A Free Will or a Deceitful Heart?

I recently finished listening to the audio version of “Unbroken”, the compelling book about Olympic runner and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, written by Laura Hillenbrand. The account of Zamperini’s struggles with his demons after the war ended, culminating in his miraculous conversion to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade, was to me the most powerful part of the story of this hero’s long life.

Although he married and had a child soon after the war, Louis increasingly relied on alcohol to ease the painful memories of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his Japanese tormentors, and his wife had filed for divorce. She was converted at Graham’s tent campaign in Los Angeles in 1949, and was after much importunity and cajoling able to persuade Louis to go back with her to the tent crusade before it ended.  After enduring the first night of gospel preaching, Louis consented to go again only if he could leave when the invitation to accept Christ was given. On his way out of the tent, God arrested him in spite of his will to flee, and Louis was changed forever.

This wonderful story stirred within me praise to God for the grace that compelled me to come in from the highways and hedges of an ungodly world, after all alike rejected His invitation.¹  It was not my free will that changed or converted me, a teenager who had no interest in the things of God. I will not here give an account of when and how I was “born again”, for it would profit little.  Rather, we can find in the Bible many inspired accounts of this sovereign activity of the Spirit of God in souls. Some of them are even presented to us in such a way as to eliminate persuasion of the will as a factor in the work of quickening and new birth. New birth is initiated and consummated by God, and it is a concept that is always presented in the passive voice in the scriptures. Man’s will is excluded here, because the will of a man always pleases itself by acting in pride or in pursuit of its lusts.²

Let’s consider for a moment the response of King Agrippa to Paul’s testimony and question in Acts 26:27. Paul asks this of the King:  “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.” The response was very sad:  “Almost (or, in a little) thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”  The King was not interested in receiving Christ for his personal salvation, nor of being “a Christian” in his manner of life. He made the mistake of thinking that conversion to Christianity (unappealing as it was to him) might be brought about by Paul’s persuasion skills, or by how much longer the persuading continued.  The deceitful and “desperately wicked” heart of man³ is not changed by persuasion.

Now take the two thieves on the crosses on either side of Jesus. “The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same [mockery] in His teeth” (Matthew 27:44).  They were both guilty sinners, and both were very evidently moved with despite toward the Son of God, who hung there between them. So what brought about the change in the one, who in the space of three hours gave evidence of profound repentance before his partner in crime, and in the presence of the Lord?  “Dost thou not fear God?” he could ask with boldness, although his own pride and rebellion was on display  only a few hours earlier (Luke 23:39-43). Was the Lord Jesus successful in persuading one and not the other with His gracious words? But we are not told that Jesus spoke a word to them before this. Did the repentant thief have a slightly better nature, or perhaps a more logical mind that “tipped the scales” of his own will at the last? No, but he was born again without respect to his proud will in that awful hour by the sovereign grace of God.

An even more potent example of the unilateral work of God in giving life to a spiritually dead enemy of His may be found in Saul of Tarsus. When Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus by the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 9), where had Saul’s will been taking him?  Did he by his free will choose to be quickened as he was blinded and falling, so that “Lord” now flowed freely from his lips for the very first time?  Someone used irony to express what were very obviously not Saul’s thoughts as he recalled this event: “So there I was on my way to kill Christians when I used my free will to become one.” The absurdity of that statement shows the fallacy of a “free will” explanation of the miracle. Paul was “a chosen vessel” for the message of the gospel to the Gentiles, whom God separated from his mother’s womb for that purpose (Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:15), and God saw to it that he was quickened, without possibility of failure.

