Sleeping Among the Dead
In the address to the church of Thyatira, we find the Lord announcing His coming, and bidding His saints wait to share then with Him the authority which the false Church was assuming to have already. Thus Thyatira presents us with a phase of things which goes on at least until the Lord comes for His saints; not, indeed, until the rising of the Sun of Righteousness upon the world, of which Malachi speaks, but until He comes as the Morning Star — the herald of the day before the day appears.
In Sardis we have, therefore, not only a development of the Thyatira condition, but in many respects, as it is easy to see, what is in entire opposition to it; not the claim of infallibility, not corruption of doctrine (as what is prominent), not persecution of the saints, not the exercise of authority in the same sense. There is now a very simple and explicit statement as to the character of things, which is a lack of spiritual power, nay, of life itself. While Christ had as much as ever "the seven spirits of God," — the plenitude of the Spirit as of old, and for His people, — in fact, they whom He addressed had a name to live only, and were dead. I would only there were more difficulty in applying this; but it is surely what fatally characterizes, and did from the beginning characterize, not individuals necessarily, but the churches of the Reformation.
Understand me well. I do not speak of the Reformation itself when I say this for the Reformation was the blessed work of God and the Lord does not judge, or ever can have need to judge, His own work. He refers to what His grace had done for them, to what they had heard and received. Their responsibility was to take heed to it, and hold it fast and already they had failed in this. This is the ground of judgment.
Christ has the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars. So He is represented here. There is no failure in the supply of spiritual power no failure in His care for His people. Yet in them there is a strange and terrible lack. With more pretension than had before been manifested in one way, for they have now a name to live, a name assumed to be in the book of life, while the actual condition of the mass is that of death — not feebleness, but death.
There are exceptions: not merely those alive, but, still more, those that have not defiled their garments and of these the Lord speaks in the warmest terms of praise: "They shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy." Alas, it is only "a few names." Others may be alive but in a scene of death — you know what defilement with the dead is among the symbols of the Old Testament — the many of those even alive are defiled. But the mass are dead altogether — dead with a name to live.
The Lord further refers to this in His promise to the overcomer in Sardis: "Him that overcometh . . . I will not blot his name out of the book of life." The book of life is understood by the majority of people to be only in the Lord's hands, and all the names written in it by Himself. Those ignorant of the gospel consequently stumble over this blotting out of the book of life, supposing that it is the blotting out of those who had once been saved. But there is no such thought here. There is not the slightest sign that those mentioned ever had life at all: they had a name to live — only the name.
Contrariwise you find in Rev. 13:8 the very opposite as to those "written," as we ought to read it, "from the foundation of the world in the book of the Lamb slain." It is their security from being deceived by and worshiping the beast. Sovereign grace is their only and their sufficient security. Here, on the other hand, the book has got into man's hand, and he writes names as he pleases. But the Lord in His own time corrects the book, and then He blots out the names of those who had but the name.
Now the "name to live" has special meaning in connection with Reformation times. It was, and is, in nowise characteristic of Popery, the putting of people's names (while here on earth) into the book of life. "Saints" for them are the dead, and not the living. The living she warns that "no man knows whether he is worthy of favor or hatred," and that it is best not to be too sure. Her pardons, her indulgences, her sacraments, only show by their very multiplicity how difficult a thing salvation is. Darkness is the essence of her system, and she thrives upon it.
On the other hand, the Reformation recovered the blessed gospel, and the word of reconciliation was preached with no uncertain sound. The doctrine of assurance was preached with the utmost energy, and was stigmatized by the Council of Trent as the "vain confidence of the heretics." They even pushed it to an extreme, maintaining (at least, some of the most prominent Reformers did) that assurance was of the very essence of saving faith itself, and that unless a man knew himself forgiven, he might be sure that he was not forgiven. Plainly, then, Protestantism put a man's name in the book of life in a way that Popery did not.
