Writings Vol. Two
GOD'S HISTORY OF HIS PEOPLE.
THERE are thus two natures in the Christian. There is in
all a "flesh" which "lusteth against the Spirit." The experience which does not
conform to this is a delusive experience.
It is thus undoubtedly true that in this respect "the believer's state can never correspond with his standing." (p. i6.) His state would have indeed to be perfect to be just what his standing is. His standing is in Christ, and therefore as Christ. To quote "As He is, so are we in this world" (r Jno. iv. 17) as Dr. Steele does (p.68)- to show the actual state, is monstrous, even though he is not by any means alone in it. The apostle connects it with "boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world "! Think of Dr. Steele finding boldness for that time in the assurance that he is morally perfectly like Christ Such utterances require, not argument, but rebuke.
So he "translates into the Plymouth idiom" John Wesley's very moderate and scriptural caution, "Let none ever presume to rest in any supposed testimony of the Spirit which is separate from the fruit of it," thus:-" Let none ever presume to rest in any supposed standing in Christ, while his actual state of character is not RADIANT WITH ALL THE EXCELLENCIES OF CHRIST." (p. 87.)
It is hard to realize the state of those who can thus speak. But "not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth." The testimony of most Christians would be very far from this, that they were "radiant with all the excellencies of Christ," and the testimony of Scripture as to them is assuredly very different
I would like to ask our author what proportion of Christians, if he look the centuries fairly in the face, he can suppose to have realized the experience he contends for, or to have held the doctrine which matches the experience. He may plead that the latter is the reason of the former. But account for it as he may, it is certain that a very small proportion has had either the one or the other. While this negatives the application of all the passages he cites, it is in itself a thing worthy of examination. As we look back along the ages, from the beginning to the present time, what is the reflection we should naturally make upon them? I shall perhaps be considered a pessimist if I say that, with a certain number of stars shining out all the more brightly on account of it, the impression is one of darkness, not of brightness, - not even growing into that. And I am not now speaking of the world as that, but of the professing people of God themselves.
In the Old Testament, the stars are seldom in galaxies. The generation before the flood came under judgment in a manner which testified of almost universal departure. Thence on to Abraham, the history of the family of saved ones is almost a blank, where it is not worse. Babel and idolatry are its most conspicuous features. Abraham and Melchisedek are then twin lights, though not seen equally. Lot is but Abraham's designed contrast. Isaac, bright in his early years, falls into decrepitude. Jacob's life at its latter end is bright, but his many days are in his own estimation "few and evil." Joseph stands out once more in contrast with his brethren.
We turn the page, and Israel has become a people; but in bondage less to Egypt's monarch than to Egypt's gods, and not knowing their deliverer. In the wilderness, two persons wholly follow the Lord their God ; the rest of the generation are cut off in it. In the land, Joshua's life ends with a noble appeal to a halting people. The Judges give us, in the deliverers themselves, the failure of the choicest. Samuel is a pillar upright amid ruins. David's history is one of trial and of triumph, then of a terrible fall and its bitter consequences. Solomon lapses into idolatry, the fruit of a heart given to strange women. Then a divided kingdom, struggling against itself, on to a fall delayed only by God's long-suffering. In Judah there are pious kings generally with some marked defect specially pointed out for us. Asa seeks not the Lord, but the physicians. Jehoshaphat leagues with the guilty house of Ahab. Uzziah invades the high-priest's office. Hezekiah even fails in the matter of the king of Babylon. Josiah is one bright exception. Then the end comes.
In Israel it had come long before, though here are seen the great figures of two mighty prophets who might have availed, if any could, to avert destruction. But even Elijah knows not of God's seven thousand hidden ones, and Elisha with many disciples has no successor. Need we speak of the feeble remnant of Ezra's and Nehemiah's times? Malachi sums up against them.
Save for the increasing light of prophecy, the day of Old Testament glory ends in darkness and sorrow.
But this is under the law? It is four thousand years of the world's history. What seems its one lesson as to man in his best estate? Is it not that he is vanity?