Consider one more Biblical example of the sanctification of the Spirit in imparting new life to a soul in a manner apparently as instantaneous as in the cases of Saul and the thief. I have no doubt that God brings about so abrupt a change many times a day in this world, but very few of these new births will be as accompanied by circumstances as dramatic as the case of the jailer of Philippi (Acts 16:19-34).  But the earthquake did not change his heart, nor did the midnight songs of the prisoners. The change was a divine work in the soul that God coordinated perfectly in order to make the maximum impact on the jailer and his family for the rest of their lives. One moment he is threatening to kill himself out of despair and self-occupation, and the next moment finds him on his knees, eminently conscious of his lost condition, which causes him to ask: “What must I do to be saved?” It was not his own will that by persuasion lengthy or brief wrought his new birth; it was a birth “of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

It is regrettable that the harsh excesses of Calvinism have repulsed many Christians in the Arminian free-will camp. Nevertheless, the doctrines of the believer’s election by sovereign grace and his corresponding security are blessedly true. Consider the witness of these biblical stories, and thank God that the miraculous change in your heart was not left up to that heart, which was by nature deceitful and wicked. It was no light thing for the Lord Jesus to say “no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65), nor for Paul to write “it is not of him that willeth,  nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Romans 9:16). The evidence of how rebellious and selfish we once were “in the flesh” is the fact that God had to act by Himself to perform the miracle of creating new life in our souls, by His Spirit and His word.*

¹  Luke 14:16-24

²  John 1:12-13. It is important to distinguish between being born again and receiving Christ for salvation and eternal life. Find help on this distinction at these links: article 1 and article 2.

³  Jeremiah 17:9

*  John 3:3-8; 5:25; James 1:18; II Thessalonians 2:13

To Hurting Members of the Body

I have heard and read recently of Christians who feel they have been hurt or hindered by a church, or who are troubled that others in their circle have been wronged in that manner.  My heart goes out to them, not even knowing their situations in most cases, but knowing this, that differences in personal conviction and spiritual exercise too often give rise to emotional hurt and spiritual hindrance. God never intended it to be so in the church.

There are many such who try to make the best of the difficult situations and hurts they experience in their native or adopted churches by seeking a closer personal walk with the Lord Jesus, and that is without doubt a path of individual enjoyment and blessing.  But how often do these difficulties bring about an exercise in the believer’s conscience with regard to the religious system he or she is associated with?  Might not the Lord be allowing these “church problems”, the offenses that must come¹, in order to teach Christians that these offenses usually come because worldly and fleshly principles have been adopted in the church of God?

Here are a few examples of principles and practices in churches that are sure to cause offenses to saints, and even more seriously, dishonor to Christ the Head of the body, His church.

  • When ecclesiastical authority is vested in one or a few individuals in a clerical system that distinguishes between ministers or bishops in one class and the laity in another class, a worldly Nicolaitan² principle is at work, and it will soon become a source of stumbling when lay members do not fully accept the rulings of the ministerial class (Luke 22:24-26; Revelation 2:6 and 15).
  • When an extra-biblical document is adopted and enforced upon the members of a local church or a denomination and serves as either a basis for communion (fellowship), or determines one’s inclusion in or exclusion from the religious community, it may offend Christian converts whose consciences are not bound by legal or traditional restrictions.
  • When the church of God is viewed as an organization that one chooses to become a member of, Christians lose sight of the truth that the Scriptures teach no membership but in the body of Christ, which has the character of a living organism. Organizations can offend, hurt, and hinder persons because they are structured and organized on human principles, but the properly functioning body of Christ, with every member contributing according to the gift he has received, hurts or hinders no one, but only builds up (Ephesians 4:1-16; I Corinthians 12).
  • The bane of post-Reformation sectarian Christianity is the idea that if you are frustrated with your local group, into which you were probably born, you can just decide to join another group with better leadership or less rigid rules, or for any other preference you may have. As long as such a mode of operating is seen as legitimate and is perpetuated by sectarian local church models, there will be offenses, including frustration with what purports to be the church, and earnest Christians will become disenchanted within these sectarian groups.

