Allow me to say a few words to you, in which there will be nothing very new, on a subject on which simplicity and decision are of the utmost importance in these days. The Second Epistle to Timothy presents to us, as long ago observed, the ruin of the church in its earthly standing, and the heart of the apostle deeply affected by it, as would be the case, under the working of the Spirit of God, with one who had been God’s instrument for founding it. It individualizes the duty of the Christian—a momentous principle in these days when the church (so-called, really the clergy) renews the pretension to govern the conscience.
This epistle does not give us the church according to the purpose of God, and its full character in heavenly places (as in the Ephesians), nor is it the order of the church on earth (as in 1 Tim.); but we have in it life and salvation, now fully revealed in Christ (chap. 1:1, 9,10), but a piety which could be found in Jews as such, and in which Paul could speak of his forefathers. The church, indeed, is not mentioned at all. Not that the fellowship of saints is not noticed; it is expressly, but of those in whom purity of heart is known to exist, the testing of which was not known in the first beginning. Then those who came were received: only the Lord took care of the purity of the assembly, and manifested His own, adding to the church daily such as should be saved. Now He knew them that were His, and the responsibility rested on every one that named the name of the Lord to depart from iniquity; and the believer is to follow the path of peace and grace with those that call on the name of the Lord out of a pure heart.
Two points are brought before the believer here to guide his feet: his individual conduct, including his conduct as to other individuals; and his relationship to the public profession of Christianity in the world.
As to the first, he is, as I have said, to depart from iniquity. Such is the nature of Christianity, it cannot associate in walk with evil. He purges himself—for it is individual duty—from vessels to dishonour, which, in a great house, he expects to find. He seeks fellowship with those who join to a profession of Christ a pure heart, from which profession flows. On this, chapter 2 is as clear as possible. It is his individual responsibility; and it is important to take in both parts.
If the first part only is taken up (the departing from iniquity and purging from vessels to dishonour), the conscience may be upright; but a spirit of judgment and of self-righteousness will be engendered. If the latter only (to seek to walk with those pure in heart), without the former, conscience will be loose, and faithfulness to Christ, and obedience, more or less lost. The heart must be engaged in the love of God’s people and fellowship with them, and the conscience be pure and faithful, as having done with evil, when evil is all around and allowed.
As to the second great point, our relationship to the public profession of Christianity in the world, chapter 3 gives equally clear direction. The peril of the last days is found in a form of godliness, denying the power of it. The direction is as simple as it is positive: “from such turn away.” Where form without power is, we are not to go, but, in a positive way, to turn away from it. But this would not, in itself, in the perilous times, be sufficient; for in the decay of practical piety and devotedness in the evangelical professing world many, whose principles are far more false, lead individually a life of great devotedness—often, I allow, on false principles, yea, in themselves deadly principles—but it is a sad snare when devotedness is found on the side of false doctrine, and worldliness with a greater degree of substantial truth. This is not the case, if the effect be taken as a whole; far from it; but individual cases, and the fire of first impressions, produce enough to make the devotedness of individuals a snare, leading men to receive false doctrine and to fall into Satan’s hands (for so it really is), when the devotedness is founded on a real denial of grace and truth of the gospel, as Paul insists on it.
Another point therefore is brought out here: the authority with which our souls are directly in communion, on which our conduct rests, the rule by which it is guided, and the application to the individual soul of that authority and rule. Is this mediate or immediate? Is it by the intervention of the church, as an authority between me and God? or is it the direct and immediate connection of my soul with God, and immediate subjection to His authority in His word? It is the latter, not the former. This is no rejection of ministry. If another knows the word better than myself—has more spiritual power, he can help me; and this is according to the mind and will of God. But he does not come between my soul and the word, but brings me more fully into acquaintance with what God says to me in it. My soul is only the more in immediate relationship with God by His word. This only is the rule and measure of my responsibility, the expression of the authority of God over me. Another may be the means of my being more completely so; but he puts me thereby in immediate relationship to God by the word, more fully and more in detail, but does not take me out of the relationship. It remains immediate, as before, and there can be no other; it is direct with God; and God’s title is absolute, and embraces the whole of my being in obedience. He exercises His authority immediately by the word. This may sanction, and does, duties towards others; but these are acknowledged by the authority of, and in obedience to, the word—to God in His word. I am to fulfil every relationship in which God has placed me, but by and according to the word. My first, immediate, and all-ruling relationship is with God by the word. It has precedence of all others, rules in all others, and claims absolute and immediate subjection. “We ought to obey “is the Christian’s ensign; but “we ought to obey God rather than men “is the absolute claim of God, who has revealed Himself fully, and reveals Himself immediately to us by the word.
