The Rule of Life: what is it?

J. N. Darby.

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The rule of life — what is it? Of what life? of mere man, or of man partaker of the divine nature? Of man subjectively responsible to meet a claim, or of man displaying the divine character? Are they the same? Was the conduct binding on Adam the same as that which was suitable to the place Christ held in the world? Which is our standard, if they are different? Such are some of the questions which arise when I enquire "What is the rule of life?" It is evident that duties as such flow from the relationship in which I find myself. A child's duties are not a servant's nor a wife's. The duties of each, as of the parent or of the husband, flow from — and if rightly accomplished are the fulfilment of — what belongs to the place each is in. It is not a duty if one is not in the place.

It will be alleged, however, that there are certain immutable principles of right and wrong, an eternal law. But the question presents itself, Do not the duties flow from an ever-subsisting relationship? is not the obligation to love God and our neighbour as ourselves the consequence of our relationship to God and our neighbour? There may be — creation being assumed — necessary and constant relationships, or at least such apprehended by reason of it, which are thus always the rule of our duty. The fact of the character of the relationship involves the duty, the name of the relationship is the name of the duty. Conjugal affection, conjugal submission, parental love, filial obedience, all express this great truth. But the relationship and the duty cease together; if the relationship has never existed, the duty cannot. If it ceases for all, the duty ceases in fact absolutely as to the persons. The idea of God, even of Adam, excludes the idea of a neighbour, and makes the duty of love to his neighbour an impossible one, if I think of God or even of Adam; of God absolutely because He is God, of Adam in fact because he was created alone. These obligations or duties may be of inferior to superior, or between equals, or of superior to inferior, but implying (I think) a superior to whom the relative inferior is subject, a created superiority. They may be thus so far complicated that the duty may be to an equal, or to an inferior, or even to a superior, yet the responsibility in the relationship be to another. This results from created relationships which form duties, and a Creator's authority, to whom we are besides responsible to maintain them. This gives in itself a sanction; or a positive sanction, as it is called, may be attached to the law and obligation of the relationship, but the measure of duty depends on the relationship itself. But it becomes obedience, and legal obedience it may be. From a creator to a creature I cannot draw a duty as a necessary result of the relationship as duty or obligation. God's supremacy is the first of all rights. He is in His nature supreme. He will act, if good, according to the relationship.

170 But another principle as to good and evil presents itself here, the display of a nature or character; and we conclude (not from duty, but) from character to acting in consistency with it. We have no title over any we are in relationship with — save in the measure and limits of that relationship, as a father, a husband. But a Creator has an absolute title and place, and hence we cannot speak of duty, or it is not absolute. But though imperfect judges, we do judge rightly in principle in another way.

There is such a thing as kindness, goodness, which is pleasant to the spirit in itself; and, where this is developed and God has been revealed, we conclude God will be such and consistent with Himself, and this is true, but supposes He is good and righteous. It must be remembered that men never formed for themselves such an idea of God. In extremity of need they might cry out for help and desire it, shewing themselves so far cognizant of God by their wants. The idea of love or care for His creatures formed no part of man's mythology nor result of his reasonings. Those who worshipped Him or behaved right were favoured. Power was recognized as to be propitiated or won. Goodness in man was liked; in God it was not known. Particular cases of intervention or favour to devotees was. Since revelation, man has had the thought. The Christian who does know God can even say, "Committing the keeping of our souls to him as to a faithful Creator." Man may and does make God a debtor to himself — in pride; but then he puts God out of His place and himself into it, and judges God. And even when he speaks of love (a word in this sense unknown in classical Greek), he forgets divine claims on himself, and divine supremacy too. Still, when through revelation I have known God, I have a new principle of good and evil, not duty, but the display of good. God is not under law to man, but, assuming man to have continued in natural goodness, God could not have been inconsistent with Himself, or He would not be Himself.

