F. B. Hole.
From the beginning of Scripture history, two great facts, forming the basis of all God's dealings with men, have been apparent. First, God is absolutely sovereign. Second, man is an intelligent creature with moral faculties and responsible to his Creator.
But these two facts, the sovereignty of God on the one hand, the responsibility of man on the other, have always presented a difficulty to certain minds, particularly when it is a question of the practical work of preaching the Gospel, and of the reception of it by the sinner. Between the sovereignty of God expressing itself in the election of some for blessing, and the free offer of grace that addresses itself to all, there seems to be some contradiction which it is difficult to avoid, some discrepancy not easily explained.
Of course, if we are at liberty to discard one of these facts in favour of the other, and throw ourselves into the arms of either a hard hyper-Calvinism, or a weak Arminianism, as the case may be, the difficulty may vanish. But this would mean the sacrifice of truth. Since we are not at liberty to do this, but have to accept both these facts (for both plainly lie on the surface of Scripture), we must humbly seek the divine solution, assured that the only real difficulty is the littleness of our minds, and of their ability to grasp the thoughts of God.
We have but to open our Bibles at the beginning to find both these truths. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). Here is declared the one truth. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion" (Gen. 1:26). Here is declared the other. Man was made in God's image, i.e., as God's representative in creation. He was after God's likeness, inasmuch as he was originally a free, intelligent, moral a gent. And though no longer sinless but fallen, his responsibility remains.
It would be difficult to find a finer confession of the sovereignty of God than that made by Nebuchadnezzar, the great Gentile monarch in whom human sovereignty reached its highest expression. He said, "He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?" (Dan. 4:35).
Nor can we point to a more striking unfolding of the responsibility of man in his fallen estate than that given by Paul in his powerful argument (Rom. 1:18 to 3:19) to prove the complete ruin of the race. If sin and degradation destroyed a man's responsibility there would be every excuse for his condition, but the most degraded heathen is shown to be " without excuse," as is also the polished idolater and the religious Jew.
Thus far all seems plain. The difficulty occurs when we begin to apply these truths. Believers are addressed as "chosen in Him before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4), as "elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father" (1 Peter 1:2). To His disciples the Lord Jesus distinctly said, "Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you" (John 15:16); and again, "No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him" (John 6:44). Shall we reason from these scriptures that since the choice is God's and no one comes to Christ unless drawn of the Father, therefore all effort in connection with the Gospel is useless; that, in fact, to preach to any except those chosen of God is waste of time?
On the other hand, Peter urged his hearers, when pricked in their heart, "Save yourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2:40). To careless and rebellious sinners he said, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted" (Acts 3:19). Paul tells us that he testified to both Jews and Greeks "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21).
Shall we disregard these apostolic utterances? Ought they rather to have run something after this fashion: "Men and brethren, you can do absolutely nothing. You are spiritually dead and therefore you must simply wait the pleasure of God. If He has elected you, you will be saved. If not, you will be lost"? Or shall we adopt the opposite view, and do our best to explain away these reference's to God's sovereign work in connection with conversion, saying that they only mean that God, being omniscient, knows the end from the beginning, that He has no particular will as regards anybody, that man is an absolutely free agent, quite capable of choosing the right if put before him in a sufficiently attractive way, and that therefore we ought to do everything possible to make the Gospel palatable and win men?
To incline to either set of scriptures at the expense of the other would be, indeed, to expose ourselves to the keen edge of those searching words, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken" (Luke 24:25).
Any difficulties we may have as to these things would, we believe, largely vanish if we better understood the true character of the ruin of man and the grace of God.
In what does the ruin of man consist? By sinning he has placed himself under a burden of guilt and has rendered himself liable to judgment. There is more than this, however. He has also become possessed of a fallen nature utterly and incorrigibly bad, with a heart "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer. 17:9). But even this is not all. Sin has acted like a subtle poison in his veins and has so stupefied and perverted his reason, will and judgment, that "there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11). Even in the presence of grace and the sweet pleadings of the Gospel men reject the Saviour provided, and with perverse unanimity prefer the empty follies of the world. Like the "great herd of swine" they rush madly to destruction, and hence the only hope is a sovereign interposition of God.