The church may have—has—to be judged; the individual has to take notice of it—is called on to do so, so that it cannot have authority over him as the ultimate rule for his soul. He is bound to take the word of God as the ultimate rule and norm of truth and conduct, having authority immediately from God over his soul, with nothing else between him and God. It is evident we are not here speaking of the discipline of an assembly exercised according to the word. That word which ordains it recognizes its validity, but what in religious, and indeed, in all matters, is the ultimate rule and authority.
There is another question apparently, but which is not really one, namely, Is the soul immediately cognisant of the word, and is it responsible to God for itself according to that authority?—or can anything else come in between with authority, so that a soul is not immediately responsible to God according to that word? The only question really is—Is God’s word immediately addressed to the conscience of man, so as to hold him responsible when so addressed? No one in his senses would deny that if God revealed anything to a man, he ought to give heed to it. Infidelity may contest the fact that there is a word of God—a ground which, in controversy, Roman Catholics generally take under the form of the question, “How do I know it is so?” I assume here there is a word of God. I inquire, is its authority immediate over my soul?—or is anything, now I have it, between it and my soul? Is the authority of the oracles of God absolute, immediate? Do they bring me under an obligation which allows nothing to come between them and my soul, or to limit or modify their authority? I would remark, in passing, that save three Epistles, the writings of the New Testament (and, as far as the principle goes, the Old also) were addressed, not to the clergy (if we are so to call them), but by the clergy to the people. The claim of the clergy to possess them as such is sheer folly; they were specifically addressed to the Christian people by those commissioned of God to do it. This is undeniable. In one, Paul specially charges it to be read to all the holy brethren, and they very young Christians; 1 Thess. 5:27. If professing Christians are so ignorant now that they cannot understand it, this is the effect of centuries of the church’s teaching, but is no longer the case where there is lowliness and where the grace of God is looked to. “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding to the simple.” “I am wiser than all my teachers,” says David, “for thy law do I love.” “They shall be all taught of God “is the promise given to us. But my present object is less general than this, important as this truth may be. I speak of the instructions given by the apostle in Epistles, which were addressed to one in whom he had the greatest confidence as a servant and man of God, who had worked with him in the gospel, as a son with a father, and to whom he could reveal his inmost feelings, and could tell what was needed for the church when the evil days should come in; when the form of godliness, where the power was denied, forced on the conscience as duty the judgment of the state of the church—wherein the apostle has revealed to us Christ’s judgment, and called upon us to bow to and act upon it—an epistle, in a word, which gives, not general truth and precious instruction to the Christian, but special guidance in the dangerous evils of the last days. This, with all church history before us, when subjection to the church was so long maintained, and darkness by it, and when the church (as Christ has loved, sanctifies, and will present it to Himself without spot and wrinkle) was so diligently and long confounded with the building of wood and hay and stubble, which had grown up, as they themselves admitted, into a large mixed worldly body, and that the church was as bad or worse than the world— this revelation of the judgment of the church is of all importance. Diligently was it insisted on, as by Cyprian and sundry others, that the Holy Ghost was and could be nowhere else; that all outside the external form were lost. And so sternly was this held, that while the former confesses that the state of the church was disastrous (just what the world was, bishops and all, so that the worst persecution was only a light-needed chastisement), yet they insist that when any left it, pressed in conscience by its state, they left salvation and eternal life absolutely; there was no grace elsewhere.14
By this insisting on the privileges of an avowedly corrupt church too, souls who shrank from what was utter dishonour to Christ were left a prey to those who were really heretics or fanatics, when their consciences could no longer stand the moral state of the great outward body that held and claimed the place of the church of God. It is one of the sad parts of church history, the seeing how persons who left the public body when immorality and idolatry of the grossest kind were come in, often fell into the hands of, or were mixed up with, those whom Satan raised up to perplex and ruin the testimony of God. The primitive church never defended itself against the workings of heresy by the truth as they had it not (Irenaeus did so, perhaps a little), but by their own claims to possess all and their hereditary title to it: so even Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and others. And those who made more allowance were themselves philosophers far from the truth, as Clemens Alexandrinus, and Origen. These did make a difference between some heretics and others; but, after that, schism or heresy were alike fatal:15 and if afterwards a difference was made, none was made in denying salvation to them, or in burning them, when that became the fashion of the church.
