I have found that one of the points on which the condition of the church of God hangs very much at the present time is, whether obedience precedes blessing, or blessing obedience. Many are, in some degree though perhaps by no means altogether, aware of the extent to which the principle, that blessing must precede obedience where the will of God is ascertained, has gone, or how widely its influence is spreading. It is a strange point of connection between Newman Street and the subsisting systems. The directions (as far as they are apprehended in the minds of those concerned, which is the only way in which we are concerned in them) which have emanated from Mr. Irving, or those speaking with him, have certainly varied; but they have all borne directly upon retaining those subject to them, in the systems current as religion in the world (though these are all asserted by them to be Babylon), and upon the plea that they could take no step until they received the Spirit, such as they possessed in Newman Street. This has frequently been the result of direct instructions in that place to persons who have gone there.
Another principle has been adopted by a large body of the clergy, tending to the same point: that without tradition no step can be taken, because obedience becomes uncertain and therefore dangerous. The result is wonderfully similar, and seems to me to proceed from Satan—such uncertainty and difficulty of mind as leads a person to settle down in what is confessedly wrong, and what he knows to be such. This, inevitably dulling the conscience, leads to a state of mind grievous to the Spirit of God, and necessarily lowering the moral energies of the parties concerned; “for whosoever hath to him shall be given.” The coalition between Irvingism and high-church principles in this respect has an astonishingly wide influence; and often so, when the persons concerned little suspect the source from which it flows; while it finds ample aliment in the natural feeling of timidity and unbelief, and assumes the justifiable principle of caution, and is never thought for a moment to be the result of man’s disposition to acquiesce in evil, rather than to act in trying circumstances.
In those who decline acting from the want of the power of the Spirit it assumes the form of greater humility than usual, and greater dependence upon the Holy Ghost. On the other side, it appears like great steadiness of character, and an indisposition to acquiesce in the movements unguided by principle, which the easily led human mind is in so many ways making at the present moment. Thus certainly the fairest principles of conduct are brought to bear (though from such opposite, and, but for this, mutually opposed sides) upon those who conscientiously do not acquiesce in the evil in which they find themselves placed. Nothing can be more opposed than the principles which lead to the conclusion on one side and on the other. In result only they agree—to stay where circumstances have placed them; which is just what the selfishness of unbelief will always do.
Now there is one thing only which can justly withstand the power over the mind of such nominally good views as these, so apparently opposed to evil; and that is obedience. There is nothing so humble, nothing so steady as obedience; nothing which so marks the Spirit’s presence, nothing so opposed to insubordination, nothing by which every ungodly voice must be so utterly silenced, as by obedience. I confess, when I see such very opposite principles leading to the same conclusion—principles so diametrically opposite, and in conflict with each other, as resting on the presence of the Spirit, and tradition—I am led to think that the result is not the effect of the principles in either case, but of some entirely different motive; and that the only operation of the principles is to neutralise, in either case, some other principle which acts in moving those who plead them; and consequently, by so neutralising it, to leave them where they were, without respect to the right or wrong of the case; which is precisely the result in the present instance.
And such I believe to be just the fact: but if God have any will in the matter, and this consequently terminates in disobedience, it becomes a very positive evil, most grievous to the Spirit of God, supposed to be, or waited for, and makes tradition (discoverable or undiscoverable) to be such as renders void the word of God. It is reserved for these days, among protestants, to make tradition a necessary supplement to the word of God; and it is a very great mistake to suppose that it was ever used in the early churches in the way now proposed. It was there, whether wisely or unwisely, a positive tradition, and in confirmation of doctrines avowedly taught and declared. A tradition that they had not yet (or did not know to be the security of the church) was an imbecility reserved surely for a state of hopeless decay.
But the assertion that obedience is the great principle to go on—obedience to known truth, not plans of our own mind, but obedience to known truth as the portion of a single-eyed, humble, simple mind; and that this is the way of these additional blessings, which are matters of God’s gift (obedience to the order of which is then part, of course, of every spiritual mind) is of very great importance: but, in all cases and under all circumstances, gifts or no gifts, obedience is the path of a Christian—the path of duty and blessing.