The parable of the "great supper" (Luke 14) illustrates this. The well-laden supper-table represents the spiritual blessings resulting from the death of Christ. At great cost all is ready, and yet all seems to have been provided in vain. Something else is needed: the mission of the Holy Spirit, pictured by the errand of "the servant." Things were brought to a successful issue, and the house was filled, only because of His "compelling" operations.
If we once realize the full extent of that ruin into which sin has plunged us, we shall be delivered from the "Arminian" extreme, and shall recognize that the sovereign action of God in choosing us and drawing us by the compelling power of His Spirit was our only hope. Instead of quarrelling with this side of the truth, it will bow our hearts in grateful worship before Him.
Poor fallen, self-destroyed man is still, however, a responsible creature. Reason, will, and judgment may be perverted, but they are not destroyed. Hence the largeness of the grace of God.
What is grace? Is it the particular goodness which visits and saves the souls of the elect? No. That is mercy. In Romans 9 and Romans 11, where election is the great subject, mercy is mentioned again and again. Grace is the mighty outflow of the heart of God towards the utterly sinful and undeserving. It shows no partiality. It knows no restrictions. It is a wide and deep sea. "All men" (1 Tim. 2:3- 6) are its only boundaries, and "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound" (Rom. 5:20) is the only measure of its depth.
We hear the accents of grace in the last great commission of the risen Christ to His disciples, "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47). How akin were these instructions to those given by the King in that other parable of a feast, recorded in Matthew 22: "Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage." In this parable we have not "the servant," as in Luke, but "the servants." It is not the Spirit of God in His sovereign and secret activities, but saved men who, without knowing aught of these secret things, simply do the King's business. Do they find anyone in the broad highways of the world? Then without raising questions as to their character, or as to whether chosen or not, they give the invitation. All who listen are gathered in, both bad and good: and the wedding is "furnished with guests."
Is there any great difficulty in this? Surely not. Knowing that it pleases God "by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe," the evangelist proclaims the glad tidings far and wide. When men believe his message; he attributes that work to the Spirit of God, and rejoices over them, knowing their election of God (1 Thess. 1:4).
Nor is there anything to stumble the seeking sinner. The very fact that he is seeking indicates that he is being drawn of the Father. The idea that a sinner may be even in an agony of seeking for the Saviour in this day of grace, and yet be unheard because not elected, is a hideous distortion of truth. The words of the Lord Jesus are as true as ever: "Seek and ye shall find" (Matt. 7:7).
The fact is, election has nothing to do with the sinner as such. No hint of it is breathed in any recorded preaching of the apostles, though it is frequently referred to, to establish the faith of believers. As a rule, it is only when unbalanced preachers of extreme views take it from its setting in Scripture and thrust it upon their unconverted hearers that it creates difficulty in their minds.
Can it be shown that "election" does really mean anything more than that God knows everything, and therefore knows from the beginning who will believe and who will not?
Most assuredly. In 1 Peter 1:2 we read, "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father." Election, then, is distinct from foreknowledge, though based upon it. God's election or choice is not a blind, fatalistic casting of the lot. That is a purely heathen conception. There is some such legend in connection with Buddha. When men were created it is said that he cast a lot saying, "These to heaven, and I care not; these to hell and I care not." But our God and Father does not act like this. He chooses in the full light of His foreknowledge. Hence no sinner, who ever really wants to be saved, finds the door shut against him because he is not one of the elect. His very desire is the fruit of the Spirit's work. And God's choice, as in the case of Esau and Jacob, is always justified by results. (Compare Rom. 9:12, 13 with Mal. 1:2, 3).
If God must elect at all, why did He not elect everybody?