Two immense things the Reformation gave to us, which have never since been wholly lost: an open Bible, in a language to be understood and, on the other hand, the gospel, at least in some of its most essential features. These are inestimable blessings, which, would we had but hearts to value more.
Of the men, too, who were the dear and honored instruments in handing them down to us, we cannot speak with enough affection and esteem. God honored them (how many!), taking them to Himself in fiery chariots, from which their voices come, thrilling us with the accent of the heaven opening to receive them. Those who disparage them will have to hear, one day, their names confessed and honored by Him they served, as those of whom the world was not worthy.
But, on the other hand, we must not make, as many are doing, the Reformation the measure of divine truth. They are not loyal to the Reformation really who accept less than Scripture as their measure, or test, of this. The broken and conflicting voices which are heard the 'moment the question is no longer of the gospel, but of the Church and its government, assure us that if Scripture has spoken as to this, the churches of the Reformation do not in this convey to us its utterance, as it did in the gospel. Lutheranism is not Calvinism, the Church of England is not the Church of Geneva here. We must needs, whether we will or not, take Scripture to decide, amid claims so conflicting and when we do so, we find, with no great difficulty, that no one of these takes us back to the Church as it was at the beginning — the body of Christ, or the House of living stones — at all.
Instead of this, as is well known, the churches of the Reformation were essentially national churches — not in every country able to attain the full ideal, as in France, where Rome retained its ascendency by such cruel means, but still always of that pattern. Rome had, of course, prepared the way for this. The nations of Europe were already professedly Christian nations, and it was not to be expected that those who escaped from Jezebel's tyranny would give up their long hereditary claim to Christianity. The adoption of an evangelical creed could not change the reality of what they were. True, they learned the formula, put their names upon the Church-books as Protestants, learned to battle fiercely for the gospel of peace, — and how could you deny their title to be Christians? Yet as to the many, it was but "a name to live."
We must learn to distinguish two elements in the ecclesiastical revolution of those times. There was, first of all, a most mighty and manifest work of God. The Scriptures, released from their imprisonment in a foreign tongue, began to speak to responsive human hearts, with the decision and persuasiveness that the word of God alone can have. Christ began once more to teach as One having authority, and not as the scribes. The blessed doctrine of justification by faith, everywhere brought souls, held fast in bondage, into liberty and the knowledge of a Saviour-God. The ecclesiastical yoke could not longer hold those whom the truth had freed; and where Christ had become thus the soul's rightful Lord, Rome's authority was but the tyranny of Antichrist.
This was the first and most powerful element in Protestantism; not a political movement, but a movement of faith. Luther, solitary, at Worms, in the presence of the mightiest political power in Europe, was God's testimony that the work was of Him: His strength was manifest in human weakness. Had that place of weakness been retained all through, had but God been allowed to show that power was His alone, how different would have been the result! And it is due to the foremost name of Protestantism to acknowledge that, as far as carnal weapons were concerned, Luther would have rightly refused them a place in a warfare which was God's. To call Protestantism essentially a political movement, is to do it glaring injustice, and contradict the plainest facts.
Yet we cannot ignore the political element which soon entered into it. Rome had made the nations everywhere feel the iron hand of her despotism, and the national reaction against her was the natural result of her intolerable and insolent oppression. The notorious wickedness of her chiefs had destroyed, long ago, all real respect. Her power stood now in an excessive and degrading superstition. She lived upon men's vices and their fears; and where the light fell and removed the darkness, the fears were removed also, if the vices were not. Men learned to look upon the power they had cringed to with contrary feelings, deep in proportion to their depth before. Their interests, politically and otherwise, coincided with the spiritual movement which divine power had produced. Soldiers, politicians, governments, made common cause with the men of faith. It was hard not to welcome such apparently God-sent allies, when on every side persecution raged. The movement increased in external power and importance; but its character was in just that proportion lowered and perverted.