I would first shew the essentiality of the principle, its deep essentiality; then, that it is the preliminary of blessing; and lastly, that it is the order of all special gift in Christ, the ground on which it all flows forth. The first establishes the principle; the last applies it.
Obedience is the only rightful state of the creature, or God would cease to be supreme—would cease to be God. God may shew the impotency of the creature by turning all the wilful rebellion it may be guilty of to His own purpose in blessing; and they that are adversaries bound to it in His own power; but the only rightful position of the creature is obedience: upon this hangs all the order of the creation—on this hang sin and righteousness. The definition of sin is lawlessness, doing one’s own will. “He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”
Let us see how distinctly this is brought out in Scripture in its broadest lines. The first Adam and the second, the Lord from heaven, the great heads and types of ruin and of blessing, are thus distinguished as the disobedient and the obedient ones. The first Adam did his own will. He was put under a test of obedience. This was the critical point of the first Adam’s standing and blessing:— “Thou shalt not eat.” He did eat, and was ruined: death, the wages of sin, came in, the consequence of man’s act, that not being the will of God. Death was the wages of sin; and sin was disobedience—insubjection to God. Here its character and result were determined—the hinge of man’s fate—the now wide-open door to every evil; but at which indeed mercy entered before man was excluded, that he might bear it with him in the desert into which he was driven, justly driven, without.
Precisely the opposite was found in the blessed and perfect Saviour. Would you know His character, His attitude now that He is ushered in, in His own humble but holy and perfect announcement? “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me; I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.” This was His constant character, His perfectness, as man. So we read in the course of His life: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” This character was stamped on every circumstance; “He took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” And as in life He did always such things as pleased His Father, for He sought not His own will but the will of Him that sent Him; so there was no limit to its extent any more than to its perfectness: for, loving His own to the end, He became obedient unto death, the death of the cross; for, though willingly doing it, “this commandment have I received of my Father.”
He had now ears dug for Him (Ps. 40:6): the Lord God had opened them, and He was not rebellious, neither turned away back, but “gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair”; nor hid His face from all that obedience brought Him into, power or no power; for He was crucified in weakness, though He liveth by the power of God. His power was the powerful service of God; His weakness the patience of all His will.
So it was—obedience was the principle on which He acted— in temptation. “It is written “was His reply ever to the tempter’s suggestions; and when the tempter would thereupon have guilefully alleged a promise, “It is written, he shall give,” etc., our Lord met him by the answer, “It is written”: an answer shewing the principle of obedience as contrasted with the principle of assumption, of the assumption even of true privilege—a most important truth! But of this more hereafter. Perhaps I have said more than is needful on this; for the one sentence, “Lo, I come to do thy will, O God,” to the believer stamps the character, and fills up the principle, of the life of the holy Jesus. He was the Model of obedience. Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered.
The essential contrast to this is in Antichrist: “The king shall do according to his will.” This is his characteristic: not regarding any, “He shall do according to his will and magnify himself.”
Let us now trace other parts of scripture. In Exodus the word of the Lord to Moses is, “Thus shalt thou say, Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself; now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed,” etc. And all the people answered together, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” I speak not here of their competency to fulfil their undertaking, but of the principle of obedience—the only principle on which God could deal with man, or man walk with God.
So, in the blessing of Abraham in Genesis 22, the Lord closes with this— “Because thou hast obeyed my voice.” And Jeremiah takes up the word of the Lord to Israel by Moses (chap. 7:22), “For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices; but this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people; and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.”
Such is the tenor of the covenant on which the existing comforts of the land were held, as detailed in Deuteronomy 28, after they had broken the former. Such is the principle of the restoration-covenants of faith, when they had lost the fruits of the former, as given in Deuteronomy 30; “and shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey his voice, according to all that I command thee this day.”