God has graciously provided for His church, His assembly of called-out ones.  Should earnest seekers for truth as to the church come to see by faith the failure of the Christian testimony generally³, and the folly of men’s efforts to go about setting up churches on worldly or Judaistic principles, there is ample direction in the Scriptures for meeting together for worship, prayer, and doctrine.  Binding authority is found only with the Lord Jesus in the midst of His own (Matthew 18:18-20), not in a human appointee or hierarchy. The Bible alone, interpreted by the Holy Spirit (the anointing of the Holy One*), provides guidance as to whom we should have fellowship with, and whom should be avoided. And the regrettably common practice of church-shopping to match your preferences is as far removed from New Testament doctrine and practice as a megachurch is from an upper room.

People sometimes offend or hurt each other by their words and actions. Even godly Christians do that from time to time, sadly, and James writes that we all often offend (James 3). But if you feel hurt, misunderstood, or frustrated by “your church”, go to the word of God in prayer for answers. It may be that the Spirit has much to show you about how He would gather you “in assembly”^ with others of like precious faith.  The Spirit of God, who formed the body of Christ and dwells in the house of God, will never disappoint a seeker for truth.

 

¹  Matthew 18:7 – “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come . . . ”

²  Nicolaitan has the meaning of “ruling the people”, and the term “laity” is from the same Greek root.

³  Revelation 3:14-22.  Laodicea is an apt picture of the state of the Christian testimony (witness) in these last days, so far short of reflecting Christ, “the faithful and true witness.”

*  I John 2:20-27

^  I Corinthians 11:18 and 14:35 (Darby translation)

Those Who Say That They Are Jews

Charges of anti-Semitism are common in our day. Sometimes those charges are slanderous and unfounded, but often they are legitimate, for there are millions in this world with ill will toward the Jewish people. Just days ago, a preschool teacher in Texas was fired for encouraging her friend via social media to “kill some Jews”. Jews have had a tragic history, perhaps especially so in the last 200 years, during which discrimination and hatred of their historic race led to successive pogroms in Eastern Europe, and culminated in the Holocaust in Central Europe during World War II.

From a scriptural perspective, we could say that God never promised an easy road for Jews during the “times of the Gentiles¹”.  In Luke 21, Jesus confirmed God’s allowance of an extended period of shame and persecution upon His chosen earthly people for their historical rebellion that reached its climax when they put their Messiah on trial and said prophetically: “His blood be upon us, and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).  Nevertheless, “God hath not cast away His people, which He foreknew” (Romans 11:2-5). Through much tribulation, Israel as a people will be ushered by their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, into a glorious earthly kingdom, often called the Millennium. And even now, there is a remnant who are saved “according to the election of grace.”

My real purpose is to make a few remarks concerning those who falsely take the place of the Jewish people during the church period, which is prophetically laid out for us in the letters to the seven prototypical churches in Revelation 2 and 3. In His letters to the assemblies in both Smyrna and Philadelphia, the Lord Jesus censures a group of people (or perhaps more correctly, a religious element) whom He calls “the synagogue of Satan”, speaking of them as those who say that they are Jews, but are not.

Now what is the significance of the Lord’s condemnation of this insidious element? Those “who say that they are Jews” in the Christian profession are they who have returned to Jewish religious principles, and so the “synagogue of Satan” is a religion of the flesh, which rests in outward things like works and ordinances, assuming and occupying the place of the Jews, whose worldly religion (although God-given) was altogether found wanting after the light of Christ and Christianity burst on the scene.²

It is noteworthy that the two assemblies to which He writes concerning these pretending Jews, Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive only encouragement from Him, and none of the rebuke directed toward the other five churches. It was the plague of idolatry that was the danger in Pergamos and Thyatira, but not so in Smyrna and Philadelphia, for these were spiritual assemblies where idolatry could not find a foothold. But in these godly churches, a spurious Judaism had to be guarded against, because returning to the religion once given by Jehovah in an earlier dispensation can be made to seem like godliness for all its emphasis on religious activity.  And it surely is Satan who has refurbished and repackaged Judaism in order to attract sincere but unsuspecting Christians, so that “the synagogue of Satan” is clearly an appropriate designation.