Since then, near two thousand years of Christianity have passed. The sixteenth century was signalized in God's mercy by a Reformation. The eastern Church for her sins had been almost engulphed in the floods of Mohammedanism. The western had passed through her dark ages, never darker than when the spiritual power had the most unquestioned supremacy. Since Protestantism, Germany, Switzerland, England, have passed through phases of rationalism and infidelity which would we could say were ended. And now we hear of a downgrade among the most orthodox, which, as it comes to light, appears "ten times more widely spread than" at first it was known to be. And of another large orthodox body in England we hear that scarcely a minister is sound as to eternal punish-ment
Dr. Steele can speak, no doubt, of many counter-balancing things, and the wide evangelization going on may make those hopeful who can forget the centuries that are past. Scripture, for those who are able to read, declares the end from the beginning, and a Laodicea to follow the revivals of Philadelphia. But in all this it may be said, we judge from our own stand-points, and we judge very differently. Be it so, and let us turn back, not forward, and look at incontestable facts as to the primitive Church itself. We shall gain in exactness here by taking the epistles chronologically, although they embrace but a history - apart from those of the apostle John,- of about fifteen years (A. D. 54-68.) Small time, it will be thought, for declension. The Revelation epistles are considered to come twenty-eight years after this (A.D; 95-96.) John's own epistles may come a short time before this. Of Jude's we have no date.
The epistles to the Thessalonians claim the first place. They were converts of somewhat over, a year's standing, and their faith was being spoken of through the world around. In his first epistle he exhorts and charges them, supplies them with an important doctrine for their comfort; but has no rebuke. The second epistle, written the same year, speaks even of their faith growing exceedingly, yet there were some walking disorderly, and he directs them as to these. What he has to say as to the state of things, however, is already solemn. Before the day of the Lord an apostasy is to come, and the mystery of iniquity is already working among Christians, with a present hindrance, indeed, which when removed, the man of sin will be revealed, and strong delusion carry away those who had not really received the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
The Corinthian epistles stand next in order. The character of the first is well known. In from three to five years from their conversion, a spirit of division had begun among them, the product of worldliness; along with this, the toleration of evil such as was not named among the Gentiles, going to law with one another, sitting at meat in idol's temples, drunk at the Lord's table, and a denial, on the part of some, of the resurrection of the dead. In the second epistle, Paul is comforted with the effect of the first, yet with a joy not unmixed. He is afraid that if he came he should not find them such as he would, and he would have to bewail many who had "not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they had committed."
In the same year, it is supposed, the epistle to the Galatians was written. Among them, legality was at work, introduced by Judaizing teachers. They seemed already (in some six years) removed from him that called them into the grace of Christ unto a different gospel. He was afraid lest he had bestowed on them labour in vain. The rapture of their conversion was gone, and a legal spirit was engendering pride, censoriousness, and strife with one another.
A year after follows the epistle to the Romans - a doctrinal treatise in the main ; but their faith, in the world's capital, is reported throughout the whole world. We find no reproof; but he has to warn them of those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine they had learned, and bid them avoid them.
Four years pass, and the apostle is now a prisoner at Rome. Thence he writes to the Ephesian church as faithful in Christ Jesus. To the Colossians also, praising their faith and love. Finally, to the Philippians, no less faithful; but he had grievous things now to say of those at Rome. He hopes to send them Timothy, for he has none beside who will naturally care for their state, but "all seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ," and "many walk of whom he had told them before, and now tells them even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ."
Somewhat later, it is thought, the epistle to the Hebrews was written. It was hard to utter the things he had to say, seeing they were dull of hearing, and had need to be taught over again the first principles of Christianity. Some had already apostatized (chap. vi. 6, R. V.) Others were forsaking the Christian assemblies. They were to look diligently, lest any one lacked the grace of God, and not to be carried about with divers and strange doctrines.