There was need of defined principles to give cohesion to elements which the Spirit of God no longer sufficed to bind together. Outside there was the pressure of Rome, a compact and immensely powerful body, armed, drilled, and intensely hostile. Organization was soon a necessity: but of what, or whom? To have proclaimed the true Church would have been to cast off their allies, to insure the continuance of persecution and reproach, to leave Rome unchecked, triumphant. I do not say that the true thought of the Church ever dawned upon them; but I do say that their alliance with the world was a sure means of hindering their seeing it. Instead of keeping the true Church's place, national churches were formed, with evangelical creeds as pieces of statecraft, and political power to back them — not divine.
Of these creeds we have already spoken a good deal, but yet there remains much more to say. It is easy to see that if a creed had been of necessity for His Church, the wisdom of God could have easily given us an infallible one, and His love could not have failed to do so. On the contrary, He has given us that which He proclaims able to furnish the man of God thoroughly to all good works, but which people feel at once to be as different from a creed as can be.
Why do people want a creed? They want something which can be more plainly and easily read than Scripture. Scripture is indefinite; a creed must be definite. Of Scripture everybody makes what he likes; what they want is something different, something that shall not be susceptible of two meanings, plain to all — spiritual and unspiritual, Church and world alike.
I have before been contending that Scripture is clearer, plainer really, than any word of man — besides being in infinite wisdom written so as to meet, as nothing else can, the thoughts of man at every point, so as to be the only guard and protection against heresy to the end of time. This is simple truth; yet I am going to own, what may seem a contradiction to my former words, that from their own point of view there is some truth in what they contend for as between Scripture and a creed.
From their point of view, — for the apostle's words limit us somewhat when we speak of the intelligibility of Scripture. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that" — what? "the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." Scripture, profitable for doctrine as it is, does need a state of soul for its proper apprehension. It needs not, indeed, great attainments, human learning, deep research, but (what may be found in the lowest and poorest just as well) devotedness — that we be God's men: what all Christians are, indeed, by position and profession, but, alas, not what all practically are. This is the single eye which we must have for the body to be full of light.
But this being so, we can easily see that the Bible is not just the book for a court of law, and it is not the book for a national creed. The truth in it is not meant to be accessible merely to the natural mind. It is not crystalized into so many doctrines; and if it is not, if it is so essentially unlike a creed, on that very account we may surely believe that nothing like a creed was in God's design. He did not mean to give something that should serve as a motto for political partizanship, or a banner which should serve for any other purpose than spiritual warfare. Nationalism, the union of the living and the dead, was never in His mind. He meant spirituality to be a first necessity for the discernment of His thoughts; and men, when they reject the blessed word of God for their plainer creed, show really that herein they are at cross purposes with Him.
"Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" is the exact moral description, as it is the condemnation, of nationalism: of more than this, no doubt, but still of this. It is not the Church of God at all, but a Christianized world with Christians scattered through it — a place so defiling that but a few really keep their garments undefiled. Connected with the truth, as Popery is not, such a system betrays the truth which it professedly upholds. The character of the last days is developed by it: "Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, proud, blasphemers," retaining all that was natural to them under the garb of Christianity, "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof."
This is the effect of popularized truth — popularized as God never meant His truth to be. Of course you will distinguish between this and the preaching of His truth, than which nothing is more assuredly according to His mind. His gospel is to go forth to every creature, and the blessings of an open Bible we shall not be apt to exaggerate. But by popularized truth I mean what we have already been speaking of, truth made into a party badge so as to be accepted by those with whom Christ is not; for He never was popular, and He is not.