Many Bible scholars view the seven churches in Revelation as representing seven periods in the church’s history, some of them overlapping, but all of them developing successively. I believe that Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7-13 represents a relatively brief period in the 19th century. It has struck me that Philadelphia enjoyed the recovered truth of the Lord Jesus’ imminent return (I come quickly), entered into the truth of the His patient waiting for His heavenly bride (the word of My patience), and enjoyed the promise of being kept out of the tribulation period (I also will keep thee out of the hour of trial). I do not believe it to be coincidental that the 19th century also saw the rise and development of many religious groups that went back to Judaism for their principles, and I will list but a few of the most evidently false systems as a warning to Christians:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses, who denominate themselves using the name by which God made Himself known in His covenant with Israel;
  • Mormonism, which  teaches that its adherents are either direct descendants of the house of Israel or adopted into it;
  • British Israelism, which teaches that people of Western European and Northern European descent are the direct lineal descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of the ancient Israelites; and
  • Several “Seventh Day” sects, who in the designations they choose for themselves indicate that they keep the Sabbath, a sign of Israel’s covenant relationship with Jehovah.

Whether or not there are any true believers in these Judaistic systems (or others not listed here) is not the point.  It is the systems that have the insidious character of the synagogue of Satan, and ought to be shunned accordingly by godly saints.

The Christian’s heart ought to have nothing but love and concern for those who are truly Jewish, and should desire their blessing in a future earthly kingdom and eternally. The Lord Jesus mitigated the severity of the Jews’ treasonous and presumptuous crime in delivering Him up to the Romans by classifying it as a sin of ignorance, when He uttered those beautiful words of forgiveness on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34; Leviticus 4:13-21). Now God can reach down in mercy upon both Gentiles and Jews, to save souls from both classes and bring them into the church of God, the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). It is not the ethnic or the traditionally religious Jew that should be avoided by the Christian, but rather, it is counterfeit Jewish systems infiltrating Christianity that must not be tolerated.

The most blessed of rewards is connected with faithfulness in the face of this false Judaism. In a coming day of Christ’s glory, and ours with Him, all whom the scriptures characterize as pretending Jews will be brought to their knees in acknowledgement that the Lord Jesus dearly loves those who have clung to Him and His word in the day of His rejection and patience.³

 

¹  Luke 21:24     ²  Galatians 4:1-11; Hebrews 8, 9, & 10     ³  Revelation 3:8-10

Dead While She Lives

The heading above this article may seem a little provocative, but it is a phrase right out of the word of God. It does need some context for a proper understanding of what Paul is teaching Timothy, who had a responsibility in the administration of the house of God, which is the assembly or church of God (I Timothy 3:14-15). On the subject of honoring and assisting widows, the apostle wrote this: “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day; but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives” (I Timothy 5:5-6 ESV).

What a serious charge against one who may even be accepted in the church as a believer, but who lives in a self-pleasing way! But what is the meaning of “dead” in this context?

After a recent Bible reading and discussion on the meaning of the concepts of “life” and “death” as used in Romans 8:1-13, I came across an article by J.N. Darby¹ with an insight into those terms that I had not very well understood or appreciated before. He writes this: “Life is that [by] which a being enjoys the position in which he is placed. Hence in man it may refer to that in which he enjoys what is down here, or, as he is in relationship with God, to his enjoying that position. Sin brought in the ruin of both . . . Literal death closes the enjoyment of what is down here, rather, more exactly, the capacity to enjoy . . . Death may be used generally for deprivation of capacity of enjoyment . . . When once man had taken his own will and lust [in the garden of Eden] he was dead as to God, and, though he might enjoy for a while what pleased those lusts, was dead to God . . . God was no source of enjoyment at all.”

Permit me to attempt a paraphrase of Darby’s observations:  Having life in any meaning of the word gives one the capacity to enjoy or find pleasure in the things that pertain to that realm or position. Conversely, death is that which separates one from (or deprives him of the capacity of enjoying) those things one can only enjoy while alive in that realm, be it physical, spiritual, or moral.

