Romans 7:18; Hebrews 11:5; Romans 8:10-19
I need scarcely say, to those who may read the following remarks, that we must get the truth of God from the revelation which He has made to us by means of the Holy Scriptures. Our own natural thoughts, even when they seem to be right, reasonable, and in agreement with that revelation, are useless, and more likely than not to lead us into a morass of error, from which we may never in this life find deliverance. The Word of God only is inerrant, and in it only is life, health, and blessing; and these are all there just because it is His Word, the revelation of Himself—Himself, I say, for “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1; 8:25).
But in the reading and study of this priceless revelation, we require to remind our hearts of our dependence upon the One whose revelation it is for understanding of the sacred text. We need not fear to dig deep into its wondrous depths—we are rather exhorted to do so (Prov. 2:1-9), and His Spirit is our Teacher (1 John 2:27). For the understanding of the great thoughts of God we are not dependent upon our own natural ability; for the natural man, be he stupid or clever, cannot lay hold of them (1 Cor. 2:14).
Then again, we require to be watchful that we do not mix up things that differ, and that we neither add to His words nor take away from them (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19). We must also see that we take good heed to the various dispensations, in which, and by means of which, the ways of God with fallen men are brought to light. If we approach the Word in a careless and profane manner, we are more likely to do harm to our souls than to do good (2 Peter 3:16).
It is necessary also that we should have the utmost patience with one another, for in the apprehension of the mind of God we are all more or less defective. We are not required to endorse everything that pretends to be a ministry of the truth, for though the prophets may speak, two or three, the others have to judge (1 Cor. 14:29); and if a man bring not the doctrine of Christ we must have nothing to do with him (2 John 10), though we are to receive all those who do (3 John 5-8).
With these few, and, I think, necessary, remarks, I would turn the reader’s attention to the scriptures at the head of this paper, seeking help from God that the truth may come before our souls with some measure of clearness. And I turn to them because they appear to some minds to be a little contradictory.
“In flesh,” and “in Spirit;” “under law,” and “under grace,” are contrasts found largely in the writings of the great Apostle of the Gentiles. To be in flesh is to be on the footing upon which God placed man at the beginning, responsible to maintain himself in life and blessing with God by obedience. In fact, it is to be in the standing, relationship, and responsibility of a child of Adam, the state and condition of every man previous to conversion. In all past dispensations this was the way in which all men were viewed under the governmental dealings of God.
Now in Romans 7:5 in the flesh is viewed as the believer’s past state by nature; and in chapter 8:9 we read, “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.” Here two things are said concerning the believer in whom the Spirit of God dwells—First; he is not in flesh. He is not on the line of the first and fallen head. Second: he is in Spirit. He has been born of the Spirit; and “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” as truly as “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). The believer is a child of God, and though the necessity of new birth was not declared in the past dispensations, nor could it have been, yet from the beginning all who were in vital relations with God were so born.
That a man must be born again to be in blessing with God was just as true the moment the fall took place as it was when Nicodemus heard it from the lips of the Son of God, in the night of the proved alienation of Israel from Jehovah. But this great truth could not have been divulged while the trial of the fallen race was in progress, for had it been made known the trial of man must of necessity have closed, for to say a man must be born again is to declare the fallen sinner to be hopelessly lost, and if this be true of him it is vain keeping him longer under trial. This statement is only made when every means that could be used for the recovery of the sinner had been exhausted, and when he was found to be unmendably evil.
Every creature brings forth of its kind, and that which is born of the flesh is flesh. It is never spirit. It cannot be changed into something else. It minds the things of the flesh. It is enmity against God. It neither is, nor can be, subject to God’s law, and therefore are we told: “They that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:5-8). No man after that order either lives to God, loves Him, or can please him.
A few other things are said of such, and that by the law, which was given to Israel as the measure of their obligations, the fulfilment of which entitled them to life upon earth (Lev. 18:5). This law, which is holy, just, and good, declares of all under it that there is not one that does good or seeks after God (Rom. 3:10-19).