So, in the apostasy of Saul in 1 Samuel 15, we find the same basis of judgment— “Why didst thou not obey the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice”; even as we find its principle and its perfection in our Lord’s constant walk. It is the character of the believer’s sanctification— sanctified unto obedience and the blood of sprinkling of Jesus Christ; 1 Pet. 1:2. This is that to which the believer is sanctified; this the purpose, the object, of his sanctification: so, where the contrary state is spoken of in Ephesians 2, “Wherein in times past ye walked according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.”
Nor does anything ever affect this essential principle: nothing but sin can draw a man out of it. The doing our own will is always sin, always the acting of the old man, not subject to God or it would do His will, not its own—the nature which does not bring in God, but acts for itself. The object of obedience may be in question, but self-will is always wrong. Thus Peter, when charged before the high priest’s council with disobedience to its behests, does not plead a right to do his own will—a right to do what he pleased; he had no such right. As towards God, it would have been the expression of self-will; he would not have been honouring God therein. His word was not, ‘I have a right to do what I like without reference to you’; but, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” It would have been really disobedience to have obeyed them. God would have been disobeyed in the result. Peter would have acquiesced, yea, taken a leading part in disobedience, as far as he was concerned.
Thus we find how the principle is preserved in all the trying circumstances of refusing subjection to human authority. It can be swerved from in no instance without breaking through the first and only principle of accepted relationship to God; it is the only exercise, save praise, of life to God.
It appears to me that this principle is greatly lost sight of and abused by all religious parties. As to this, they are divided into two great classes—those who plead obedience, and those who plead liberty. Peter’s answer, it seems to me, meets both. The dissenters, as a body, plead liberty—rights—the title to do, as regards men, what they please. The churchmen claim obedience, and plead frequently the principle; but it is still to men, and not to God. “We ought to obey God” is the Christian’s answer to both. “We ought to obey,” I say to the dissenter, who claims rights: “We ought to obey God,” to the churchman, who pleads the principle of obedience in the defence of all the corruptions which rest merely on the authority of man and his ways: “We ought to obey God rather than man.” How perfect is scripture in setting in order the ways of men, the narrow path which no other power detects, as revealing the principles of the human mind, and judging them! Self-will is never right. Obedience to man is often wrong—disobedience to God.
The next thing I would mark in connection with this is, that the commands of God, though the literal circumstances of blessing associated with them may be gone, never lose their power; for they are always, unless as connected with these blessings in detail, moral in their character, exhibiting and expressive of God, on which relationship to Him is necessarily founded. This is what the word in Deuteronomy 30:12-14, quoted by the apostle, means: “It is not in heaven, that thou shouldst say, Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it unto us, that we may hear and do it… But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” Now the apostle calls this the righteousness of faith (Rom. 10:6), the force of which we shall see in a moment, if we examine the place where it occurs in Deuteronomy, and learn also the accuracy of scripture quotation; and that this quotation in Romans, as everything else in Scripture, is the mind of the Spirit of God.
The statement of Moses in Deuteronomy was not the covenant on which, in literal obedience, they held the land; this would not have been the righteousness of faith, but the principle of Do, and then the blessing. It was besides the covenant that was made with them at Horeb (chap. 29:1), and proceeds upon the ground of the total loss of the literal blessings, which were the result of literal obedience in the land: “And it shall come to pass when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind, among all the nations whither the Lord thy God hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey,” etc. That is, after the covenant of literal obedience had been so broken that they had lost the fruits of it in the possession of the land, and were driven out (at once the evidence that it was broken, and constituting the impossibility, in that exclusion from the land, of such literal obedience), thereon the Lord says, “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven,” etc. But it was nigh them, that which faith recognised in its power and principles, although, in exclusion from the land, its literal observance was impracticable.
