3. HOW TO DISTINGUISH THE GUIDANCE OF THE SPIRIT:
There are two points on which I desire to make myself distinctly understood ere entering on the special subject of my present letter.
First, as to the difference between ministry and worship.
I here use the word worship in its largest sense, of every kind of address from man to God, whether prayer, confession, or what is more properly speaking worship, namely, adoration, thanksgiving, and praise. The essential difference between worship and ministry is, that in the one man speaks to God; in the other God speaks by His servants to men. Our only and all-sufficient title to worship is the all-abounding grace of God, which has brought us nigh by the blood of Jesus; so nigh as to know and worship Him as our Father; so nigh as to be kings and priests to God. In this all saints are alike. The feeblest and the strongest, the most experienced and the veriest babe are all alike in this. The most gifted servant of Christ has no better title to draw near to God than the weakest saint among those to whom he ministers.
To suppose the contrary would be to do what has been so largely done throughout Christendom, namely, to institute an order of priests between the church and God. One great High Priest we have. The only priesthood besides His which exists at present is that which all saints share, and which all share alike. I could not suppose, therefore, that in an assembly of Christians the giving out of hymns, and prayer, thanksgiving, and praise the expression of these I mean should be confined, to those who are qualified of God to teach, or to exhort, or to preach the gospel. God the Holy Ghost may use others of the saints to give out a hymn which really expresses the present worship of the hearts of those assembled; or He may use them in prayers which really express the present need and desires of those whose mouth they profess to be. And if God be pleased so to act, what are we that we should say Him nay?
Still, while these exercises cannot be confined to gifted persons, they must surely be subject to the present guidance of the Holy Ghost; and they all come within the range of those principles laid down in 1 Corinthians 14 such as that everything must be in order and to edification. Ministry, that is, ministry of the word ministry in which God speaks by His servants to men is the result of a special deposit with the individual of a gift or gifts, for the use of which he is responsible to Christ. Our title to worship is that in which we are all alike. The responsibility to minister flows from that in which we differ. "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us", Romans 12: 6. This of itself establishes the difference I refer to between ministry and worship. The other point is, as to liberty of ministry. The true, scriptural idea of liberty of ministry not only includes liberty for the exercise of gifts, but also for the development of them. It implies that we so meet in the recognition of the Spirits presence and supremacy, as to present no hindrance to His acting by whomsoever He will; and it is quite clear that in the first development of gift, it must be His acting by those who have not been previously so used of Him at all.
Any principle which would interfere with this would, as it seems to me, be alike subversive of the churchs privileges, and of the Holy Spirits rights. But then it must at once be obvious, that if saints meet together thus, on ground which leaves scope for the Holy Spirit to lead to a hymn by one, prayer by another, or word of exhortation or doctrine by a third; and if room must be left for the Spirit to develop, as well as to use, gifts for the edifying of the body, this cannot be done without affording opportunity for forwardness and self-sufficiency to act without any guidance of the Spirit at all. Hence the importance of knowing how to distinguish between that which is of the flesh, and that which is of the Spirit.
I shrink greatly from the hackneyed use of such terms as ministry in the flesh, and ministry in the Spirit; and yet there is all-important truth embodied in those expressions, soberly used. In each Christian there are two fountains of thought, feeling, motive, word, and action, and these are denominated in scripture flesh, and Spirit. The part we take in the assemblies of the saints may flow from one of these sources, or from the other. It is most important rightly to distinguish between them. It is most important for those who take part in the meetings, whether statedly or occasionally, to judge themselves as to this. It is important for all saints, seeing that we are exhorted to "try the spirits;" and on the assembly must rest eventually the responsibility of owning what is of God, and of discouraging and discountenancing what proceeds from any other source. It is to some of the broad and principal landmarks, by which we may distinguish the guidance of the Spirit from fleshly counterfeits and pretensions, that I would now solicit your attention.
And first, I would mention several things which are not a warrant for our taking part in conducting the meetings of the saints. The mere circumstance of there being liberty to act is no warrant for acting. This is so self-evident that nothing need be said to prove it; and yet we need to be reminded of it. The fact that there is no formal hindrance to any one taking part in the meeting, renders it possible for those whose only qualification is that they can read, to take up a principal part of the time in reading chapter after chapter, and hymn after hymn. Of course, any child who has been taught to read can do this; and there are few amongst us, indeed, who cannot conduct the meetings, if ability to read hymns and chapters be all the qualification that is requisite. But while it is easy enough to read a chapter, to know which is the right one to read, and which is the right time to read it, is quite another matter. It is easy enough to give out a hymn, but to give out the hymn which really embodies and expresses the worship of the saints, is what only can be done by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I confess to you, my brethren, when some time ago not lately, thank God we had five or six chapters read, and as many hymns sung, around the Lords table, and perhaps not more than one prayer or giving of thanks, it did occur to me whether we had met to improve ourselves in reading and singing, or to show forth the Lords death. I do unfeignedly bless God that there has been improvement in this respect for months back; still, it may be well for us to bear in mind that while there is liberty to take a part in the meetings, the existence of an opportunity to take part is no warrant for so doing. That no one else is doing anything at the time, is not sufficient warrant for taking part in the meeting. Silence for its own sake cannot be too much deprecated. It may become as complete a form as anything else. But silence is better than what is said or done merely to break the silence.