Now, with such a history before us, how immensely important is it to see that the individual is bound to judge the state of the professing church! At all times they were called on to recognize Christ’s judgment of the state of the church, and be guided by the word as to it. They would have learned not to confound the body of Christ with the professing body.16 But in 2 Timothy 3 we are expressly called on to turn away from such as deny the power of godliness, though maintaining the form. But, if I am individually called upon to recognize and act on—whatever that action may be—the judgment of Christ as to the state of the church, then the church has ceased to be an authority, and is judged by the word, to which I am expressly called to give heed in that judgment; its judgment as a public body cannot be an authority governing my spiritual judgment, in which I am bound to follow the word, where it is itself judged in its mind and state. Christ expressly calls us individually to hear what the Spirit says to the churches; not what the church says, but what is said to them. I am not now saying what the consequence may be—on that 2 Timothy 2 and 3 are clear—but that the individual is called on to take heed to what Christ says as to the state of the church. It is not a thing to be overlooked that this first takes place in respect of Ephesus, where such blessing and knowledge of privilege was. The vessel of the highest grace, she represents the church’s departure from its first estate, and receives the threat of the removal of the candlestick. But all I say now is: the individual is called upon as such to listen to Christ, and take notice of the judgment He forms of it. The church is a judged object, not an authority. The individual is bound to receive immediately from Christ or the Spirit by the word, what He says to him independent of the church’s authority, yea, about the church itself. Yea, it is the proof that he has ears to hear, to hear Christ, to hear what the Spirit says. What, then, is the rule, when in professing Christendom there should be the form of godliness without the power, as certainly the apostle tells us would be the case in the perilous times in the last days, when Christians have to turn away from the form of godliness? We have it in a double form.
The church, it cannot be; that has brought us into perilous times, and the case occurs in which I have to turn away from the common state of things—men shall be so under the form of godliness without the power. There is no rule, no authority to retain me there. I am bound to recognize that state, and to turn away. First, the knowledge of the individual from whom I have learnt anything; secondly, the scriptures. The former is a simple, but very important rule. A tradition comes, no one can tell from whom: I am told that “the church has preserved it” is a sure ground of faith. Paul says, No; you must know from “whom you have learned it.” It is said, “according to the fathers”; or “the consent of the fathers.” But this gives me no authentic source. Timothy knew he had received it from Paul, a divinely-inspired and authorized teacher, and the thing was sure. No church-teaching, no tradition, however universal, can assure me the truth. I cannot say of whom (para tinos) I have learned it. I must have an individual of certain and inspired authority, to make me receive anything as the truth. I must know of whom I have received it. This applies to perilous times, when there is a form of godliness, when the church is in disorder—for a form of godliness without the power is itself disorder—and then a certain source of authority is of all importance. But if Paul, or Peter, or John have taught anything, I know of whom I have learned it, as Timothy did, and I am assured of it. If fathers, or no one can say who, have taught a thing, I have no divinely-given security.
The second authority referred to, which in part is the same, is the scriptures; but this has its special character. These are holy writings. God has provided that for His saints, which, with the key of faith in Christ Jesus, is a sure and certain guide—a body of writings called by the apostle (that is, by divine authority) the holy scriptures, of which a child could be cognisant as such, guided by the piety of a mother—and to be received as inspired and having divine authority, composed of a number of distinct writings, but forming a whole of which it could be said as a known whole, “the holy scriptures,” and of each particular part, “every scripture,” recognized in this way (in the most solemn manner by the Lord Himself, as well as by His apostle) as a whole, and as the inspired work of particular authors, and that as written documents, distinctively as such, and commanding faith as inspired. “Knowing this first,” says Peter, “that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” “That it might be fulfilled,” is the constant testimony of Matthew; or, more generally, “then was fulfilled.” “The scripture cannot be broken,” says the Lord; “it is written in the prophets, They shall be all taught of God.” “If they believe not his writings, how shall they believe my words?” And in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:56), contrasting their testimony “in the temple,” but “that the scripture must be fulfilled.” So “then opened he their understandings, that they might understand the scripture,” saying, “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer.” And in that same journey, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?” “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” It behoves, ought to be, since it was in the scripture. So Paul could say, “the scripture foreseeing … preached,” because the mind of God was in it. So, as often remarked, the Lord quotes the Old Testament as a recognized whole, as used among the Jews, “Moses and the prophets and the psalms.” He used the scriptures, the written testimony, to silence the adversary, and referred to them, in rebuking the Jews, as one of a series of divine testimonies, which left them without excuse.