Here the apostle took up the Jews, and planted them on the principle of the obedience or righteousness of faith (to them still “Lo-ammi”); that is, the confession of Messiah, at any time the great hope and comfort of their law to them, but specially while they were thus in bondage and sorrow. No other but a basis of faith could be available to them. This was its strength and surest object; while the obedience of faith for His name was withal spread to the nations also. The obedience of faith, whatever the state of, however apostasy is undermining, the church, is still, and so much the more, the principle of all righteous individual conversation.
It is not the exactitude of literal observance which is here imposed—that may be impossible. It was so with the Jews when there was the highest exemplification of faithful obedience, as in Daniel for example; neither is the oldness of the letter the character of the Christian dispensation; that is not the obedience of faith. But the obedience of faith, in the newness of the Spirit, is always open, and finds its path according to the spirituality, and therefore spiritual discernment, of the people seeking it; and upon this God rests it. Exact conformity to His mind may be, and surely was, accompanied by direct and immediate witness of blessing, such as we have not now—and could not have, because it would be the recognition of inconsistency, which God could not sanction, whatever be His individual prerogative of mercy. It was God’s testimony and sanction to that which was His moral witness in the world.
It is precisely in these circumstances that the obedience of faith comes in on which the blessing comes, as may be seen in Deuteronomy 30; not the insistence on literal ordinance, but the power of moral consistency, according to the expressed mind of God. Nothing can be more important than the position which this passage in the book of Deuteronomy holds in this respect, nor than the principle which it affords. The privileges attached to the dispensation were gone. Obedience, in the literal sense, was impossible. The ark was gone; the Urim and Thummim were gone. The temple, where literal services could be accomplished, was desolate and burned with fire, where their prescriptive services alone could be performed; and they were captives moving to and fro. What then could be done! The word was nigh them, in their heart and in their mouth, that they might do it. Here was the principle of conduct which assured God’s accepting favour; here is the principle on which alone, in darkness, we can walk acceptably with God. Compare Isaiah 50, 51, where we have the application of this—the progressive triple link of obedience; and then, “Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O arm of the Lord!”
On the other hand, the notion of tradition neither recognises nor amends the fallen state of things; it does not recognise it, for it assumes the literal state of things precisely, but does not fulfil it. It does not acknowledge the evil and fallen state of the church. It assumes the continuance of that literal exactitude of services; and that, these being present, there is the security of the church. It acknowledges not, that it has lost its glory in the display of present power to the world; it says, Give me my ordinances, and all is well; not seeing that it has been deprived of power, because of its moral departure from its constitution with God. It may have been God’s wisdom so to order this dispensation: I speak merely of the fact. Neither does tradition amend it—it puts the church wholly on the wrong ground. The spirit of obedience, the righteousness of faith, is that which we need, if indeed fallen. Though we had the most certain information of traditional forms of worship or ordinance, it would not make the church of the living God. It is not the sign of the true church, or suited to the humiliation of the church in its fallen and low condition. The perpetuity of ordinances is not its rightful position in Babylon, but the spirit of humbled obedience— the word nigh it; the present spirit of obedience to the word nigh them is that which marks the spirit of faith, and acknowledgment of God, not making haste. If we repent, we may, according to the word of Ezekiel, be shewn more. To mock the fallen church with tradition is but a bitter and death-bearing substitute for the living power of the divine presence, or the obedience of faith, the only sure ground on which to stand, if we have fallen from the manifested glory of it.
But to trace the other parts of the subject. To shew that it is the preliminary of blessing, few words, after what has been said, will be needed. “If any man will do his will,” says our Lord, “he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God.” Now this is precisely the obedience of faith; and shews that moral preparation for blessing given is conversion of will into the spirit of obedience; “if any one desire to practise his will.” It is not the literal fact of outward act, but the spirit of mind, which will be therefore necessarily shewn in outward acts when that will is set before him. The next point is to do My mil; then he shall know—the gift of knowledge founded on the spirit of obedience; for what does it avail to confer gift on the disobedient, unless God should provide for His own dishonour?