How can I tell you that? Is it likely that God will tell us, who are but His creatures, the motives that underlie His decrees? If He did explain, would our finite minds be able to grasp the explanation? We may rest assured that all His decrees are in perfect harmony with the fact that "God is light" and "God is love." For the rest, if any man be contentious we content ourselves with quoting the inspired words: "Behold . . . I will answer thee, God is greater than man. Why cost thou strive against Him? for He giveth not account of any of His matters" (Job 33:12, 13). After all, being God, why should He?
If man be morally incapable of going or choosing right, how can he be really responsible?
Let me answer by an analogy. If, in the case of that poor creature making her 201st appearance before the magistrates on the old charge, "drunk and disorderly," the plea were raised that since she was so degraded as to be morally incapable of resisting alcohol or choosing a better life, she was no longer responsible, or amenable to punishment, would it avail? Of course not. No sane person imagines that one has only to sink low enough into crime to be absolved from responsibility.
Alas! who can measure the depths of perversity and incapacity into which man has plunged himself by sin? Nevertheless his responsibility remains.
Does "free grace" mean that salvation is ours simply by a choice which lies in the exercise of our own free will?
It does not. It means that as far as the intentions of God's Gospel are concerned, all are embraced. Christ died for all (1 Tim. 2:4, 6). To all the Gospel is sent, just as freely as if it were certain that all would as naturally receive it, as, alas! they naturally reject it. Multitudes, however, do receive it, and then the righteousness of God which is "unto all" in its intention is "upon all them that believe" in its actual effect (Rom. 3:22-24). Such are saved by grace, through faith, and that not of themselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Their blessing is of God from first to last, and they are entitled to regard themselves as chosen of Him.
Has the sinner to choose Christ?
If we wish to speak with scriptural accuracy, the answer must be, No. He has to receive. Christ; but that is a somewhat different matter. Choose is a word with active force. It implies certain powers of discrimination and selection. To speak of a sinner choosing Christ supposes that he has powers which he does not possess.
Receive is passive rather than active in force. It implies that instead of exercising his powers, the sinner simply falls into line with God's offer. It is the word Scripture uses.
The children of God are said to be "as many as received" Christ (John 1:12), and this receiving was the result not of their freewill, but of God's gracious operation; they were "born . . . of God" (v. 13).
Are we right in urging sinners to repent and believe?
Certainly. Our blessed Lord Himself did so (Mark 1:15). So did Peter (Acts 3:19), and Paul (Acts 16:31; Acts 20:21; Acts 26:20). We have not only to proclaim that faith is the principle on which God justifies the sinner, but we have to urge men to believe. The fact that faith is the result of God's work in the soul and that all spiritual enlargement for the believer is through the operation of God's Spirit, in no way militates against the servant of God being much in earnest and persuading men.
Paul preached at Thessalonica "with much contention" (1 Thess. 2:2) - "with much earnest striving" the New Translation renders it. He speaks of "persuading men" ( 2 Cor. 5:11), and with Barnabas he persuaded certain converts "to continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43).
These examples are enough to outweigh any amount of reasoning to the contrary.
How would you answer a person who says, "I can't believe until God gives me the power"?
I would remark that both repentance and faith are things which do not require power so much as weakness. To repent, is to own the truth as to yourself; to believe, is to lean your poor shattered soul on Christ.
Again I would point out that God's command is man's enabling. The man with a withered hand its a case in point (Luke 6:6-10). The power was there instantly the word was spoken.
Does a sinner wish to insinuate that he is very anxious to believe, but that God will not give him ability to do so because of certain fatalistic decrees? Tell him plainly it is not true. He is leaving sober fact for the nightmare of fallen reason. Never does the smallest bit of desire toward Christ spring up in a sinner's heart but there is a grace to bring it to fruition in definite faith. Probably the questioner would prove to be a trifler bent on quibbling, in which case we should have to leave him. A really perplexed and anxious soul I would urge (instead of occupying himself about questions as to God's sovereignty, which are, and must be, above the ken of finite man) to rest with simple confidence in the Saviour, and to give heed to those great verities, which are so plainly declared that "the way-faring men, though fools, shall not err therein."