In Romans 8, we have the principle of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus introduced as that which enables believers in Christ to enjoy deliverance from the law, or principle, of sin (v. 2).  We find there also the contrasting relationships of the mind of the flesh with spiritual death on the one hand, versus the mind of the Spirit with spiritual life and peace (v.6).  Then, in verses 10 and 11, we are assured that, even though physical death might touch the believer’s body, as it touched Christ’s human body, the Spirit will absolutely quicken, or make alive, our bodies at the “redemption of our body”.

But how important it is that “all things that pertain unto life and godliness”² be enjoyed in the Christian’s soul, and not just affirmed academically. That seems to be where the very practical and searching message of Romans 8:13 applies.  “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”  Living according to the flesh, or in self-indulgence, as in the case of the hypothetical widow mentioned above, brings about a moral deadness and inability to enjoy the things of the divine nature.  Mortifying the deeds of the flesh by the power of the Spirit of life allows a Christian to fully enjoy eternal life in the Son. May we each have the grace and the godly exercise to “lay hold of that which is really life”³.

¹  “Life and Eternal Life”, Notes and Comments, Volume 2 (linked here)

²  II Peter 1:2-4

³  I Timothy 6:19, Darby translation

The Spirit of God and His Work (cont’d)

In the first part of this short study on the Spirit of God (found at this link), we looked at five different designations for that “one and the same Spirit”.  Let us dig a little farther into this profound subject now, with the Lord’s help.

One Spirit:  The truth that there is one Spirit has already been referenced above, and is found not only in I Corinthians 12, but also in Ephesians 2 and 4.  It is no coincidence that these two epistles more than any other give us teaching on the church, or assembly, of God – Ephesians emphasizing the doctrinal aspect of the “one body” of Christ, and I Corinthians developing the practical working of that one Spirit in the functioning of the assembly. It seems clear that sound doctrine concerning the church, and right practice in the church, depend upon these convictions in a Christian’s soul: that the one body of Christ was formed by the baptism of that one Spirit¹; that this body can only really be edified by the gifts distributed by the one Spirit²; and that ecclesiastical independence and denominational division is contrary to the “unity of the Spirit”³ and a real grief to Him.

The Spirit of Christ:  This title is used in I Peter 1:11, and seems to be referred to as well in I Peter 3:18-20.  Peter reveals to us that Christ (the “Anointed” or “Messiah” of the Old Testament) was operative by His Spirit upon the spirits of men in earlier ages. God’s Spirit and God’s Anointed act in perfect concert, both before and after the incarnation. We find in Romans 8:9 that the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ are the same person viewed from a different aspect. It should read like this: “. . . but if any one has not the Spirit of Christ he is not of Him” (JND translation). The Spirit of Christ is now operative upon the believer’s spirit, to bring about deliverance from sin in the power of Christ’s risen life. If His Spirit is not dwelling in a person, he is not really “Christian”, though he or she may have been born again or quickened, as Old Testament saints were.

The Spirit of His Son:  This appellation has everything to do with God’s grace in providing for our enjoyment of our dignified position as adopted sons of God.  “God sent forth His Son . . . that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:4-6).

The Spirit of your Father:  In Matthew 10:20, the Lord Jesus uses this designation for the Spirit to impart assurance to His disciples of the tender care and guidance of their heavenly Father, whom He was revealing to them progressively throughout His ministry here. “It is not ye that speak [before governors and kings], but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.”   We can count on that same care and guidance from a loving Father by His Spirit through any difficulties or persecutions we may face in these last days.

The Spirit of grace:  This phrase is found but once in the Bible, and its context is a very sobering one.  Hebrews 10:29 gives a fearful warning to any Jew who is in danger of turning back from the Christ he has professed to believe, which would insult the Spirit of grace, because it is that Spirit by whom God in Christ revealed such marvelous grace toward all men for the salvation of their souls (Titus 2:11; John 1:17).  The Hebrews who came in among true Christians in the church, and experienced all that God was doing among them in divine power (Hebrews 6:1-9), but turned back without truly believing (Hebrews 10:38-39), perpetrated an unpardonable sin in despising the grace of God the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit of promise: This blessed name for the Spirit is found within the portion giving us the lofty truth of all the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, in Ephesians 1:3-14.  We who have believed are “sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance” until we are fully brought into that inheritance upon the redemption of our bodies. Is it possible that a true Christian might perish who was sealed (with a mark of ownership) by a divine Person who acts as a promise or earnest?  Never!  “Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n; more happy, but not more secure, the spirits departed to heav’n” (Augustus Toplady, 1771).