Popularized truth means truth that has lost its power. It may be truth for which martyrs died, truth that when first given of God, or given afresh, was full of quickening power. Popularized, it is so far lifeless — no exercise of soul in receiving it, no cross in professing it. They have got from their fathers what their fathers got from God; their fathers confessed it in shame; to them it is honor. There is nothing to test conscience, nothing to make them ask, Dare I take this without human sanction to commend, nay, in the face of all human discountenance? Yet only thus have we got it truly from God. The martyrs they talk of, took it thus, and suffered for it; they take it from their fathers, — a principle which would have condemned the martyrs, — and they take it without the least thought of being martyrs. Truth is proclaimed as powerless by the unholy lives of its professors, while unholiness is recommended by the practice of those who are orthodox as to the truth. And thus truth tends to die out of itself, as valueless, remaining all the while in the national creed, embalmed as a memorial of the past. "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God."
Too manifestly do we see this, with regard to all the national systems, to need more than a bare allusion. It is a system adapted to worldly minds, and to be worked by political machinery. The word of God is no necessity to it, except it may be to furnish a table of lessons, for the authoritative standard is the creed. The Spirit of God is not necessary to it, for colleges can manufacture preachers, and ecclesiastics ordain and send them forth apart from this. Christians are not necessary to it: they are too uncertain a constituent part of a nation or its government to be capable of being reckoned on; and there is no means of determining with certainty who they are. A sacrament — baptism or the Lord's Supper — takes here the place of less manageable tests.
And the grieved and insulted Spirit may be besought to breathe upon the lifeless mass, and fill the sails of the ship of the state. But He must keep within the bounds prescribed by ritual, hierarchy, and parliament, or He will be treated as schismatical. And, it may be remarked, how often, in fact, a schism springs out of a large and manifest revival. Souls brought near to God, and made to feel the value of His Word, and the necessity of obedience to it, are not made thereby the mere docile servants of the state-religion. The new wine will not be held in the old bottles. Statesmen are thus not favorable to such fresh enthusiasm, and no wonder: it divides the house which it is their interest to keep as one.
But is not this the history of the churches of the Reformation, of Protestantism in fact, during the three centuries of its existence? Is not this the true account of its divisions, for which it is reproached? The Spirit of God is not, indeed, the author of confusion, but of peace; of unity, and not disunion. But when people talk of schism, they should remember to what that term applies. As found in Scripture, it is "schism in the body" that is reprobated, and the body of Christ is not a national church. When men have joined together the living and the dead, when they have subjugated consciences to formularies instead of Scripture, to hierarchies instead of God, or to hierarchies in the name of God, what have they forced the blessed Spirit to do but to draw afresh the line they have obliterated between the living and the dead, between man's word and God's, between human authority and divine?
And His mode of doing this has been constantly to bring out of the inexhaustible treasure of His Word some fresh or forgotten truth, which would do that which the popularized truth in the creed had almost ceased to do, and which would test the souls of His people as to whether they were indeed the descendants of those who confessed Him of old, whose tombs they built, and whose memories they had in honor. The fresh truth calls for fresh confession; it costs, and is meant to cost something; it brings its confessors into opposition to the course around them, and separates them at once from those whose only desire is to go with the stream, and with whom the profession of Christ and the Cross are widely separate.
Doubtless the division may separate between true Christians themselves; and this is in itself an evil, that true Christians should be separated; but the responsibility rests with those who are not quick-eared enough to hear God's call when it comes; not single-eyed enough to discern the path in which the Lord is leading His own. We are bound by the honor we owe to Him to maintain that He cannot possibly be leading His own in contradictory paths, cannot possibly refuse the needed light to walk aright, however simple or ignorant the soul may be. No one strays, and no one stumbles, because God denies him light. But "the light of the body," practically, "is the eye" — the inlet of it; and there the hindrance is. Thus a severance, sorrowfully enough, is made between real Christians; but the sin of it is not with those who separate from that which God has shown them to be evil, but with those who remain associated with the evil which is forcing out the true in heart. Separation from evil, so far from being a principle of division, would, if honestly followed, make for unity and peace, as leading upon a path where God's Spirit ungrieved could really unite and strengthen His people. With evil He cannot unite; evil, therefore, wherever admitted, is a principle of division.