I would refer also, without dwelling on them, to Luke 6:4-9; Matthew 3:15; John 13:16, 17 and ch. 12:26. The same truth is very distinctly taught us in John 14:21-23, where love to Jesus is thus definitely marked, and blessing marked as consequent upon it: “He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him.”
Nothing can be more distinct—nothing more distinct than the sovereignty of grace to the sinner through the obedience of Christ; the sureness of blessing to the saint in the order of obedience to the word. The chastenings of unchanging love, I speak not of here. But the doctrine is very express in the word as to the order of all special gift; that it is adherence to the obedience of Christ; that it hangs upon, and finds its scope and exercise in, obedience. There may be an extraordinary act of everlasting sovereignty, as Balaam and Caiaphas; but this is not ground that the church of God can go upon; these are not given to the church as examples, unless men would associate themselves with the apostasy as God’s order. God may set light to His church upon the most dangerous rock on the shores of destruction; these may be beacons all around them, but no attractive guide to the place where they stand; though we may bless the hand that set them there, a warning for none to approach, though a guide to all that pass. Unhappy people, the witness of the ruin that rolls around themselves!
One would have thought that it had been amply enough to have seen the broad and essential principle on which the whole order of Christian truth is founded, to have determined the Christian mind as to its righteousness and judgment. One would have thought that its conclusion would have been intuitive, and the fruit of the Spirit shewn at once in the recognition of obedience as the path of the saint: that path which, to a saint led of the Spirit, is the only one in which the Spirit can lead. But the enemy of our souls is not met by the simplicity of truth, because of the want of simplicity of our minds. According as they are not spiritual, and in any sort are under the influence of, or attached to, anything not the object of, to which they are not led by, the Spirit, therein the simplicity of truth fails to keep them, and the power of the enemy can avail itself of its subtlety against them. If there be any measure of positive, though imperfect spirituality, evident rejection of the word would not be received: but Satan does not so proceed. He does not therefore propose disobedience, but modifies obedience, proposes preliminaries to it, or substitutes something instead of God’s word.
Nor does Satan deceive the saints, or those under the form of saints, with an open and simple lie (they are not the subjects of that); he has not ordinarily done so. If Satan said, “Ye shall be as gods (Elohim),” One far above all created beings repeated, “The man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil.” But oh! what a store of accompanying evils and ruin, come in upon the act of disobedience founded on this devil-used truth. Using it out of place, suppressing what went along with it when man acted on it, was the foundation of the ruin that came upon the world.
We must then meet Satan, not only by the simplicity of truth, which is the happiest way—which is happiness—but, when our weakness and inconsistency open the way to his guile, by the wisdom of the word which applies to the case; which the unbounded and illimitable goodness of our God has provided for the weakness and necessities of His children, knowing the subtleties of their enemy, and providing for them who are assailable by reason of that weakness.
Thus the Lord (far, most far from inconsistency or evil, but assailed by that which would act upon ours) met, by the testimony of the word, the subtlety of the enemy of our souls. What subtlety! an unconditional promise: a promise to Him, alleged to be His as Son of God, by virtue of His privilege: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down hence, for it is written.” [Oh, high-drawn wit, a refinement of evil!] Was it not true? and was not Satan a liar? and could Satan produce a true promise of God, would not God be true to it? If thou be the Son of God, act in faith upon this promise; claim its effect, shew the power and glory which belong to this dispensation. And how bright the glory, how fair the witness, how singular and suitable the testimony to what He was! what strength imparted in His service! what foundation to claim credence to the mission which presented Him in this very character! Why not do it? What reason could be alleged? Must they not be the cavils of unbelief? Were the promises not true to the Son of God? Would God prove Himself a liar? It was the characteristic honour and place of Messiah; the ministering angels of the dispensation were to approve their Head in it: what could be more suitable or approved? But after all it was Satan’s proposal—the Lord’s answer was His total refusal. If a Son, He had yet made Himself a servant. There was no command on which to act; had there been, ten thousand temples would not have stopped His course, be they ever so goodly, ever so high, adorned with ever such goodly stones or gifts.