There are several more designations for the Spirit in the word of God, and each one is meaningful, but we will leave off here. May “the Lord the Spirit” work in each of our souls an ongoing transformation into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, as we look upon His glory with unveiled face (II Corinthians 3:18 JND).

 

¹  I Corinthians 12:13; Acts 1:5 and 2:1-4; Ephesians 2:11-22

²  I Corinthians 12:4-11; Ephesians 4:11-16

³  Ephesians 4:1-6; I Corinthians 1:10-13 and 11:17-19

 

The Spirit of God and His Work on Earth

It is a weighty matter to attempt to write on a subject so grand as the person and work of the One referred to most often in the Bible simply as “the Spirit”.  It is likely that He is the person of the triune Godhead who has been least understood and appreciated during these Christian centuries.  While it would be impossible to do justice to the subject of the eternal Spirit in a brief article, or for that matter even in a lengthy commentary, He is nevertheless worthy of diligent study and meditation, and the word of God gives us ample material for such a meditation.

There seems to be a reluctance among many Christians to delve into such an unfathomable subject, in light of the error that many in Charismatic and Pentecostal circles have been led into by exalting the Spirit of God to a place He never took for Himself. After the ascension and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Spirit came forth from the Father as the Spirit of truth, in order to bear testimony of and to glorify Christ, not to speak from Himself (on His own), nor to solicit glory or worship for Himself.¹ Accordingly, there is no precedent in all of Scripture for praying to or worshiping the Spirit, nor for praying in His name.

An even more serious error in the opposite “ditch” has been the denial by various cults over the centuries of the distinct personality and deity of the Spirit. Such a denial destroys the fundamental doctrine of the trinity, of God fully revealing Himself in three persons in Christianity, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The trinity of the Godhead was not fully understood in the Old Testament (although retrospectively we can see partial disclosures of it), but to undermine it now in any way is the height of heterodoxy.

A good way to learn about the Spirit is to review His titles or designations throughout the word of God, but particularly in the New Testament, where His person and work is revealed with respect to Christ and His own. There are more than a dozen such designations, and it is my purpose to touch on the significance of some of them briefly.

The Spirit:  In the frequent use of the title of “the Spirit”, the lack of a modifier would seem to indicate most clearly His personality, dignity, and authority. We might provide as examples the occasions in the Acts when the Spirit definitely directs the apostles and prophets in their actions and utterances, as well as in I Corinthians 12, where He seen as the power behind the spiritual gifts or manifestations in the assembly.

The Spirit of God:  We find this title used in several places in the Scriptures to establish the Spirit’s deity, and particularly His absolute competency in revealing the things of God to saints who are indwelt by Him. “The things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God” (I Corinthians 2:10-12). Another example of this appears in I John 4:2: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.” The spirit of a man knows what lies in the man himself, but it has no capacity to truly know God apart from the Spirit of God, who searches “the deep things of God.”

The Holy Spirit:  Usually rendered “Holy Ghost” by the translators of the KJV Bible, this designation for the Spirit frequently sets before us His interest in bearing testimony to God’s holiness in this world now that God has manifested Himself here in flesh, and so we scarcely find the term in the Old Testament. Consider these fragments:  “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee . . . therefore also that holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1: 35).  “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).  “For God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness . . . who hath also given unto us His Holy Spirit” (I Thessalonians 4:7-8). Fittingly, “Holy Spirit” is used dozens of times in the Acts, in which God begins to call, by His Spirit, a people sanctified or set apart² for Himself out of an unholy world.