"Never let what you do not know disturb what you do know," said a wise and good man.
Never forget that He who said "All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me," immediately added: " and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37).
ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH.
A knowledge of "dispensational truth," as it is often termed, is indispensable for the intelligent reading of the Bible. Yet many Christians seem to have hardly given it a thought.
God has been pleased to deal with men at different times in various ways. Fresh revelations of Himself and of His will have ushered in new modes of dealing with men, new dispensations.
"Dispensational truth" teaches us to rightly distinguish these changes, and to discern their nature, so that the salient features of each may not be obscured. The importance of this for us Christians is that we thereby learn the true character of the calling wherewith we are called from on high, and of the age in which our lot is cast.
Up to the time of Christ a dispensation ran its course in which the prominent feature was Israel, the chosen nation of the stock of Abraham. The period in which we live, from Pentecost to the coming of the Lord, is marked by altogether different features. Not Israel, but the Church is prominent in God's thoughts to-day.
Before dwelling on the important distinctions between the two, let us be quite sure that we understand exactly what we are speaking about.
BY ISRAEL we do not mean the Jews, the scattered nation as they are to-day, nor as they were in the time of our Lord, a remnant still clinging to their ancient capital, Jerusalem. We do not allude to them as they actually existed at any time, but rather to what that nation was according to God's original plan for them.
When we speak of THE CHURCH we do not refer to any ecclesiastical building nor to any denomination, nor to any number of professed Christians banded together into what is called nowadays "a church." We use the term in its scriptural sense. The Greek word rendered "church" simply means "called-out ones." Those, who are called out of the world by God during this period of Christ's rejection, are by this means, and by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, banded together into God's assembly, the church.
It may be helpful to notice that in Scripture the term " church " is used in three ways: -
1. As denoting the aggregate number of the Christians in any given place (1 Cor. 1:2; Col. 4:15, etc.).
2. As the aggregate number of all Christians upon earth at any given time (1 Cor. 10:32; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 1:22, etc.). In this aspect the church is like a regiment which abides the same, though the units which compose it are constantly changing.
3. As the aggregate number of all Christians, called out and sealed with the Spirit between Pentecost and the coming of the Lord (Eph. 3:21; Eph. 5:25, etc.).
Of these the last is the sense in which we use the word in this Bible Talk; though, if we speak of the church as it exists on earth to-day, we obviously allude to it in its second aspect.
Be it remembered, however, that we refer, as in the case of Israel, not to what the church actually is, or has at any time been, but to what it is according to the original design and thought of God.
Having defined our terms, let us observe a few necessary distinctions.
1. John, the forerunner of the Lord, was the last of the long line of the prophets of the past dispensation. With him, God's utterances under the old covenant reached their full stop. With Christ, the new utterances began. "The law and the prophets were until John; since that time the kingdom of God is preached" (Luke 16:16).
The advent of Christ into the world was described by Zacharias as the coming of the dayspring (or, as the margin reads, "sun-rising") from on high. His appearance on earth heralded the dawn of a new day. Not that this new day was there and then inaugurated. The Lord Jesus had a mission to fulfil in the midst of Israel, and He must needs present Himself to that nation as their long-promised Messiah. Moreover, the broad foundations of purposed blessing must be laid amid the sufferings of Calvary. But when all this was past, when the Son of God had died and risen again, when He had ascended to heaven and sent down the Holy Ghost, then was inaugurated a dispensation that was new indeed, utterly different from all that had gone before.
2. The characteristic feature of the old dispensation was law, that of the new is grace. The giving of the law at Sinai ushered in the former. God formulated His demands upon men. He was to receive, and they were to give, that which was His due. The fact that failure came in immediately, failure so great as to amount to a total collapse, did not relieve men of their newly incurred responsibilities in the smallest degree. God, however, announced to Moses that He would have mercy (Ex. 33:19), and, withhold the threatened destruction in view of the coming of Christ. The law still held sway as "schoolmaster,'' and continued so to-do until Christ came (Gal. 3:24).
