By H. Forbes Witherby.
9. Having Life but not having Liberty.
Every believer is a child of God — not every child of God has the spirit of freedom before God — enemies to christian liberty — allies to the spirit of bondage — fetters — the way of liberty.
We come now to certain practical and experimental questions, and shall devote a few chapters to them, in the hope that we may be the means of helping those into liberty who have life. Life and liberty are distinct, liberty before God cannot exist unless there be life; life precedes liberty. In many of God's children the possession of life is not co-existent with the possession of liberty, the free and happy spirit of the child in the presence of the Father being to them unknown.
We will start from this position: Every believer in our Lord Jesus Christ is a child of God, he is born of God and Christ is his life. These facts do not depend upon his consciousness or his enjoyment of his relationship to God his Father. The measure of our consciousness of freedom before God would be a poor standard indeed whereby to gain an idea of the favor in which we stand. The work of redemption having been perfectly accomplished, and the Lord having risen from among the dead, the believer's sins are all forgiven; he is delivered from the present evil world, and has his standing before God on the new ground of resurrection with Christ. In this standing there is perfect liberty in the presence of the holy God; and as the Spirit of God gives us to know what the eternal life is, which we have in Christ, so does He give us to know our standing in Christ, and our liberty before God in that standing.
The truth makes us free. The truth is what it is — the truth; it is unalterable, and our experiences or enjoyment in no way affect it; let us seek for grace to measure the extent of our liberty in Christ by this standard, for until we know the truth we are not consciously free in spirit before God.
As we think of God as the holy and righteous Being who hates sin, and as we consider that with Him we individually must have to do, had not He in His nature been magnified by the work of His Son in relation to sin — yes, in relation to the sins of those who believe — to talk of our being in liberty of spirit, and without fear before Him, would be desperate presumption. But just because Christ has so fully magnified God, not to believe is presumption! Our liberty before God is to be measured by the fulness of Christ's work, and His presence for us before God in heaven, not by our poor feelings or thoughts. It is only reverence to thankfully accept the truth in relation to ourselves.
We are not about to take up the case of the child of God, who, knowing that he has redemption in Christ Jesus, even the forgiveness of sins, is, or says he is, satisfied with this know ledge, and sits down on the heavenward way, not wishing to advance further or to know more. Worldliness is not the obstruction we have to consider. It is too true that there are children of God in this spiritually recumbent position; and indeed some would affirm, that to be assured of heaven when they die, and to live correctly in the comfort of such assurance, is all that can be desired for a child of God upon this earth. But the divine nature, the new life given by God to His own children, denies such content as this; and where the believer is not overpowered by the fascination of self-satisfaction, there is no rest to his spirit, until he knows what true liberty is in the presence of his God.
True christianity is not an abstract matter, but a personal and particular reality to the child of God, who cannot rest until he is clear in his soul as to the certainty of his acceptance before God. Suppose a believer in the spirit of fear which has torment: he is not in the spirit of a child, but he is a child, though he does not recognise the relationship to God which is his, and very bitter is the state of his soul. Those who are not fully established in Christ have honest difficulties which hinder their peace before God, and which render their christian life sadly unlike that of a child with his father.
Children of God, who day by day question whether they have either part or lot in the matter, evidently are not in liberty. An occasional gleam of hope lights up their otherwise dark days; perhaps they may live in a chequered light, now hopeful, now despondent. One day they believe that they are children of God, and the next doubt their relationship. The child of God is ever in the light, though not always in the sunshine. He should at all times recognize his relationship; he should ever confess to his God, on dark as on sunny days, because he is a child of light, and not of darkness.
Now, as a matter of fact, many a believer is kept out of the sunshine by the efforts of foes to the truth of the gospel, who make and teach difficulties to the hindrance of the enjoyment of what Christ has wrought. "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1), is an exhortation to which christians in this present day do well to take good heed.