The Comforter:  This title of the Spirit is found exclusively in the “upper room ministry” of the Lord Jesus (John 13-16), where He speaks so tenderly to His disciples of the time period after He would go to the Father.  Jesus would no longer be with them to aid them and comfort them, as He had so faithfully for more than three years. So He promised not to leave them comfortless, or as orphans (14:18), for it was His care and advocacy that they especially seemed to fear losing. The Greek word translated here as Comforter, parakletos, is also translated as “advocate” in I John 2:1, where it is “Jesus Christ the righteous” who takes up our cause or makes our case before the Father when we sin.  This helps us to understand the Comforter’s advocacy on our behalf in this world, while we are “absent from the Lord.”

The Spirit of Truth:  The Lord Jesus speaks to His disciples in the upper room of the coming of the Spirit of truth,¹ in conjunction with His title of Comforter. Not only does the Spirit take up the Christian’s cause and act as advocate for him, but He also bears a true witness concerning the glorified Christ, and is fully competent to guide the Christian “into all the truth.”  There can be no excuse for a believer going astray from the body of revealed truth found in the word of God,³ and especially not since much truth long forgotten was recovered through the goodness of God a couple of centuries ago. How much we ought to depend upon the Lord to bring us along in our souls in the enjoyment of the truth, by means of the Spirit of truth!

(To be continued, Lord willing.)

 

¹  John 15:26; 16:13-15

²  The words “holy”, “sanctified”, and “saint” are all from the same Greek root.

³  See also I John 2:20-27

The God That Shepherded Me All My Life Long

Over the past three decades, I have often been asked to give an account of the way the Lord has led us in our walk with Him and with others of the household of faith. When Pharaoh asked Jacob to give an account of his years at their first meeting in ancient Egypt, Jacob’s answer was not yet an utterance of worship or of hope, for it seems he was just beginning to make the transition from complainant with a begrudging, backward look to worshiper with prophetic insight and upward gaze. May my outlook never be that “all these things are against me”, or that “few and evil have been the days of the years” of my sojourning.  Much rather, let my spirit emulate that of the Jacob who finally said: “The God that shepherded me all my life long to this day, the Angel which redeemed me from all evil”.¹ For the Lord has indeed been my Shepherd through the years.

I was born to loving parents, was reared, born again, baptized, married, and started a family in a Christian denomination that dates back almost 500 years to the early period of the Reformation. I have many fond memories of my first 25 years, for the church folk around me were caring and kind, and I wish for those who remain there only the blessing of the Lord.  But it was perhaps in my 24th year that the Spirit of God began to exercise my soul, first as to my own failures, and then as to the claims of the Scriptures upon me, not only morally, but also ecclesiastically and doctrinally. I will attempt to give account of these exercises, and of how the Lord shepherded me, along with my understanding wife, through a period of changes and up to this day.

The first matter that the Lord used to stir me up was that of denominational identity. While others around me seemed to find no fault with denominating themselves collectively using the name of an early leader of that religious movement, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the custom when I read and thought upon the implications of I Corinthians 1:10-13 and 3:4-7.  “While one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?”  That is a searching question that surely goes deeper than sectarian names, but it certainly must include that prejudicial practice.

Perhaps the logical outcome of a having a conscience troubled about denominationalism was to seek to understand how the church of God was meant to function in practical unity, prior to its gradual division into various communions over disputes ranging from trivial to foundational. To my unlearned mind, it was evident that these divisions were all the result of failure among Christians of one sort or another, but I longed to be able to have fellowship with other believers on a scriptural basis. In fact, I remember telling others, with some conviction, that there had to be a basis for fellowship with other Christians worldwide that was scriptural, and that met the criteria that the Spirit had impressed upon me to date, even though I had as of yet no idea if there were any in the world who met simply on that ground, on those principles.