I am not, therefore, upholding or making light of schism. The divisions of Protestantism are its shame; and to glory in them is to glory in one's shame. Error is manifold, contradictory, schismatic. Truth, however many-sided, is but one. Sects, in their multiplicity, may accommodate, no doubt, the religious tastes of man; but that only would show how purely human they are, how little divine.
The unity of the Spirit may be maintained, and allow indeed for growth in knowledge, and in unity of judgment as to many things. The Church of God has room for all that are God's, of whatever stature — fathers, young men, and babes. Nay, it insists upon the largest charity for those who differ from us in aught that would not link the name of Christ with His dishonor. But that is a very different thing from what is implied in a creed; indeed, I may say, is its fundamental opposite. For the creed defines in a way that, if rigidly adhered to, shuts out toleration as to points of confessedly minor importance, where the Spirit of God would teach, not indifference, indeed, but the largest charity; the creed forces its definitions upon all in a way most felt by the most conscientious. It is as necessary, as far as the creed goes, to believe in a child's being regenerate when baptized as it is to believe in the Son of God Himself. I grant there may be practical laxity, but for a soul before God that does not do. For such an one, with his eyes open, the subjection to human institutions in the things of God is just what he cannot and dare not yield.
"Making schism in the body" is always wrong. Separation from evil at all costs is a necessity, and always right: and from this have been gathered the freshness and power which have plainly characterized so many movements of this kind at the beginning. They began in self-judgment and devotedness. The evil at least they saw, and were exercised about, and the measure of truth they had was held in power. It soon became systematized, and in that proportion its power began to fail. The founders, if you look at their lives, were men of faith and power, suffering and enduring. The manners of the adherents were chastened, simple, primitive. When organized, popularized, with a large following, its freshness waned; and in the third or fourth generation it had taken its place as simply another sect among the many, boasting of a history which it did not discern to be a satire upon its present condition.
The organization, the creed, are to preserve the truth. But did these give them the truth they are anxious to preserve? Surely not, as they must own. God in His love, God in His power, has given what man had proved his incompetency to retain; they cannot trust Him to retain it for them after He has given it. He has used His word to minister it; they turn around and use for that blessed Word of His a creed of their own manufacture to preserve it. The generations after follow their fathers' creed and not the Word. The truth popularized is gone as "spirit and life." God has to work afresh and outside of what a little while ago was a fresh revival produced by His Spirit.
And the spiritual life of the time has come more and more to manifest itself in "revivals," which, so far as they are really such, are the protests of the Spirit of God against prevailing death continually creeping over everything, and oftentimes connected with fresh statements of truth when the old have lost their power. The Lord's warning to Sardis points out this constant tendency to death: "Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain, which are ready to die." "Remember, therefore, how thou halt received and heard, and hold fast and repent."
It is scarcely too much to say that every true revival, whatever the blessing for individuals, — nay, I might even say, in proportion to the blessing for individuals, — weakens the national system, and this for reasons we have been considering. The Spirit of God must needs work in opposition to the death produced by the system, and therefore against the system which produces the death. Souls quickened by the Spirit of God cannot go on contentedly under deadly and unchristian teaching, comforting themselves with the assurance of the article that "the evil" who sometimes "have chief authority in the ministration of the Word and sacraments," do yet "minister by Christ's commission and authority;" nor will they always be able to accept the ecclesiastical "yoke with unbelievers," because the system requires "every parishioner" to communicate, irrespective of any other security as to his conversion than his baptism and confirmation may imply.