It is remarkable, too, in connection with what we have said as to Deuteronomy, that all our Lord’s answers were taken from it. The word “Lo-ammi” had never been erased from the badge of the Jewish people, since the day of their captivity; they bore it still upon their forehead: but the Lord took the part of Scripture precisely applicable in their present state. He took the phylacteries of God therein afforded, and bound them round His forehead; and Satan could not touch Him then. And here was another most important principle connected with this subject. The promises of God were true, and the gifts and calling of God without repentance (and this passage refers directly hereto—to these very Jews); but they did not apply to their then present state. Satan would have used them so. But the path of obedience was to understand the mind of God; and the Lord applied, in their acknowledged apostasy, that which God had applied to that state of things.
The Jews applied the promises to themselves, without the recognition of their fallen estate, and herein shewed that they had not the Spirit of God; and, by their application of these promises of God, came under the power of Satan, and were led of him. The Lord declined them, and rejected and baffled Satan. He took and kept the path of simple obedience; He rejected tradition. He rejected the promises; aye, He rejected the promises used not in the path of obedience and the understanding of the divine word. The first evidence, the first point of the teaching of the divine Spirit, of the wisdom of God in Christ, who was the wisdom, is the ruined state itself into which the church is fallen. Here is the key, the at once solution of all the rest; where this is, it is and must be the first instruction of the Spirit to us in our church-acting capacity; and all our conduct flows from it; and God has expressly provided the obedience of faith for such a time, never, never deserting His own, wherever the apostasy may be; for He cannot, and does not, turn away, nor is His faith made of none effect; and in the time of all these difficulties, the Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation (through faith which is in Christ Jesus), and are profitable, etc.; “that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to every good work.” Oh, what a blessed word! what a blight upon the holders of tradition, as the pretenders to any fight which should guide them farther than the perfectness of the man of God—the strength, the comfort, the wisdom of the divine word. May we be occupied with His commandments!
Let us turn to the third part of the subject—that obedience is the order of special gift. We have here direct and topical instruction of Scripture on the subject, in chapter 15 of John’s gospel. Of the principle of it we have an illustrious instance in Samson and his history. There was one separated to God, sanctified for Jehovah, and therefore put into the order of defined obedience; his hair was not to be cut. While the commandment and precept were observed, his strength was with him. There might have seemed little connection between long or uncut hair, and all-overcoming strength; but God was in it: and an obeyed, honoured, God is a God of strength to us. It was God’s strength, and given to one so definitely recognising Him; it was a gift hanging (as to its retention) on obedience—consistency with the undertaken vow of separated-ness to God. The surrender of this secret betrayed to the world the corrupting influence which had wound round the deceived Nazarite. His locks were cut by one nominally the friend and associate of the God-devoted man, in truth the sure ally of the Philistines, and suited instrument of Satan’s power. Once shorn of his strength, and in the Philistines’ hands, his eyes are put out; and, if in any sort he regains his strength, it is blindly to destroy himself with his enemies. That which I insist on here, however, is the sign of separation to obedience being the order and hinge of the possession of the given strength, the presence or absence of the one depending upon the presence or absence of the other, however unconscious the unhappy victim was of the strength of others thereupon against him: a sorrowful yet instructive history to our weak and wayward will.
But I have referred to John 15, as direct instruction upon the subject: it is most exact as to it. The Lord had stated the truth as to personal blessing, the special gift of His manifested presence, as contrasted with the world, in chapter 14: “He that hath my commandments” (how different from a tradition we have not got!)2 “and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself unto him.” Here the broad principle of general blessing is laid down, and we may observe what is most important in it— “he that hath my commandments.”
