4. HOW TO DISTINGUISH THE GUIDANCE OF THE SPIRIT:
The man who would attempt to define the Spirits operations in the quickening or conversion of a soul, would but betray his own ignorance, and be denying, moreover, that sovereignty of the Spirit which is declared in the well-known words, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit". And yet scripture abounds with marks whereby it may be discerned who are born of the Spirit and who are not.
So as to the subject of this letter. I hope to be kept from so usurping the place of the Holy Spirit as to presume in any way nicely to define the manner of His operations on the souls of those whom He leads to take part in the worship of the assembly, or in ministering to the saints. It may be in some cases much more direct and sensible to the individual I mean than in others. But however vain and presumptuous it might be to attempt nicely and accurately to define on such a subject, scripture gives us ample instruction as to what are the marks of true ministry.
And it is to some of the plainer and more obvious marks that I wish now to solicit your attention. Some of them apply to the matter or substance of what is ministered, and others to the motives which induce us to minister, or to take any part in conducting the meetings of the saints. Some will afford a test to those who do thus act, whereby they may judge themselves; others will furnish to all saints criteria whereby to judge what is of the Spirit, and what from other sources. Some will serve to show who are Christs gifts to His church for the ministry of the word; and others may aid those who really are so, as to the important question when to speak and when to be silent.
My soul trembles to think of the responsibility of writing on such a subject. But my comfort is that ones sufficiency is of God, and that "All Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works". Let all I may write be tested by this all-sufficient standard; and if anything will not bear this test, God grant you, beloved brethren, wisdom and grace to reject it. The guidance of the Spirit is not by blind impulses and unintelligent impressions, but by filling the spiritual understanding with Gods thoughts as revealed in the written word, and by acting on the renewed affections.
In early days there were indeed Gods gifts which might be in their use unconnected with spiritual intelligence. I refer to the gift of tongues, where there was no interpreter. And it would appear that because this gift seemed more marvellous in mens eyes than the others, the Corinthians were fond of using and displaying it. For this the apostle rebukes them. "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. "Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men", 1 Corinthians 14: 18-20. The least, then, that can be looked for in those who minister is acquaintance with the scripture, understanding of Gods mind as revealed in it.
There may be this, observe, without any gift of utterance, without any capacity to communicate it to others. But without this, what have we to communicate? Gods saints are surely not assembled from time to time in the name of Jesus to have crude and undigested human thoughts presented to them, or to have retailed to them what others have spoken or written. Personal acquaintance with Gods word, familiarity with scripture, understanding of its contents, is surely essential to the ministry of the word. "Jesus saith unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord. Then said he unto them, Therefore every scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old", Matthew 13: 51-52. When our Lord was about to send out His disciples as His witnesses, it is said, "Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures", Luke 24: 45. How often we read of Paul, when preaching to the Jews, reasoning with them out of the scriptures. Acts 18: 4, 19.
If the apostle addresses the Romans as able to admonish one another, it is because he can say of them, "And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another", Romans 15: 14. Where the action of the Spirit in the assembly is most definitely treated of, as in 1 Corinthians 12, it is not to the exclusion of the word. "For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit", 1 Corinthians 12: 8. Where the apostle enumerates the marks by which he and others approve themselves the ministers of God, we have mentioned in the wondrous catalogue, by knowledge, by the word of truth, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left. 2 Corinthian 6: 7. If you look at what that armour consisted of, you will find truth as a girdle for the loins, and "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God", Ephesians 6: 14-17. The apostle speaks of what he had afore written to the Ephesians, "whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ", Eph. 3: 4. Where the same apostle speaks of the admonishing one another, see what he mentions first as an essential prerequisite. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord", Colossians 3: 16. To Timothy he says, "If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained", 1 Timothy 4: 6. He exhorts him, "Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them; for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee", 1 Timothy 4: 13, 15-16. In the second epistle Timothy is exhorted thus: "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also", 2 Timothy 2: 2.