It will be no marvel, then, to find (what any one with spiritual understanding must own) that a large proportion of those who "have not defiled their garments," in the history of Protestantism, have been in some way or other dissenters from the national system. The first generation of English reformers were dissenters from Rome, and Rome did her best to keep them pure by the fires she kindled for them. Afterwards a people began to be separated, who, from their honest endeavor to be right with God, were nicknamed "Puritans." I need not tell you what great names are found among this class, which after-generations have learnt to love and honor — a class with whom fine and pillory and imprisonment were familiar things. Everybody knows that Bedford jail was the "den" in which John Bunyan dreamed his memorable dream. In Scotland, the attempted enforcement of prelacy gave a succession of martyrs and confessors to the Presbyterian name, with whom, as elsewhere, their time of persecution was their time of real blessing, while Episcopalianism, which was riding roughshod over them, had gone already more than half way back to Rome. With the movement under Wesley and Whitefield, nearer to our own times, we are naturally still more familiar and that which issued in the Free Church of Scotland is still within the memory of a generation not yet passed away.
All these, and many others, will exemplify the truth of what I have been saying, until in our own days the national systems are showing evident signs of decrepitude, and breaking up, and Romanists and infidels are beginning their pans on the downfall of Protestantism. We who are able to see it all in the light of Scripture can easily understand why all this is, and see only the truth of God's word more and more manifested in it. Christianity flung as a cloak over a corpse can surely not warm it into life. Corruption will go on underneath, eating away the form of life — the only thing it ever had — until at last the cloak will more or less fall off, and what was all along true become apparent.
When the Protestant churches shall be gone altogether, or gone as such, their protest will not be gone, but only transferred to another Court. Heaven will take up what they have dropped. Babylon the great will fall under divine judgment, and apostles and prophets, and God's people everywhere, will rejoice at her fall.
But let us contemplate a little while now the other side of things. We have had before us tonight what is intensely sorrowful, more provocative of tears than Jezebel's corruption. There, the very malignity of the evil roused the whole soul against it. Here, there is the fruit of what was in the beginning a movement of God. He can speak of what they had seen and heard, and exhort to hold it fast. There are still "things that remain," although "ready to die." And how can we but sorrow intensely over what was so fair in its earliest promise, and received its baptism in the blood of martyrs?
Yet the word to the overcomer here comforts us with its recurrence. It links us, if we have ears to hear, with the same little remnant that has ever been finding its way, through storm and flood, to Him from whose love neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword can separate, and in which they have approved themselves, through Him, more than conquerors. The overcoming may be now in a new sphere, and separation may have to be from brethren, heirs of great names in faith's record. Yet, only over- corners are their true successors. Not those who built the sepulchres of the prophets represented them or were linked with them, in our Lord's account, but those whom He sent forth — to be persecuted by these same admirers of antiquity.
And God must teach us independence even of one another, — that rightful independence which springs from real and lowly dependence upon Him. In His presence, what were even the greatest of His followers? How can I say to another, "Rabbi, Rabbi," when I must take the honor from Him that I deck another with? If I had not Him, it were lowliness if I have Him, it is dishonor to Him.
It is not schism, this separate path, when not my own will, but His Word and Spirit leads me. It is not separation in heart from brethren, if Christ be dearer to me still than they. Nay, love to them only approves itself, as the apostle teaches us, "when we love God and keep His commandments" (1 John 5:2). Faith's victories are not in applause wrung from a multitude, but in the path of One, the true Joseph, separated from His brethren; and God has overruled the presence of evil (which, I need not say, He has not caused) to the giving us a path, at least in its circumstances, the more Christlike. We are not left to the subjection to evil; He calls us to rise above it. The difficulties of the path are only to prove afresh the power of God to carry us through them all. Every encouragement throughout these epistles is held out simply to the overcomer.
The Lord give us only the needed energy! The time is short. The end is at hand. The grace that is now sufficient for all daily need will soon be manifested in the crowning of the conquerors. Then, those that are poor shall have the kingdom; the mourners shall be comforted; the meek shall have the inheritance; those that hunger and thirst after righteousness shall be filled; above all, the pure in heart shall see God — the God whom sin, for the time, has banished from the earth He made.