I do not here quote the numberless texts in which the authority of the scriptures is recognized by the blessed Lord and His apostles. If these, He assures, were not believed, one would rise from the dead in vain, that men might be persuaded. No testimony from the actuality of another world would avail, if these writings were not listened to. But we find not only the authority of particular scriptures affirmed, but, what is important to remark, its being there gave it authority. It was sufficient that it was scripture to give it divine authority. The scripture cannot be broken. It is not merely that truths may be found in it (that may be the case in any sermon, or in this tract), or that the word of God is in it, but that being in the scriptures was sufficient to give to what was there authority as the word of God. It is God’s ordained method of authority, not merely of truth—any one may be a means of communicating that—but it is authority for the truth, is clothed with divine authority in what it states, and is recognized by Christ Himself as having it, as also by all the apostles. They were more noble that searched them to see if what an apostle stated was so. The scriptures have authority, and are addressed to God’s people; not as such to the clergy or ministers of the word, but, save a very small portion, as we have seen, are addressed by those ministers to the people.
From all alike we can learn. We can learn from these addressed to his trusted fellow-servants by the apostle Paul, what the church was, what it ought to be, and what it would be. Let us see then the apostle’s account of the value of these books, and the place they hold, in what he says to Timothy, and that especially when the church has lost its true character, has a form of piety, and denies the power of it. After having spoken of Timothy’s having learnt the truth from himself, the apostle says, “and that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures.” Here is the well-known book so entitled, which, as such, had authority. As a child, he had known it and learned its contents. And these scriptures, through faith in Christ Jesus (the great key to all), were able to make him wise to salvation. It is alleged that this is the Old Testament. No doubt what Timothy had known as a child was the Old Testament: but whatever has a claim to be called the holy scriptures comes under this title, and enjoys the privileges attached to that title. Paul claims this authority for what he wrote (1 Cor. 14:37), and makes the difference between his spiritual experience, however great it was, and what the Lord said, but the things he wrote were the commandments of the Lord. The end of Romans assures us that the mystery of the gospel, hidden from the prophetic and all previous ages, was made known in prophetic scriptures* to all nations. And Peter puts Paul’s Epistles on a level with the other scriptures. Scripture is a recognized title; whatever is that has authority, and by grace, enlightening power; it judges, and is not judged. This then is the divine, and divinely given resource for the Christian when the church is in an evil state—the scriptures, and the scriptures as a child has known the book: and they are capable to make the individual wise to salvation through faith in Christ. It is not a slighting of ministry. Timothy did not slight Paul assuredly; but the gifted apostle referred him to this as the sure individual guide when the church was in confusion and evil.
Not “the scriptures of the prophets”: the passage is quite clear.
But scripture can do more; it can furnish the man of God perfectly. And here we get more than the knowledge from a child, or saving wisdom through faith. The passage refers to the man of God—him who is for God in this world—a large and comprehensive expression. In a certain sense, in service, he represents God, so far as he acts under His guidance and by His power— “in all things behaving ourselves as the ministers of God.” But he stands, at least, as serving God in the world. It is an expression borrowed from the Old Testament. And here we find not the book as a whole, but every part—everything rightly called scripture is inspired, theopneustos. Evidently, it could not have the authority which the Lord and the apostles ascribe to it; we should not see the Lord (in the most solemn moments and in the most absolute way) using His divine power to enable His disciples to understand it, if it were not truly inspired. But there is more than this.
It is not all the truth that the scriptures contain the word of God, but everything that is scripture is inspired,17 and profitable for all needed to make the man of God perfect. Everyone who has to act for God in this world, to stand for Him before the world—and (though some be specially called) all have more or less to do so—finds all he wants to complete his state and competency for service, in the scripture. But it is not only this that it contains what is needed; but everything truly called scripture is inspired—has the distinct name given by God Himself to that which He willed to be received as coming from Himself. We have, a child has (as to its authority which faith alone can make effectual) writings which claim for themselves the subjection of our souls, as being God’s word immediately to ourselves, so that the intervention of any is interfering with His right—His immediate right over the soul as belonging to Him. It is not that others cannot help me in apprehending what is there; but that He helps me to what is there, and none can interfere to hinder the direct claim of what is then on my soul, or he interferes with God’s title, no matter whether it is an individual or the church which does so. And the higher the claim to do so, the greater the guilt.