Another element too has come in. Man has been inconsistent with himself, with the relationship in which he was placed. So that, though the nature of duty cannot change, he is in no place at all with God, unless being an outcast and having thrown off God be a place. Still, when the idea of a good God has been re-awakened, we draw conclusions from it, often leaving out other essential parts of His character, and hence reasoning falsely always, unless under grace, forgetting our true place and state, but rightly judging that God cannot be inconsistent with Himself.

171 Such reasoning in man is, however, necessarily to no purpose, though there be abstractedly a true element in it, because the actual state of things is, on his simple supposition of goodness, a perfect riddle. Man must be insensible to what is, to conclude as to what must be; or he would find out that he was a lost sinner separated from God. For the world is a scene of misery and confusion, though goodness be also manifested in it. We have thus right and wrong, good and evil, brought before us in two quite distinct ways: the obligation connected with relationships which were formed by God — and these relationships, when not with God Himself, yet, in virtue of that with Him and our subjection to Him as creatures, enforced by His authority and it may be with the sanction of reward or threat of the consequences of unfaithfulness to it; secondly, the expression of nature, which may have its display in these relationships when they were formed according to it.

With God the relationship of a creature necessarily took the form of obedience where a will was expressed or even apprehended. When the duties of a relationship are enforced by express command, or any express command is given maintaining or founded on the claim to obedience attached to a relation implying authority, we have a law. If it be accompanied by a threatened or promised consequence, we have a law with a positive sanction. The display of a nature becomes a rule of life, though one of liberty when that nature places in a relationship of which its display is the measure and duty.

But in fact we have to consider other questions. When one has failed in a relationship and is become an outcast, what is the measure or rule of duty, and how is it to be applied? When tendencies quite contrary to the form and duties of that relationship, as self-will and lust and their fruits, have come in, how is the law of that relationship — that is, the authoritative assertion of the duty attached to it — to be applied? A man by his own sin cannot destroy the claim over him which another possesses. He may have lost his own rights or privileges in it, and not even be in a condition to fulfil them, but the claim of him with whom he is in relationship cannot be thus set aside. The duty remains even if the person be incapable of performing it. By my own fault I cannot destroy the title of another. If I owe one thousand pounds, my having by folly ruined myself disables me from paying, but does not destroy the claim of my creditor.

172 Such are the questions and considerations which an enquiry into "the rule of life" suggests. We will now look for the answer; and that the dealing of scripture with our conscience will afford. First of all, I look for the rule of christian life — the rule of the life which the Christian has received from Christ, which Christ is in him. If the christian relationship is that in which I am, the measure and form of my relationship, my rule of life, must be that of Christ in me, of Christ's life here below, and of the relationship in which the possession of that life puts me. But we will consider that which scripture puts before us from the beginning. It may help to clear our minds.

Adam had a double rule of life. He was set in blessing, with a nature suited to it, to dress and keep the garden, and manifest his thankfulness to Him who set him there. The breath of life breathed into his nostrils would naturally have gone up in praise to Him who had breathed it into him. He would have enjoyed with thankfulness the blessings in the midst of which he was placed, and have been the affectionate centre of those placed around him, the kind and good head of a subject world. His nature, though our data be small, would have loved and acted suitably in the place of blessing. We can see, from the circumstances of the discovery of his fall, that intercourse with God according to His good pleasure would have been his portion.

But another principle also appears. The condition of the continued enjoyment of this was attached to obedience, and death threatened. Not only was obedience claimed, besides worship and enjoyment and rule, but the threat of death on disobedience was added. He was placed in Paradise to enjoy and manifest the blessing of Him who had conferred it. He was placed under law; not a law supposing lust or sin, but a test of obedience, and the sanction of the threatened consequence of death on its breach.