The difficulties of which we are about to speak are such as trouble earnest souls before they know their standing in Christ. Entering by faith into this, these difficulties are left behind, for they are of such a kind as cannot possibly keep company with those who tread the palace of christian liberty. When a believer knows by faith his title to be within this palace he is straightway there; he finds its door open to him; and as the darkness vanishes when the lamps are lighted in the room, so do his difficulties disappear.
In Christ, the eternal Son of God, is our life; in Him, where He is in heaven, the risen Man, is our liberty. We come to Him for life, without a hope in the flesh: the flesh could not by any means connect itself with the life which is divine! We find liberty in Him at the right hand of God: there the flesh is not allowed a place, for in Christ, the once-crucified Man, but now the Man risen from among the dead and seated in glory, fallen human nature, which slew Him and sealed up His sepulchre, has no inheritance. Those who are His are of the "new creation."
Enemies to christian liberty are numerous. In former dispensations, Satan had power to hold down the people of God, and though Satan's power is now annulled — the Lord having died and risen again — still, if possible, he will spoil the joy and freedom of the child of God, and reduce him to a condition of spiritual slavery. The Lord has humbled Himself to humanity, has taken part in flesh and blood, that He might set free those who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb. 2:14, 15.) The believer therefore has to do with a defeated foe, and so long as he abides in Christ, the Victor, he is victorious; if he attempts to combat the enemy in his own strength, he practically ignores the death and resurrection of the Lord, and learns his helplessness by defeat.
Satan is not by any means the only foe of christian liberty. False brethren were active as long since as the days of the apostle Paul, seeking to lead back God's children into spiritual slavery. They "came in privily," he tells us, to "spy out our liberty, which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage." But he, mighty for God's glory, which is compromised where the children forsake that liberty to which they are called (Gal. 5:13), gave not subjection to them for one hour; "that the truth of the gospel might continue with" the believers to whom be wrote. (Gal. 2:4, 5.)
Bondage and the truth of the gospel are incompatible with each other; a gospel without liberty is a different gospel, not another, for it is not the good news at all of God concerning His Son. Bondage and liberty can no more be mixed than can oil and water. They can no more abide in each other's company than can the darkness in the presence of the rising sun. Our life is in the risen Son of God: and where He is, bonds cannot exist.
Since the apostle's days false teachers have multiplied as he foretold. The doctrine of bondage is accepted by multitudes as genuine christianity, who moreover regard christian liberty as fanaticism. Christianity has lost its character in the greater part of Christendom The cells of monks and hermits, the whole system of religion, perpetuates the thought of distance from God, and not only through this lifetime, but long after death. It keeps God, as light and love, far off from the soul by the present means of intervening priests, saints, and angels, and also by the mental measure of hundreds of purgatorial years. This religion of fetters is becoming the accepted religion in our own land: its end is like its origin. — darkness. It began with setting God far from man; it will end, and justly so, in disbelieving God altogether, even in atheism.
Many of God's dear children are in this system, bound in affliction and iron. Their tears, their anguish going up to God day and night for His favor, which they hardly dare hope ever to obtain, and their dread of eternity, deny the true character of christianity and should stir to the deepest depths the souls of all whom the Son has set free, and who are free indeed.
Nor is it only in this system God's bound children are to be found. Legalism is doing its deadly work also. Where external religiousness and ceremonialism are utterly refused, many a chamber, tenanted by bible-reading christians, re-echoes groans and lamentations, and is filled with an atmosphere of distrust of God our Father, and of continual dread of Him.
Allies with the spirit of bondage exist on every hand, as well as enemies to liberty. We may say that there is in every human heart that evil thing, which has an affinity to fetters. If we look into our own hearts, and dig into our old nature, we shall discover the principle which sets up self and refuses God. Of what avail would be the system of fetters if there were not in the believer willingness to place himself under it? The zeal of religionists of all kinds witnesses to the belief of man in his own powers, from the heathen venerating his sacred things, performing his penances, and having his sacrifices and priests, down to christians similarly engaged, even to the strict protestant, who inspects the barometer of his own feelings to prove to himself that God loves him, or does not love him.