In Christ a power mightier than the law was present. The case of the sinful woman in John 8 beautifully illustrates it. Under the potent influence of grace, the hypocrites were convicted far more effectually than under law, and the sinner was forgiven, a thing which the law never professed to do. Now God gives and man receives. The new dispensation is marked by grace reigning through righteousness, unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 5:21).
3. The old dispensation centred round Israel, the new is connected with the church.
The law was given not to everybody, but to one nation, Israel. Upon that nation, therefore, God's attention was focused. The privileges of the children of Israel belonged to them nationally rather than individually. God always had His own secret dealings with the souls of individuals, and these dealings came into greater prominence in the days of national apostasy. But at the beginning God took them up nationally without reference to the spiritual state of individuals, and their standing before Him was on a national basis.
On the other hand, there is nothing national about the church. Peter declared, corroborated by James, that the divine programme for this dispensation is the visiting of the nations by God, "to take out of them a people for His name" (Acts 15:13, 14). God is now making an election from all nations, and those thus gathered out for His name compose "the church."
The church, then, is not national, nor is it international, it is rather extra-national, i.e., altogether outside of all national distinctions, and totally independent of them. Instead of being constructed on a national basis, it is represented in Scripture as "one flock" (John 10:16, R.V.), as "one body" (1 Cor. 12:13), as "a spiritual house, an holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5), as a family composed of the children of God (1 John 2:12; 1 John 3:1, etc.).
Moreover, in connection with the church God begins with the individual. It is composed of those who have personally been set in right relations with God. Only as forgiven, and as having received the Spirit to indwell them, do they become members of the one body, and "living stones" in the spiritual house.
4. Connected with Israel was a ritualistic worship, the value of which lay in its typical significance. The church's privileges are connected with the eternal realities themselves, with the substance rather than with the shadows. Her worship does not consist of sacrificial offerings, symbolic ceremonies, and the like, but is "worship in spirit and in truth."
The law had only "a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things" (Heb. 10:1). The good things have come, and are realized by Christians to-day. Christ has established them (Heb. 9:24; Heb. 10:12), the Spirit has revealed them ( 1 Cor. 2:9, 10), and the believer may gaze upon them with the eye of faith (2 Cor. 4:18).
5. Israel's blessings and privileges were largely of an earthly and material order. the church's are heavenly and spiritual.
In the Old Testament instructions were given as to the way in which the children of Israel should return thanks to God when they were actually in possession of the promised land. They were to take the first of all their fruits and set them in a basket before the Lord their God, with an acknowledgment of His goodness on their lips (Deut. 26:1-11).
Is the Christian to approach God in this way? On the contrary, when Paul wrote to the Ephesians as to the heavenly inheritance of Christians, far from speaking of material things, he said, "Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3).
How complete the contrast!
6. While Israel's destiny is to be the channel of blessing to all nations, during the golden years of the millennial age, the church's destiny is association with Christ in heaven. Isaiah 60 well describes the future of Israel. Revelation 19 and Revelation 21, under various figures, presents to us the destiny of the church as "the Lamb's wife."
Was there a definite time when God's ways with Israel ended and when the church period began?
It has already been pointed out that the death of Christ marked the close of God's dealings with Israel as a nation; and that His resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost inaugurated the present dispensation. Compare Acts 2:41-47 with 1 Corinthians 12:13.
Two qualifying remarks must, however, be made.
Firstly, that though God's ways with Israel reached their great climax in the cross, He, nevertheless, continued certain supplementary dealings with them until the death of Stephen, and perhaps even until the destruction of Jerusalem. Nor were the full designs of God as to the church made known in their entirety at the very outset of the present age. They were gradually revealed through the apostles, particularly through Paul, though the church itself began its corporate existence as stated.
Secondly, that God's ways with Israel have only ended for a time. Later on, in a day still future, they will be resumed, and the glorious promises made to that favoured nation be literally fulfilled. Israel has been side-tracked, as it were, while the church occupies the rails. When the church has been transferred to heaven, Israel will again be brought out upon the main line of God's dealings.
