence, since out of it are the issues of life.
Then, on the other hand, the need is certainly not less among those issues of life which come out of the heart. If in the recesses of your own inward experience, the unity of the Spirit is so liable to suffer damage, that there must be constant endeavour to keep it, it cannot well be less so when it comes in contact with the outer world. So to keep the unity of the Spirit, as to cherish always a vivid sense of your being one with the Son in his enjoyment of the Father's love, and one with all that are his in the enjoyment of it - amid all jars and disagreements - ah ! there must be careful, diligent endeavour. It will not keep itself. It is not according to nature; if it were, it might spontaneously keep itself. It is against nature. Count it not strange therefore if the keeping of it cost you effort.
(II.) In the second place, for your encouragement, there is a bond provided for keeping this unity; it is the bond of peace. The endeavour, strenuous and sustained as it must be, is not to be the endeavour of violence or excitement. It is no desperate groping and struggling in the dark that is required. The unity of the Spirit is to be sedulously kept. But the keeping of it is to be quiet, calm, peaceful. The bond, the girdle, which is to be the means of keeping it, is peace. What peace? "The peace of God, which passeth understanding, keeping your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ;" "peace in believing;" the peace, his own peace, which Jesus bequeathes and gives; - "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."
It is not a peace which you have naturally, or can acquire by any exertion, or through any righteousness, of your own. It is of grace. Naturally you know not what it is. You are at enmity with God, your fellows, and yourselves; distracted in your own minds; uneasy in all your relations. In such a state there is no unity of any sort to be kept, unless it be the unity of a precarious truce, or a hollow compromise, or mere conventional courtesy and compliment, which is no real unity at all, and which any kind of peace may decently enough keep. The Spirit makes real unity by making real peace. And therefore it is in the bond of real divine peace that "the unity of the Spirit" is to be kept.
First and chiefly, It is the peace of reconciliation to God that is here meant; "the peace with God" which, "being justified by faith, you have through Jesus Christ your Lord." It is idle to talk of your keeping the unity of the Spirit, or having any unity of the Spirit to keep, if you are strangers to that peace, if there is not some sense in your hearts of a well grounded and assured peace between you and your God and Father in heaven. If the question of your standing in his sight - how it is between him as the righteous judge and you as guilty sinners - the question of questions for your perishing soul - is not settled; so settled as to breath into your troubled spirit serene, secure, pure, and placid peace; - if doubt, anxiety, misgiving, continue to haunt your bosom, as to whether you are still outcast, condemned, afar off, or justified, forgiven, accepted in the beloved, brought nigh by the blood of Christ; - what bond, what tie, what girdle, have you for keeping God, and you, and your fellow-men together as one - unless it be the cold cord of ceremony, or the brittle thread of routine? Be very sure that peace, peace of conscience on the footing of the great propitiation, peace sealed and ratified by the gift of the spirit of adoption, peace implying no surrender on God's part and admitting of no reserve on your part - complete, confiding peace, - Christ's own peace in the bosom of the Father, now that he has drained the cup of wrath; such peace alone can really bind in one, - as the Holy Ghost would have to be bound in one, the Father, and the Son, and you, and the holy brethren. In vain, without the bond of that peace, you try to keep any unity deserving of the name. But having that bond in which to keep the Spirit's unity, the only unity worth the keeping, you may go forth among earth's manifold discords, confident that heaven's harmony will overbear them all.
For, let it be remarked secondly, This peace of God ruling in your minds and hearts, and keeping them through Jesus Christ your Lord, overflows in copious streams all around, and becomes a sort of universal peace; benign, calm, quiet, all-pervading, all-embracing. The love of God - the love wherewith the Father loveth the Son, and loveth you even as he loveth him - that love, shed abroad in your hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto you ; that holy, fatherly love of God, known, believed, felt - and that is peace - goes forth in holy, brotherly love, everywhere and always. This love, this peace, is the only uniting bond. An uneasy conscience - the consciousness or apprehension of an unsettled controversy on any point still outstanding between you and your God, or between you and your fellow-men; such an uncomfortable state of the inner man, causing restlessness, fitfulness, irritability, cannot but hinder the cultivation of that " meek and quiet spirit," - which is not only " in the sight of God an ornament of great price," - but is also in the sight of men the most convincing and attractive manifestation by far, of the holy loving unity which the Holy Ghost creates in and among all the saints of the Most High. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you." In the bond of that peace, " keep the unity of the Spirit."