Let us turn to chapter 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you; as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, no more can ye except ye abide in me.” This is a practical abiding, or it could not be a command; abiding in Christ as the true Vine, not in anything else; for the vine of the earth, its grapes shall be cast into the winepress of wrath. Again (v. 7), “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you”; and in verse 10, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love”; that love from which all the gift and blessing flows, “even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.” Would the church presumptuously assume a higher prerogative of the sureness of the Father’s love, than the Lord Himself, who says, as to the order of its continuance, “As I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love?” Can anything be more definite and clear, that the ground of the assumption of blessing, the continuance of gift or blessing, is continuance in the words of Christ, of His words in the church? The assertion is not more clear than the ground of it is most plain and intelligible—the holy commandment. God’s power, His glory, would otherwise serve as the sanction of unrighteousness. So in verse 14 (stating the ground on which the communications of His mind, special revelations, would rest) He says, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” Nothing can be more definite; nothing more certain, than its thrice repeated accuracy of assertion.
The order of God to Christians is, not obedience upon blessing, but blessing on obedience; not to wait for blessing in order to obey, but to act on the command, and the blessing follows. And this is faith. There would be no faith if the blessing came first. Even Christ obeyed before He had the blessing—speaking of Him as the self-humbled Man. So we are justified by bowing to God’s word, and in our obedience are the consequent blessings: to him that hath shall more be given. It is the business of spirituality to ascertain His will-to be, in our measure, of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord. “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” If it be said, Yes, but the church had to wait for the presence of the Spirit before it could do anything, I answer, True; before then, properly speaking, it teas not a church; and even that was in obedience to the Lord’s word; Luke 24:49. But when the Spirit was received all that was so dictated became the subject-matter of the obedience of all who were under the influence of the Spirit thenceforward; and it was denying the Spirit to say, We must wait for the Spirit to obey what the Spirit has taught. It was mocking the Spirit. The Spirit of God had revealed it, and spirituality of mind would discern the holy purport of the thing—would surely do so, and art on it according to the power given, waiting for all other gift. Such is the necessary consequence of spirituality; and anything else is only denying the Spirit, not waiting for Him. He that is spiritual,” says the apostle, “let him acknowledge that the things which I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord”; and if so, what then? They are to be obeyed as the occasion and skill of obedience arises. Used in obedience, the gifts certainly were to be received in it also; for we are sanctified unto obedience. The church is sanctified unto obedience, becomes by conversion obedient: that is the thing done with it in time. The man is turned to obey God, instead of doing his own will: “Lord, what wilt thou have me do?” And it receives blessing, it walks in obedience—the obedience of love, and it continues to receive a blessing; it disobeys, and received judgment, though God’s long-suffering may wait upon its rebelliousness.
On the whole, the scripture is plain, as the principle is uniform—that obedience is the way of blessing; and that we are not to wait for power to obey a command, but to obey it that we may find power. The Lord did not restore the hand that He might stretch it out and shew it, but ordered the man to stretch it out, that it might be restored. And this is true in all possible cases. The Lord is obedient; therefore He is exalted to the place of power, to be Giver of gifts. He took upon Him the form of a servant, and became obedient, and that even to death; wherefore also God hath highly exalted Him. Now while the redemption of the church is herein complete (for, by one man’s obedience, many shall be made righteous), in the work in the church, obedience always goes before the manifestation of blessing. Thus Saul, struck to the ground, says, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” and the Lord answered, “Go into Damascus, and there it shall be told thee what thou oughtest to do.” He went and received comfort, and strength, and blessing, through the means of Ananias there sent to him; he acted in obedience in the first instance. So the poor blind man, in the days of the Lord, being, in the flesh, a pattern and type of the whole case: “Go wash in the pool of Siloam: he went his way therefore and washed, and came seeing”; and, having been faithful to this, he was able to teach his teachers, because he had obeyed the word; and, being cast out for it, the Lord hearing this to be the case, finds him, and reveals Himself to him. Is it then that we act without the obedience of faith? We are so led: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.” “Go wash in Jordan seven times” is an humbling thing, instead of having the prophet’s hand struck over the leper; but going and washing proved that he believed the testimony of God—the Spirit of God to be in the prophet; he owned the Spirit when in the obedience of faith, and the blessing came.