He lost confidence in the goodness of which he was the earthly intelligent expression. He fell. Lust came in, transgression was accomplished. He was cast out of Paradise, the place of created goodness, and became subject to death as he had been threatened. Return was impossible. He knew good and evil for himself. It was not now a prohibition as a mere test of obedience — forbidding what there was no moral evil in, the evil being only disobedience. It was the loss of the simple enjoyment of good in relationship with God in a nature suited to and displayed in it. Man obtained the knowledge of good and evil in his own estimate of things; "the man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil." He knew such and such a thing was right or wrong, without a prohibition or a law. By his own internal conscience he knew right from wrong. We have here a most important truth or principle. A being may rise immensely in moral capacity, and fall infinitely in his relationship with God, and the happiness connected with it. His state as to apprehension of good and evil has nothing to do with a consequent enjoyment of good. It may be the loss of what he had before, and an immense increase of capacity for misery in the measure of his subjective change. Happiness is in the enjoyment of right relationships, not in capacity for them — when the object that forms them is not enjoyed. This is a very solemn truth, were it only "the waste of feelings unemployed." But it is not so — far from it; man's unfaithfulness, however, to his relationship to God could not destroy his duty, the duty which attached to the fact of his being His creature. He ought to have retained God in his knowledge, and, whatever humiliation was called for, owned it with God.

173 As I am occupied with the rule of life, I pass over the blessed intimations of grace which we find in scripture, the judgment of the serpent, the clothing of Adam and Eve, the sacrifice of Abel, the promise to Abraham, and even to Noah, with the too easily forgotten testimony of judgment in the flood.

A formal rule was given when God brought a people to Himself. The law was given by Moses. It put man, externally redeemed (or the idea would have been impossible), into the place of obedience, on the ground of God's claiming the fulfilment by man of the duties of the relationship in which he stood with God and with his neighbour. It was not now one central head of a race in blessing and obedience, tested when in the enjoyment of blessing, but individuals responsible to God and called to act up to that responsibility, and to their duty towards neighbours, or equal companions in a like position, while sanctioning the natural relations in which God had originally placed man, and which He still maintained. As a hidden principle which grace could find there, there was the claim of love to God and our neighbour as ourselves, and an open positive series of commandments maintaining relationships, and positively forbidding the breaches of them to which sin, self-will, independence, and lust, with ignorant subjection to the devil, now disposed man. Except as the redemption of the people displayed goodness, there could be no claim of a conduct according to it. And even as to this, it was not the expression of a new nature in man (though that alone can fulfil it), but the claim of consistency with the relationship they were in as a matter of duty. Thou shalt love.

174 The law, then, supposing Israel's redemption by God, was founded as a system on the duties of the relationship of man as such with God: on Adam's duties modified by the coming in of sin and God's taking up a people for Himself; but taking them up as men on the earth. He could not have taken up the heathen as such — it is not here a question how Enoch, Job, and others may have lived to Him, but He could not have taken up the heathen as such, for man was an outcast judicially and alienated from God. But when He had taken up Israel and externally redeemed him, then came a rule of life. A rule of life, now we are fallen, belongs to a redeemed people; i.e., none other can have it dispensationally from God. It would be owning what He had cast out judicially already. But when He had taken up Israel, God placed him on the footing of his original relationship, of his duties as man, only modified by the fact of the entrance of sin and the knowledge of good and evil. It was not the expression of a nature communicated, but the claim of a relationship where duties were to be fulfilled, assuming lusts and independence and self-will. It was a perfect rule for man in the flesh. Sanctions accompanied — life if obeyed, a curse if disobeyed. It became a perfect expression of claim, relationship, and sin, but not of any nature communicated and displayed in goodness; for man to whom it was addressed had an evil one. In its highest aspects, it was what man ought to be with God and his neighbour, but what responsible man who now knew good and evil ought to be. In the day when God will judge the secrets of men's hearts, He will judge the heathen on their own ground. They that have sinned without law will perish without law,* as they that have sinned under the law will be judged by it. The law then is the rule of life to man in the flesh, alive as a child of Adam; the expression, not of life in him, but of a claim upon him in that natural relationship with God. "I am the Lord thy God — thou shalt." There is no other for heathen if we suppose a rule, but they were not under it, and will be judged, as God has declared, on another ground.