During that particular period, the church we belonged to was looking and praying for a minister or “preacher”, for it hadn’t had one for several years, and procuring one was thought to be necessary to the church’s spiritual well-being. At one particular Wednesday night Bible study, the text of I Timothy 5 was under discussion. When verse 17 came into view, more light on the matter of ministry and leadership in the church of God dawned on me than ever had up to that point. “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” I already knew what Bible scholars generally admit, that “elders” and “bishops” (overseers) were the same people viewed from different perspectives. What impressed me was that in the beginning it was normal for there to be multiple elders or overseers in an assembly, rather than one bishop over a congregation or group of congregations, as our denomination taught. Furthermore, it was obvious from this verse that an elder may or may not spend much of his time laboring in the word, showing that the rigid structure of ordination and the clergy/laity divide was not contemplated by the Spirit of God or by the apostles.

The most earth-shaking development in my soul during that period was a dawning conviction that true believers in Christ were eternally secure without a possibility of losing their eternal life or salvation. Even more striking to me (and at the same time a cause for the welling-up of some real emotion for the gravity of it), was the nascent understanding that I was chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, which of course supported the truth of eternal security. Multiple Scripture references bear on these wonderful doctrines,² but for this narrative it will suffice to mention John 10:26-30.  By means of that passage, I inadvertently raised a controversy during another Bible study I happened to be leading during a Sunday morning service, for a minister had not yet been ordained to fill the normal preaching role.  “My sheep hear My voice, and they follow Me: and I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand. My Father, which gave them Me . . .”  Found together in these three verses are perfect security, election, and predestination, but it is remarkable how quickly the argument is made by Arminian teachers that one can take himself out of Christ’s hand, even if none else can. However, the brief phrase “they shall never perish”, taken in context but not annulled by the subordinate clause that follows it, is enough to assure the soul of the simple believer that he shall not, under any circumstance, finally be lost forever.

Realizing that the truth that God was impressing upon me was not welcome in our native denomination, we left it so as not to stir up emotion and strife among those we still loved. But the Lord had more to teach us before He settled our hearts with regard to the matter of fellowship. We attended a small home church for about six months, where I became troubled about several of their traditional teachings. Not only did they also reject the doctrine of the believer’s eternal security, but I came to see there the pitfalls of a legalistic believer’s baptism, autonomy in church fellowship, and an open (unguarded) communion table. After seeing these errors, we were led by God’s shepherding care away from that group and to a gathering of saints where the many things I had learned by the Spirit from the Bible over the course of a year or two were answered and affirmed.

It brought further affirmation to find that two of the teachings I had learned and held as true from my youth in our ancestral sect were also appreciated among these brethren gathered simply in the name of the Lord Jesus:  Conscientious objection to military and political involvement, and the clear teaching as to head coverings in ministry and worship, found in I Corinthians 11.

Dispensational teaching was one major line of truth that I only came to learn and enjoy a few years after being gathered with others in the name of the Lord Jesus.  The brethren were patient with my ignorance in that regard, allowing time for growth in the understanding of God’s timetable and His various ways of dealing with men on the earth throughout the ages, which dispensationalism teaches. The “blessed hope” of the rapture of the church to meet its Head in heaven, and of our literal reign with Him for a thousand years, still brings great comfort and enjoyment to our hearts. It is only right that the Lord Jesus Christ should be glorified and reign over this earth (where He was once crucified and is still rejected), ruling the nations with a rod of iron, receiving them from His Father as an inheritance, in company with His beloved church.³

It has brought satisfaction and peace to my soul to have a real sense that our loving Lord has shepherded us, in many cases by teaching me principles from His word months prior to encountering brethren who enjoyed and practiced the same truth. By grace, we can still have happy fellowship on the simple ground of the unity of the body of Christ, though in separation from false doctrine and practice. “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

I have waxed longer with this account than necessary, perhaps, but there is even more that could have been said for the glory of God.  May the Lord use this much as an encouragement to seeking souls.  “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

 

¹  Genesis 42:36; 47:9; 48:15-16 (Darby translation)

²   Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:31-39; John 6:37-40

³   Psalm 2:8-9; Revelation 2:27