The pastoral epistles come latest, and here it is easy to see the decline which has set in. In the first epistle to Timothy we find that he had been left at Ephesus to charge some not to teach another doctrine. Some had set up for teachers of the law. Hymeneus and Philetus had made shipwreck of the faith. Others had gone astray through love of money. He warns him finally of apostasy in the latter times.
Titus is full of warnings as to the connection between truth and godliness. The Cretans, among whom he is, are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies, and must be sharply rebuked. Finally, the second epistle to Timothy closes the Pauline series,- brightly, for he knows his God, and is now going to Him, but with a solemn survey of things around, and a still more solemn outlook for the future. All they which are in Asia have turned away from him; the faith of some is being overthrown, and there are vessels of dishonor from which one is to purge himself. Already there were resisters of the truth, men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. Demas had forsaken him ; at his first defence no man stood with him.
As to the future, evil men and seducers would grow worse and worse, and the time would come when sound doctrine would no more be received, they would turn away their ears from the truth and turn to fables. In the last days perilous times would come; men being "self-lovers, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy lovers of pleasures more than of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof."
Such being the times of the apostle Paul, we can expect no difference when we open the other epistles. We may be therefore briefer. James and Peter both address themselves to the circumcision. And in James we find in the Christian assembly the poor man made to give place to the rich, even though he might be an unbeliever; and the insisting upon the works that are the fruit of faith is an indication of the tendency to mere orthodoxy. Similarly speak the blessing and cursing from the same mouth, the evil speaking, the friendship of the world, the boasting of the morrow.
The first epistle of Peter, written to the dispersion, gives a favourable picture of the Christian character. The second contemplates the inroads of evil, false teachers with damnable heresies and covetous hearts, turning back into the world those that had escaped from its pollutions; scoffers, walking in their own lusts, saying, "Where is the promise of His coming?" and unlearned and unstable men wresting the Scripture to their own destruction.
The epistle of Jude, coming apparently shortly after this, carries it further. Here the men of the second epistle of Peter are already crept into the Christian ranks, and their course is traced to full apostasy, and judgment at the coming of the Lord. John's epistles come a good while later. There are now many antichrists, by which we know it is the last time. He marks them out for rejection. Finally, in the assembly a Diotrephes receives not the apostle's word, nor the brethren, and forbiddeth those who would, and casteth them out of the church.
One glance more before the New Testament closes, and here we find the Lord Himself among the seven candlesticks, Gods light-bearers for the world, judging them. His voice it is we hear, and seven times we are solemnly and emphatically called to hear it.
Seven actually existing assemblies, representative of the state of the Church then ere the last apostle leaves it, and the voice of inspiration is silent. A sevenfold successive unfolding of the Church's history, as many believe it, until Christ gathers His people to Himself.
First, Ephesus, now, alas! declined from its first love.
Then Smyrna, under the twofold, the open and secret, assault of Satan.
Next Pergamos, dwelling where Satan's throne is, with its Balaam-teachers and Nicolaitanes.
Then Thyatira, under the rule of the false prophetess Jezebel.
Fifthly, Sardis, with a name to live, but dead.
Philadelphia, with still a little strength, and cautioned to hold fast.
And last, lukewarm Laodicea, with Christ outside ready to spue it out of His mouth.
Make of it what you may, here is the closing picture, the last view of the Church on earth left with us. Does it give the impression of an overcomer, though there are overcomers? Of triumph? or, alas! of failure and defeat?
And what is this story of man from the beginning? of man even when God's way of grace has been revealed? of the people of God at all times? Does it not seem one of the deepest mysteries of His ways that He should be (if we may say so,) content to have so little apparent result, on the earth-side at least, of all His wondrous works among the sons of men?
Does it not seem as if ever the lesson was to be, "Cease ye from man "? Does it not seem as if we might still say of it, in the sense Dr. Steele objects to, "I have seen an end of all perfection"? Is this condemnation and setting aside of man really a lesson of holiness that it is so enforced? It would surely seem to be so. God's lessons are all holy lessons. Let us take up the Word once more and see.
CHAPTER VIII. THE MORAL APPLICATION FOR THE CHRISTIAN.
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