So in the word we own the Spirit of God, the sure Spirit of God in the word, and act upon it: which shews that we own the Spirit of God, and that He is able to bless; and the blessing comes from that Spirit, vindicating His truth. Whatever blessing is inconsistent with obedience is not really a blessing in result, though it should have the form of an answer to claim on the faithfulness of God; as we see in the quails in the wilderness. Our whole inquiry must just be, What is the will of God? The blessing of the Spirit goes with it, for that is the testimony of the Spirit; and, taking it as the way of the blessing is honouring the Spirit. Therefore the very acknowledging the Lord is made a matter of obedience. It is the command of God to acknowledge His Son (1 John 3:23), to honour Him as we honour the Father. “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” Yea, the Lord, while He shewed that He loved the Father, yet, in His yielding Himself to death, declares, “This commandment have I received of my Father”; and the gospel is sent “for the obedience of faith among all nations for his name.”
The operation of the Spirit is to make us obey. There is no owning of the Spirit but in obedience; and obedience is the evidence that we do acknowledge the Spirit, that we are led of Him—that which God will own, whether the world own us or not. And I suppose that the highest progress of spiritual life is not energy, but the enlarged discovery that all is within the sphere of obedience; and that all our efforts are so far profitable as they are within obedience—God’s prescribed order; and that all without is the energy of our own will, and evil. Does the spirit of evil or our will lead us in obedience? Clearly not! We have only then to plead the word, and we necessarily plead the operation of the Spirit of God in us; His energy is but to enable us to obey, and to reduce all else to the same thing.
Our having the commandments is the sign of an obedient heart taught of God—the communicated apprehension of the divine mind as in the word, spiritual communion with God giving that discernment; our keeping them, of a patient will under Him to follow on as led and established by Him, and in spite of, and overcoming the enemy; God working in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
To lean upon tradition is to prove that we have not His commandments; to wait, as men speak, for His Spirit is to prove that we are not inclined to keep them; both concurring to shew that we do not really love Him; and the latter, the merest though most subtle sophistry, and making us deny obedience to the word of the Spirit, in order that we may obtain His presence: a way as strange in its proposal, as it is contrary to the word of God (as we have seen in John 15); denying that we have it whereby alone we can have it or obey it, whereby we have it more abundantly; a hiding of the talent in the napkin, as though God were an austere God.
Our whole dependence then is on the Spirit of God, for we have no strength in ourselves; the object of our desires and prayers, the great and continual object, all hangs on His presence; for by it alone we recognise ever what the Father and the Son are to us in the blessed counsels of His will—we recognise it as a present thing.
The Spirit is the immediate agent in all divinely led human conduct, as indeed in all operation on creation. But the measure of the Spirit is known by the obedience of faith—the understanding obedience of faith, to that which the Spirit has laid before us in the word of truth—the true revealed mind of the Spirit of God. Whatever the power, we shall ever seek increase as to its exercise under the divine will. He will ever lead us on farther and farther into the path of obedience, and will unfailingly sanction all our previous footsteps in this way; for indeed, howsoever little known, He has led us in them.
2 The Lord’s commandments are always moral, and not of ordinance. The two ordinances which were established by Him, and which separate the church from the world, are, though ordained by Him, not commandments for personal obedience. As to baptism, this is perfectly clear, from the absence of command, and from Acts 8:36 and 10:47. As regards the Lord’s supper, it might seem to be so, but “Do this in remembrance of me “is not a command to do it; compare 1 Corinthians 11:25. Ordinances are always separative. If I am marked by any prescribed act, this act distinguishes me, and connects me with all those who have it as a body, contrasted with those who have not such prescribed form. Hence all peculiar ordinances minister to separation among Christians, those that are God’s to separation of them from the world corporately. I read, “we have no such custom,” where evil was sought to be introduced; never of any circumstance, we have such an ordinance. I do not think the apostles themselves had the power to ordain anything, but as morally conducive to the good of the church. “So ordain I in all the churches” was a common order profitable for the glory of God.