{*This is a striking proof of the unsoundness of the translation in 1 John 3, "Sin is the transgression of the law." The word so translated there is the same, only a noun, here put in express contrast with transgressing the law; they have sinned without law — lawlessly; and that is the sense in 1 John 3. Sin is lawlessness.}

175 The other kind of rule of life, the expression of a nature like God, failed under the law. I do not mean that no individual had this life, but it was not the ground which the law went upon. It required a living man to live up to the relationship he was in. If he did, he would live. But when man was put to the test, it was found that on this ground there was no hope; that his flesh was not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So that they that were in the flesh could not please God; so that what was ordained for life, what promised it on obedience, was effectually to death, a ministration of death and condemnation. This life, the expression of God's nature and goodness, it is clear the flesh was NOT. It was enmity against Him; and if the rule of life came as a claim, it found a rebellious will and corrupt lusts. The law thus became death and condemnation, and Christ could not to any purpose be a model for a nature which was enmity against God. He was a model for man, but in a life which in its nature and character was exactly the opposite of the Adam-nature and life. Love is of course right, but love cannot be a rule for enmity. Holiness is right, but cannot be a guide for corruption; it becomes a condemning light, not exactly a law, but practically, as a model, the same thing. It condemns the conscience, and no more, as such. Thus the law works death and condemnation, and all the effort of a man (once its true claims, its spirituality, are known) only results in the discovery of this: — "I found to be unto death," says the apostle; "when the law came, sin revived and I died." But then it produced this: "I by the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God." In a word, brought fully into the conscience, it not only condemns actual sins, but the working (in its first displays, namely, lusts) of the nature that is there. And by it thus the renewed soul learns that in it, that is in the flesh, there is no good thing. In result the nature is judged, death written on it in the conscience and for the spiritual judgment and heart. By the law we are dead to the law. But if this were all, it would evidently be condemnation too, for it shews our guilt. By the law is the knowledge of sin (not merely sins), and sin by the commandment becomes exceeding sinful.

176 Well, now comes a totally new life connected with redemption, and death to the sinful nature is immense gain. "I through law am dead to law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live," &c. The soul bows to the just judgment against itself, but through the death of Christ finds its sins blotted out and forgiven, redemption accomplished, and Christ its righteousness before God. It is at peace and accepted in the Beloved. But another truth accompanies this — Christ is its life. We are made partakers of the divine nature, and this has its full force by the Holy Ghost dwelling in us; by Him we know that we are in Christ and Christ in us. It is for this life we want a rule. It will fully recognize our previous obligations and sinfulness in respect of them. It can understand that the law, even if as a heathen it was never personally under it, is the perfect rule given to man in the flesh; a law violated by all his acts, and to which that flesh was not and could not be subject. But it knows that we are not in the flesh; it says, "when we were in the flesh." But we are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, because the Spirit of God dwells in us. Hence it does not look for a rule of life in the law, because that was a rule of life for a man in the flesh, a child of Adam. And we have died to the law — are delivered from it, if we have been under it, having died in that in which we were held. He is now a child of God, has the life of Jesus, and looks to the word of God for the rule for that life.

We have seen there is another measure or rule of life — the display of, and consistency with, the life in which we live, and the relationship in which we are placed. Such would have been the abiding rule for created Adam, supposing he had stood the test. Now, though we are yet in the body, Christ risen from the dead is become ours consequent on accomplished redemption; we are reconciled to God, and Christ's relationship is that of Son; was so on earth and ever is. And He has brought us into the same relationship through His work. He is gone to His Father and our Father, His God and our God. Here then is our measure and rule of right and wrong: the manifestation of the life of Christ and consistency with the relationship of sons as He was in it and walked in it. The rule of life then is Christ's walk, who manifested God in flesh; not what would be claimed from Adam, but what was displayed in Christ; the manifestation of the divine life and nature, not the mere righteous claim of God on man in the flesh, with a test of obedience whose fitness and immense importance we can easily apprehend.

177 The rule of life for unfallen Adam was consistency with the innocent nature and place of blessing in which God had set him. He should have felt and walked in consistency with this.