In Acts 7:38 Stephen speaks of "the church in the wilderness." And the headings to many Old Testament chapters refer to the church. Does it not appear from this that the church was in existence before Christ came?
Israel was undoubtedly "the assembly in the wilderness." Is there anything in this which would warrant our identifying Israel with the church of the New Testament? No more than the use of the same word in Acts 19:41 warrants our confounding the church in that city with the unruly mob of Diana's worshippers,
The application to the church of prophetic utterances in Old Testament headings of chapters (which are no part of the original text) is due to the mistaken views of well-meaning men.
But the mistake is a serious one, because it is by the confusion of Israel with the church that men have sought to justify the introduction into Christianity of Jewish elements and principles.
Were not such men as Abraham, Moses, and Elijah in the church? Does it not put a slight upon these honoured men to deny them a place therein?
By no means. Their lot was cast in the dispensation that is past. Viewed morally, these men tower as giants, while many of us Christians are but pigmies. Yet even John the Baptist, than whom none was greater, was, when viewed dispensationally, less then the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 11:11). He belonged to the age of servitude, we to the age of sonship (see Gal. 4:1-7).
The Lord's words in Matthew 11 concerning John were followed by those of Matthew 16:13-18 concerning Himself. He was not a mere prophet like Elijah, Jeremiah, or John, but the Son of the living God, and on that rock, said He, "I will build My church." Mark those two words: "will build." It was a future work of which the Lord spoke, and one in which these great men of old had no part.
What was God's object in calling out Israel into the special place they occupied?
They were called to take possession of the promised land for God, as a kind of pledge that the whole earth belonged to Him, in spite of the fact that Satan had usurped dominion over it. When they entered they crossed the Jordan as the people of "the Lord of all the earth" (Joshua 3:11, 13).
Further, they were to preserve in the world the stock "of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came" (Rom. 9:5).
Incidentally also, in that nation as a sample separated from the corruptions of the surrounding peoples, and privileged beyond all others, was made God's last trial of the human race. The records of their own law as cited in Romans 3:9-18 testified to their irremediable failure, and proved in this way the hopelessly fallen conditions of all. If, as Romans 3:19 puts it, the law utterly condemns the sample nation of the Jews, who were under it, then every mouth is stopped, and all the world is "guilty before God."
What is God's object and purpose in connection with the church?
The church is Christ's body (Eph. 1:23). Therefore in it He is to be expressed; just as your body is that in which you live and express yourself.
It represents Him here during the time of His rejection and personal absence in heaven. Satan has got rid of Christ personally from the earth, but He is here as represented in His people. To touch the church, or any who belong to it, is to touch Him. Do not His own words to Saul imply this: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" (Acts 9:4).
It is God's house, the only house He has upon earth at the present time. God will not be turned out of His own world! He dwells, therefore, to-day in a house which no Nebuchadnezzar, no Titus can burn to the ground, and which no Nero, no Torquemada has been able to destroy.
God's ultimate purpose is to have a bride for Christ (Eph. 5:25-27), a people who, sharing now as heavenly strangers His rejection, find their eternal portion as sharers of His heavenly glory.
Can you enumerate some of the blessings we Christians have, which even the best in Israel had not before Christ came?
The knowledge of God as Father, fully revealed in Christ, is one of the greatest of these blessings. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him" (John 1:18).
Another blessing is, instead of promises, we have the fact of accomplished redemption. The promissory bank-note has been exchanged for the fine gold of the finished work of Christ.
Further, the Holy Spirit now indwells believers (see John 14:16; Acts 2:1-4). Though He had always exerted His influence upon earth, His abiding presence here is a new thing.
Lastly, our relationships with God are on an entirely new footing in Christ. We are no more servants, but sons (Gal. 4:4-6).
Much more might be added, but these four facts will serve to show the wealth of blessing that belongs to the Christian.
Shall we not thank God that our lot is cast on this side of the cross of Christ?