As to himself we have these words: "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth", verse 15. Among other qualifications of the bishop, or overseer, as they are given in Titus 1, we have this: "Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers". From all this it is evident, my brethren, that it is not merely by little scraps of truth, brought out whenever some impulse to that end visits us, that the church is to be edified. (* God forbid that any should be discouraged from ministering the least word tending to real edification. But such as are used of the Lord thus would be the very last to suppose that theirs was the only ministry, or that by which the need of saints is principally supplied of God. WT)
No; they by whom the Holy Ghost acts to feed and nourish and guide the saints of God, are they whose souls are exercised habitually in the word of God; they "who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil", Hebrews 5: 14. As has been said, the least that can be expected of those who minister in the church is such acquaintance with the word of God as this. Knowledge of Gods word, however, is not sufficient. There must be its present application to the consciences of the saints, so as to meet their present need. For this, as some one has in substance observed, there must be either acquaintance by intercourse, etc., with their state and this could never be very perfect or accurate or else direct guidance from God. This is true of those who are in the fullest sense, and most manifestly, the gifts of Christ to His church, as evangelists, pastors or teachers. It is God only who can guide them to those portions of truth which will reach the conscience and meet the need of souls. It is He only who can enable them to present the truth in such a way as to secure these ends. God the Holy Ghost knows the need of each and all in the assembly; and He can guide those who speak to speak the suited, needed truth, whether they have the knowledge of the state of those addressed or not. How important, then, implicit and unfeigned subjection to Him. One thing which would always mark ministry in the Spirit would be the promptings of personal affection for Christ.
"Lovest thou me?" was the thrice repeated question to Peter, connected with the injunction, as oft repeated, to feed Christs flock. "For the love of Christ constraineth us", Paul says. How different this from the many motives which might influence us naturally. How important that we should be able each time we minister to say with a good conscience, My motive for speaking was not a love of prominence, or the force of habit, or the restlessness which could not be content unless something were being done; but love to Christ and to His flock, for His sake who purchased it with His own blood. Surely it was this motive which was wanting in the wicked servant, who hid his Lords talent in the earth. Then, further, ministry in the Spirit, or indeed any action in the assembly to which He leads, would always be marked by a deep sense of responsibility to Christ.
Let me put it to you, my brethren, and to my own soul as well. Suppose we were questioned at any time after the close of a meeting, Why did you give out such a hymn, or read such a chapter, or offer such a prayer, or speak such a word? Could we with a clear, good conscience reply, My only reason for doing so was the solemn conviction that it was my Masters will? Could we say, I gave out that hymn because I was fully persuaded that it was the mind of the Spirit, that at that juncture in the meeting it should be sung? I read that chapter, or spoke that word, because I felt clear before God that it was the service my Lord and Master assigned me? I offered that prayer because I knew that the Spirit of God led me as the mouth of the assembly to ask those blessings which in it were implored.
My brethren, could we answer thus, or is there not often the taking this part or that, without any such sense of responsibility to Christ? "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God", says the Apostle Peter. This does not mean, let him speak according to the scriptures, though this be of course true. It means, or rather says, that they who speak, are to speak as oracles of God. If I cannot say in speaking, This is what I believe I have been taught of God, and what God has given me to speak at this time, I ought to be silent.
Of course a man may be mistaken in saying this, and it is for the saints to judge by the word of God all that is spoken. But less ought not to induce any one to speak, or take any part in the meetings, than the solemn conviction before God, that God has given him somewhat to say or do. If our consciences were exercised to act under such responsibility as this, it would doubtless prevent a great deal which does take place; but at the same time it would make way for God to manifest His presence, as we are not wont to witness it.
How strikingly do we behold this sense of direct responsibility to Christ in the Apostle Paul. "For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this thing willingly" that is, from choice, for any personal object "I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me", 1 Corinthians 9: 16-17. How affecting his words to the same people! "I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling", 1 Corinthians 2: 3. What a rebuke to the lightness of heart and self- sufficiency with which, alas, we all too often handle Gods sacred word! "For we are not as many" he says again, "which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ", 2 Corinthians 2: 17.
One other point I would touch upon. "God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind", 2 Timothy 1: 7. "The spirit of a sound mind". A man may have little or no human learning, he may be unable to express himself in any elegant diction, or even with grammatical propriety. All this he may lack, and yet be a good minister of Jesus Christ. But the spirit of a sound mind he must have.
And may I now, while on this topic, mention what in other places, as well as among ourselves, has sometimes made me very sad? I mean the confusion between the Persons in the Godhead, which is often made in prayer. When a brother has commenced by addressing God the Father, and has gone on to speak as though it were He that had died and risen again; or, addressing Jesus, has given thanks to Him for sending His only-begotten Son into the world, I confess to you I have said to myself, Can it be the Spirit of God who leads to such prayers as these? Surely all who conduct the worship of the saints need so much of the spirit of a sound mind as to avoid confusion like this. No one believes that the Father died on Calvary, or that Christ sent His Son into the world. Where, then, is the collectedness of spirit, the soundness of mind, which should characterize those who take the place of being the channels of the saints worship, when they use language which really expresses what they do not themselves believe and what it would be shocking for any one to believe!
Still reserving some other points for another letter,
I am, yours affectionately in Christ Jesus,
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