My subject has been suggested by the recent proceedings in the General Assembly of our beloved Church. In applying it accordingly, I intend to confine myself to one aspect of the case ; the "endeavour" which was required on the part of those who took a leading part in these proceedings, in order to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." I might speak of the Church in the third person ; but it is easier and simpler to use the first person. We who, being the majority, had mainly the conduct of the affair all along, have had a hard task to perform, a difficult part to play. Let me advert to some of the difficulties.
In the first place, we had to consider our own position with reference to the whole union movement from the beginning hitherto, and the deep responsibility involved in its discontinuance. This was with us a far more serious matter than many thought, raising in our minds very anxious and perplexing deliberations. It seemed somehow to be taken for granted, in certain quarters, that if we hesitated about bringing to an end the union negotiations, it could only be from a regard to our own personal credit and consistency, and an unwillingness to submit to a personal disappointment. Pride, self-will, dogged obstinacy, sheer persistency and perversity of adherence to our own course, party-spirit, partisanship, must have been our ruling motives; else we might have yielded long ago to our friends in the minority, and given up the struggle. But we could not all at once see that to be the path of duty. We believed the cause which we advocated to be the cause of God, and our work in connection with it to be a work of God. We thought we might recognise his hand and Spirit in the progress of it. We hoped that as it advanced, farther difficulties might be removed, and the way made more plain. We did not feel at liberty lightly to despair of a happy issue. And we could by no means be sure that it might not be the will of God to accomplish the desired end through painful processes, and that it might not consequently be binding upon us to persevere, as we had the right and power to persevere, in carrying forward and carrying out the plan of a general fusion of the negotiating bodies into one, even at the risk of greater evils attending it than had been experienced, and far more serious partial heats and divisions. For my part, it was a great relief to me to find my friends so willing to join in subscribing a document, which so far saves and protects our consciences, as it is. a formal explanation of our reason for consenting to an interruption and pause in this labour of love, and a solemn protest that we have been acting in good faith.
Then, secondly, we had to consider our relation to the churches with which we have been negotiating, and the brethren in these churches with whom we have been conferring. With the very clear and decided conviction which we entertain of their entire agreement with us in all essential points of doctrine, worship, and discipline, and the experience we have had of their truly Christian spirit, - we could not consent to any close of the negotiations that, either as to the matter or as to the manner of it, might seem to involve discourtesy, or rude abruptness, or careless indifference. In particular, we could not bear the thought of the most pleasant and profitable intercourse of ten long years coming to an end in its present form, without some sort of landmark or milestone being erected as an index of some advance having been made along the blessed road to union. To part ecclesiastically as if we had never met, - to let the whole goodly array and fabric of materials that we have been trying to gather together and adjust for future use, fall to the ground, or vanish into thin air and leave no trace behind, - would surely have been a lame and impotent conclusion of the whole matter, - a pitiful ending of an old song. We were constrained to insist on a more seemly and creditable catastrophe, or consummation, of the drama; and could be reconciled to the curtain falling, only when it had graven upon it in imperishable letters, on the one hand, the fact of the concurrent opinion of all the Churches, that there is no bar in principle to an incorporating union - and on the other hand, the law which meanwhile provides for the reciprocal recognition of the fellowship of the ministry among them all.
Lastly, we had to consider the position in which our brethren differing from us as well as ourselves - in fact, the entire Church collective - might ere long be placed - if the rule of a majority, with full liberty of dissent on the part of the minority, were to be denounced as spiritual tyranny, and an invasion of the rights of conscience ; if, in other words, the majority, doing their very best to interpret and apply, under the guidance of the Spirit, the Word of Christ in any matter upon which they must make up their minds and decide and act, are after all to yield their own deliberate judgment thus reached, to the scruples of a minority who, after all, can sufficiently protect themselves, without extreme measures being threatened or carried into effect. We had to assert and maintain the possibility of lawful government in a free church of the living God.
I have indicated some of the difficulties on our side of the question in our recent contendings, not certainly with anything like mortification or bitterness in my soul, but simply to shew how much cause we have to thank the Lord who has brought our poor, weak, and sinful Church through so many embarrassments, and opened, as I trust, a bright future before us. Let there be much confession of guilt, and earnest cries for pardon on all sides. Let there be a healing of every breach. "Let all bitterness and wrath and clamour and evil speaking be put away from us, with all malice. Let us be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake, forgiveth us. Let us be followers of God as dear children. And let us walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet smelling savour."
Here ends the sermon. The Appendixes list the 430 or so ministers and elders who agreed with the motion of the Assembly to discontinue talks with the Free Presbyterians, and some hundreds of ministers and elders who dissented. The list is not comprehensive. Andrew Bonar, for example, was there and would have voted for the motion (see his journals) but his name does not appear on the list of signatories.
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