And yet in apparent contradiction of what we have in Romans 3 and 8, David, and surely he was under law, says to the Lord, “With my whole heart have I sought Thee”; and Enoch, though in the flesh, walked with God three hundred years, and before his translation had this testimony, “that he pleased God” (Heb. 11:5).
Has the law then borne false witness? This cannot be it is too just for that. And David was under it? Yes. And it says he did not seek God. No, it does not. Well, of them that are under it it does say, “There is none that seeketh after God.” It seems to some minds that this was all the same as saying that David did not seek God, but it is not; nor is it the same thing to say that Enoch did not please God, as to say that they that are in the flesh cannot please Him. For certainly David did seek the Lord, and Enoch did please God.
The apparent want of harmony in these scriptures is easily accounted for, if we keep in mind that man is viewed as in the flesh for the first four thousand years of his sinful history, and that he was tested under the various dispensations of God, in order that what was in his nature might be brought into evidence, before, as belonging to that order, he should be set aside in the judgment of the cross. Hence all were viewed as in the flesh during the past dispensations, and in addition to that all Israel were placed under law at Sinai. The law was but the measure of the responsibilities of a child of Adam.
Among men there were righteous and wicked, good and bad, children of God and children of Belial, but all were outwardly in the same position before God. Dispensationally all Israel were in the same relationship with Jehovah. The sons of Beliel, who were, I suppose, the same morally as the children of the Devil in the New Testament, were God’s people equally with men like David or Samuel. I say dispensationally, for it was not so vitally.
During the dispensations which were bringing to light the moral ruin of the old order, He was secretly working in His mighty grace, and producing a generation that was a seed of God in the midst of a wilderness of briars and thorns. The first subject of this grace was Abel, whose righteous acts proved him to be born of God, for “everyone that does righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:29). Ostensibly and dispensationally, as I have said, such were in no different relationship with God than others, but were they not vitally? They most surely were. But though they were sons they were under tutors and governors like everyone else of the same nation. Until the advent of the Son they had neither authority nor ability to take the place of sons, though sons they were (John 1:12-13; Gal. 4:1-7).
Were they under law? Ostensibly they were, but not in their vital relationships with God, for if they had been held to law as a means of life they never would have reached it but would always have been under death, condemnation, and the curse (2 Cor. 3:7-9; Gal. 3:10). As far as I see, even though conscious of being in the favour of God, they knew nothing of the mighty work, which was wrought in their souls through the instrumentality of the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, by which they became children of God, but children of God they were, and under grace, though dispensationally children of men and under law.
But the trial of man being over the whole truth has come to light, and we are privileged to look back upon the operations of grace in past dispensations and witness with wondering and worshipping hearts its secret and sovereign workings in the midst of a lost and hopeless race of rebels against God. Now the truth is out, and men are told of the innate enmity of the flesh against God, and of its utterly rebellious disposition against His law.
We are told plainly that men must be born again; that the probation of flesh has come to an end; that God has begun afresh on the line of spirit, that He is setting up all things in His own power; that blessing is to lie no longer in the responsibility of the creature; that the whole universe of blessing is to subsist in Divine power; that even the angels who have not fallen are elect; that we have received the Spirit of God in order to be able to take the place of children; that we have passed out of darkness into light, out of death into life; that we are not in flesh, but in spirit; not under law, but under grace; that we know the Father; that our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ; that our Saviour has by His death annulled death and him that has the power of it, the devil; that Christ has gone up on high, and has secured a place for us; that He is coming again to bring us into it.
These things could not have been known to saints in the past dispensations, for Christ had not come, the work of redemption had yet to be accomplished, and the Spirit was only in promise. But the true light having come and the Spirit given, and the Word of God complete, we can look back over the ages that are past as those that are better acquainted with the position of Old Testament saints than they themselves were. What infinite favour our God has bestowed upon us! May we truly appreciate the grace that has given to us a complete revelation of Himself, and that has also bestowed upon us the Holy Spirit, that we might understand the contents of that wondrous and divine revelation, and that we might come out down here as those that appreciate and exhibit the virtues of Him that has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light.