Whether a man worships his idol or his idea, what is the practical difference so long as he leaves Christ the Son of God out? It is the tendency of the heart to turn to self and to forsake God. Were it not for hope in self and disbelief in Christ, the child of God would be free of fetters, whether of legality ornate with ordinances, or of legality puritanically bald. Hence let us begin with ourselves in speaking of the doctrine which teaches us to turn from ourselves.
The heart of man — let us say, our individual heart — has a tendency to be fascinated by teaching which says, "Look into yourself, for strength is there;" and hence a fatal willingness to place self under the yoke, which the advocates of soul slavery proffer as the way to practical holiness. Also, there is more than a dash of animosity against spiritual liberty in each and every one — believer though he be — who is not free himself; "the offence of the cross," which is death to self-effort, has not ceased. The spiritual vexation about not being in the freedom in which others are, is consoled by wrapping about itself the garment of so-called humility, and saying, "I am not presumptuous even as this publican."
The religious world eighteen hundred years ago had its influence upon the apostle Peter, and also upon Barnabas the son of consolation, who was carried away in the current of legality. It has its influence upon each of us now. What will people say if the believer, instead of doubting, is rejoicing "with joy unspeakable and full of glory"? Probably: "Your religion is worth having; you have something which the world cannot give; oh! that we too had such unspeakable joy." One thing is certain, the spell of many a religious influence will be broken where Jesus Christ and Him crucified is truly believed, and Christianized religious mummery will be buried where the truth of a buried but risen Christ is known.
The Galatians opened their ears, if not their hearts, to the false teaching of those that Paul said "would pervert the gospel of Christ." (Gal. 1:7.) Paul marvelled at them; he had been received by them as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus Himself, they had been filled with blessedness (Gal. 4:14, 15); yet the religion of fetters had such attractiveness for them, that he was afraid lest his labor among them had been vain.
It was a great crime committed against Christ, the crucified One, by those whom He loved, and for whom He had given Himself, to go back to those principles from which His death had delivered them. Do we realise that enforcing, doing and feeling upon the souls of men, as ground for earning the divine favor, is practically teaching Christ's death is not the judicial end of all effort of man in the flesh, and of the flesh itself and all its feelings? If man could have produced good out of himself, wherefore the necessity for the Lord's death for man? His death declares that all are dead by nature, and deserve at the just hand of God what the Lord endured. Do we realise, that every kind of allowance of the religiousness native to the flesh, to man in his natural state, is not of faith, but sin: — is really denying the utter hopelessness of man's state by nature, as proved by the cross of Christ?
Fetters! Yes, fetters, fellow believer, but not of iron for the bondage of the body, but of harder substance, of heavier weight, for the slavery of the soul — fetters strong and grievous, and to the dishonor of God. Listen to the divine record: "After that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements (or principles), whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years." (Gal. 4:9, 10.) Children of God, men who had received the Spirit by the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:2), who had the new life, were on the eve of willingly — ah! wilfully giving up themselves to the miserable thrall of the scrupulous observance of days, and months, and times, and years!
Christ's death had really freed them from the observance of periods of time; with His death, times and seasons had come to their end. In Him they had died, and had died to that which He had died; in Him they had life and waited for His coming again; yet fetters fascinated their souls! Oh! destructive delusion Alas! how many of God's children are in these fetters this very day. Golden and studded with jewels, heirlooms of antiquity they may be, but those who bear them, are not walking in that liberty to which God's children are now called.
Cunning men offered the system of ordinances to the Colossians in the name of humility. Of these the death of Christ had thus spoken: "Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross." (Col. 2:14.) Yet, despite the cross of Christ, legalists passed judgment upon the children of God, who did not give heed to new moons and holy-days, meats and drinks. What says the scripture? "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments (or principles) of the world." (Col. 2:8.) "If ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances . . . . after the commandments and doctrines of men?" (Col. 2:20, 22.) Christ's death ended for faith the whole system of earthly religion.