I know well what it is to think of a good many persons present who are not in communion, perhaps not believers, and to feel uneasy at the silence on their account. Where this commonly or often occurs, it may be a call from God for an entirely different kind of meeting; but it can never authorize any one to speak, or pray, or give out a hymn, for the mere sake of something being done. Again, ones individual state and experiences are no certain guides as to any part we may take in meetings of the saints. A hymn may have been very sweet to my own soul, or I may have been present where it has been sung with great enjoyment of the Lords presence. I am not to conclude from this that it is my place to give out the hymn at the next meeting I attend. There may be no suitability in it to the present state of the assembly. It may not be the mind of the Spirit that a hymn should be sung at all. "Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms", James 5: 13. The hymn must be expressive of what those assembled feel, or there is no sincerity in their joining to sing it. And who but He who knows the actual state of the assembly can guide to a hymn expressive of that state? Then as to prayer: when one prays in the assembly, it is as the vehicle for the expression of its wants and its requests.
I may have burdens of my own to cast on the Lord in prayer, which it would be very improper for me to name in the assembly. The only effect, probably, would be to drag down all my brethren to a level with myself. On the other hand, my own soul may be thoroughly happy with the Lord; if that be not the state of the assembly as such, it is only by identifying myself with the actual state of the assembly that I shall be enabled to present its requests before God. That is to say, if I am led by the Spirit to pray in the assembly, it will not be as in my closet, where none are present but the Lord and myself; and my own wants and my own enjoyments form the proper subjects of prayer and thanksgiving; but I shall be enabled to offer such prayers, and make such confessions, and present such thanksgivings, as are suited to the actual state of those whose mouth I become, in thus addressing God. There cannot be a much greater mistake than to suppose that self, and what relates to self, is to be our guide in conducting the meetings of the saints.
A portion of scripture may have interested my own soul greatly and I may have profited by it; it does not follow that I am to read it at the Lords table, or in other meetings of the saints. Some particular subject may be occupying my own attention greatly; and it may be well for my own soul that it should do so; but it may not be at all the subject to which God would have the attention of the saints generally drawn. Observe, I am not denying that we may ourselves have been especially occupied and exercised by subjects which God would have us bring before the saints. Perhaps this is often, or commonly, the case with Gods servants; but what I would affirm is, that this, of itself, is no sufficient guidance. We ourselves may have necessities which the saints generally have not; and they may need what would not meet our own case. Suffer me to add, that the Spirit would never lead me to give out hymns because they are expressive of my own peculiar views.
There may be points of interpretation on which saints meeting together do not see eye to eye. If in such a case hymns be chosen by those of one opinion for the purpose of expressing it however good and true the hymns may be it is impossible that the others can join to sing them, and discord instead of harmony is produced at once. The hymns to which the Spirit of God leads us in joint worship, will be the expression of that in which all are agreed who unite in the act. At all times, but in the assembly at all events, let us endeavour "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace". And let us remember that the way to do this is to walk "with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love". Here let me recall to your minds that in singing, prayer, or worship of any kind, it is the assembly, whoever may be its mouth or organ, that speaks to God.
It therefore can never be truly or sincerely beyond the state of the assembly, but must be expressive of it. True indeed, blessed be God, He may by the Spirit strike a higher note, with which immediately all hearts chord, and so the tone of united worship be raised; and this He often does. But if the assembly be not in a state to respond at once to such a key-note of praise, there can be nothing much more painful than for an individual to go on with exalted strains of thanksgiving and adoration, when all other hearts are sad and cold, wandering and distracted. The one who utters the worship of the assembly must have the hearts of the assembly with him, or there is no reality in what takes place. On the other hand, ministry, being Gods voice to us, may be ever so much in advance of our state. It is an individual speaking as Gods mouth, and if it be really so, it will often be to minister truth we have not as yet received, or to recall to us truths which have ceased to act in present power on our souls. How evident that in either case, and in every case, it must be the Spirit of God who guides.
As to what distinguishes the positive guidance of the Spirit, I find I must leave it for still another letter. The negative part alone has been presented in this. Yours, beloved brethren,
Affectionately in Christ Jesus,
Home | Links | Writings | Biography