I acknowledge the authority of all scripture as absolute and direct from God. I may surely be helped to know more of what is there to be profited by, to be enjoyed, or obeyed. I am specifically taught to go to the scriptures, to rely on them— taught to do it individually, not as judging them, but as a direct claim of God over me when the church has become a form of godliness. Always true and enjoyed by all together when the church was right, in the Epistles received from the apostles, and the Gospels which we have given us of God, it became necessary truth—truth to this effect by the apostle, when the church was gone wrong, and perilous times would come in the last days.
Let us not forget, if the sense of the present state of things does not press upon us, that we know from scripture that those times were set in when John wrote and Paul wrote, and Peter and Jude. John could say, we know it is the last time: John could give the Lord’s warning voice to the falling church in the seven churches of the Apocalypse; Peter could tell us that the time was come for judgment to begin at the house of God; Jude be forced to write to insist on the faith once delivered, because those had got into the church who will be the objects of Christ’s judgment at the last day; Paul, that the mystery of iniquity already worked, and would do so till the lawless one was at last revealed after the falling away— that already all sought their own, not the things of Jesus Christ. And he (though the wise architect to lay the foundation), when his departure was at hand, had to warn his beloved disciples, as he had the elders of Ephesus, of the evils at the door, and that evil men and seducers would wax worse and worse, and the church be a form of godliness without the power.
Then the individual comes out afresh (for we learn nothing of the church in 2 Timothy except its failure and ruin), and the man of God has to hold his ground against advancing evil; and then the scriptures get the place they were meant to hold— a necessity not so felt when all flowed in the stream of divine power, receiving the care and leading of the’ apostles themselves, but brought out for the days of evil and seduction with divine authority, divine inspiration, and divine sufficiency to instruct.
It is evident that “knowing from whom thou hast learned them “now resolves itself also into the scriptures. The word of God, as the blessed Lord Himself, comes out from God, and is adapted to man. In this, with the living Word, it stands alone and is perfected in it.
Let me here engage my reader to realize in his own mind, and, if occasion call for it, insist with others on, the passage which connects itself closely with what we have considered— I mean the passage in I John 2:24, “Let that therefore abide in you which ye have heard from the beginning: if that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son and in the Father.” Nothing has secure authority for the believer but that which was from the beginning. This alone secures our continuing in the Father and the Son. There may be much respectable, much “reverend antiquity”; and the spirit of reverence, where the object is true, is a very important quality in the believer, but an amazing means of seduction when it is not. But, as a ground of faith, the Christian must have “what was from the beginning”; the authority for believing must be “that which existed from the beginning”—must have been heard from the beginning. In the scriptures I have that certainty; I have the thing itself: nowhere else. Many may preach the truth and I profit by it; but by the word, specially here by the New Testament, I have the certainty of what was from the beginning, and I have it nowhere else. No agreement of Christians can give me this. If Rome and Greece and England were all one, their agreement would not give me what was from the beginning as a fact; the scriptures certainly do.
I may be told that it is very presumptuous for me to set my judgment against such authority. I have no judgment of mine to set; I believe in what Paul and John and Peter and the blessed Lord said: there is no presumption in that. I do as they bid me, I receive and hold fast to what “was in the beginning.” If, indeed, any say that “it is not easy to understand,” I ask, “Are they?” This is presumption—to say they can teach the truth better than the apostles and the Lord, who spoke to the multitudes. At any rate I must have, not what the primitive church held, but “what was from the beginning.” Hence the same apostle says, “He that is of God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us: hereby know we the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
14 It is somewhat strange that he whom Cyprian always called his master did so leave it. It is one of the riddles of theologians now, to distinguish the writings of this church-father before and after his leaving the great outward body.
15 It is a curious fact in church history, that what made Cyprian such a stickler for church unity, and no grace elsewhere, was finally given up and condemned by the church at large—the mere validity of schismatical and heretical baptism. Cyprian certainly was never consistent.
16 This Augustine did, but equally insisted that all were lost who were separated from the latter, and made the day of judgment the time of separation and a kind of purgatory.
17 I have no doubt that this is the right translation: but it does not alter the matter I am now upon. For every divinely-inspired writing equally and specifically ascribes inspiration to everything that has a title to that name, and then adds other characteristics.