The effect produced by outward things on the natural senses is not spirituality; we are "dead with Christ to the principles of the world." The place where the dead lie is a poor one for activity. Our standing place in Christ risen offers no leverage at all to these earthly, sensuous things. Let us not deny the death of Christ and our having died with Him, by going back in spirit to principles of religion, which date up to the cross of Christ and there end for christians.
The delusion that there is good in the flesh, is the mainspring of all this activity for bringing. God's children into bondage. Ordinances and legality relate to the flesh, to self, not to Christ. Going back to the principles of doing, to obtain divine favor, is going back to fetters. And the principle of law is this, "The man that doeth them shall live in them." (Gal. 3:12.)
It is not necessary to be in the slavery of observing days and months and years, in order to be legal: we can look to self without being in subjection to ordinances, and legality itself is the iron out of which these fetters are forged. Whosoever is working at himself to get out of himself that which shall please God, is legal. He is doing, or trying to do, or hoping to do, some day; he is not walking in the Spirit, he is not living by the faith of the Son of God, who loved him, and who gave Himself for him. In Christ risen is our life; we live in Him, and so are freed by Him from these fetters. Shall we thrust our souls into them to His dishonor? If not living by faith on the risen Son of God, the believer will certainly be occupied with himself, with his strength or his weakness; and whether it be bad self or good self, which is our object, it is practically the same — it is "I," not Christ.
The believer needs to be stern with his soul, and to discountenance the lurking unbelief, that there is something good in man, which can yet be turned to use; together with the soul-deception that Christ, the risen One, is not all for the people of God. He is not only the Saviour from sins, He is the Strength who sustains His people and keeps them from sinning. Look not for good in self; but reckon self to be the dead thing which God declares it to be.
The way of liberty lies through the death of the Lord for us. By His death, and our having died with Him, we are freed from the restraint of ordinances, which appeal to us as men in the flesh; from the bondage of the law, which commands us as men in the flesh; and from the power of the flesh itself.
The following verses of scripture happily teach us of
the Broken Fetters of Ordinances.
If ye be dead (or have died) with Christ from the rudiments of the world, — why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances? (Col. 2:20.)
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, — that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:13, 14.)
I am crucified with Christ: — nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. (Gal. 2:20.)
Christ's death truly meets our condition of sinfulness; and by His blood we are pardoned; but more, His death is the end for God's people of the old principles of the religious world; they have died with Him to them. How can the dead observe days, and months, and seasons, and years? Such principles have lost their control over the dead. The eternal life, which is the believer's, is in Christ, beyond death; and in Him, His own are free.
"Law has dominion over a man so long as he liveth" (Rom, 7:1), but when it has cursed him, and killed him, the law has no more to say to him; and we "are become dead to the law by the body of Christ" (Rom. 7:4), for we have died judicially with Christ. The new life which we have in Christ comes to us from Him in heaven, the risen Man before God. The law addressed men in the state of the flesh, telling them to do and continue doing. God has condemned sin in the flesh by the death of His Son; and has given us eternal life in the power of Christ's resurrection; this life delights in the law of God, its freedom is in Christ risen from the dead, and its energy in God the Holy Spirit.
As to the flesh, — self — "I," — God gives us to say, "I am crucified with Christ." So long as we keep on this line, the flesh has no power for we treat it not only as dead, but as judicially slain. Nothing so completely expresses the utter badness of "I" as the cross of Christ.
Freedom comes into the soul here. Let it not be shut out by not believing the flesh to be what the cross of Christ really proves that it is. Beware of that ally with the enemies of freedom which is within! Beware of self! Look not to self for good and remain in deserved bondage. Christian liberty comes through Christ's death; by His death the fetters of sin, and law, and the religion of the world, are broken asunder. To fight in our own strength against sin, or in ourselves to try to keep the law, or to subject ourselves afresh to ordinances, is to go back in spirit to the time before Christ died. Having passed through death, and being risen from among the dead, the Lord is our life. His people are in Him, where neither sin nor the power of the law, nor the effect of "weak and beggarly elements" can ever reach. Faith in Christ risen, makes these facts a reality to the soul experimentally. "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." (Gal. 5:1.)