To continue man's subsequent history briefly and see what rule of life is before us in scripture — warnings, we know, were given, as by Enoch and Noah, but the scene after the fall ended in the flood. The power of evil in corruption and violence was judged. For them the knowledge of God (brought with them from the beginning), conscience, the testimony of these prophets, with the witness of God in the creation, was the rule by which they would be judged. So others, as the apostles, teach us after them. It is evident when God was revealed — as to Enoch — the true knowledge of God as far as given. in grace would guide. So with Abraham: the revelations God made to him of Himself, realized by faith, would form the guide and rule of his conduct. "I am the Almighty God, walk before me and be thou perfect." Conscience surely was there, but the original and constant revelations of God impressed their character on his walk by faith. All these are partial revelations. Yet it was thus the elders obtained a good report; they walked by faith.

At length the law was given; and in this was — a comparatively hidden part which the Lord drew out from its recesses, but on which all hung — love to God and one's neighbour; and the public and almost entirely prohibitory part which openly supposed sin and forbad it. It referred to obligation and claimed its fulfilment. It took up relationships, assumed their existence and obligation, and pronounced a curse on failure, promising enjoyment of life on obedience. The mass of mankind were hidden in darkness — the times of ignorance at which God winked. The time was not come for the revelation of the Gentiles (for that is the force of the passage). The law was given to a people placed in relationship by redemption with a God who had revealed Himself to them, and now looked for the maintenance of duty towards God and towards each other. The Gentiles had no place. It supposed and tested whether man was free. Individuals really walked by faith as ever, but of course took the law in obedience as their rule. In fact, as we know, they were by nature children of wrath as others, and the law brought this fully out, in the public judgment of the nation outwardly, and in the conscience when its spirituality was known. But all this went on the ground of man's duties as a living man.

And though from Adam there was new nature in those born of God (and that certainly shewed itself), yet the perfection of that nature in a man had never been displayed. In Christ this was the case. The divine nature and heavenly perfection shewed itself in His walk. He was in His path here (and the cavils of objectors make me the rather use these words) a divine and heavenly man. He was essentially and truly that — the Lord from heaven, and displaying what was divine and heavenly in this world. In Him it flowed from its source; for us it is a perfect example; but it was the display of divine life, of God in man, and the rule of that life for all else. In us this hangs on these points, redemption out of the standing of the old man, and perfect reconciliation with God, our being in Christ, consequent on His having accomplished the work, so that our place is a perfect one before God — is Christ's place. There is no question between us and God. We are in spirit in our Father's house, created again in Christ Jesus. It is not a question of imposing a claim on one in rebellion, or as a test of obedience for the enjoyment of life. The soul has recognized, as a starting point, entire condemnation on this ground, and no good thing in us. Jew or Gentile, we are by nature children of wrath; but not only so, we have been perfectly redeemed out of that place; we are dead (for faith) to the nature in which we once lived — by the cross of Christ, crucified with Him, nevertheless we live; yet not we, but Christ lives in us. Our place being before God, "as He is, so are we in the world." Christ is our life. We are only that, as to what we own, for faith. No doubt we are it in weakness and temptation, the flesh lusting against the Spirit; but that has nothing to do with our rule of life, but with our difficulties in carrying it out. Our rule of life is simple: that life in which Christ as a man displayed the character of God; His love, His holiness, is the rule of life to us, because we have the life which was displayed in it. It takes, of course, and necessarily, the relationships in which Christ stood — a Son and obedience and love to His Father; but while it has love to God and obedience as its secret springs, yet it is not as satisfying a claim, a measured claim — but it is effectual, has its constant measure and rule in the display of the life which we have, which is a divine one. As to divine claim even, it is not a prescribed measure of conduct; we are not our own at all. The claim is ourselves, not a measure of obedience. If this life subsists in and is characterized by love to God and love to our neighbour as it is in its nature, it clearly does not break the law; but its rule is the display of the divine nature in a man, afforded us in Christ. Hence, while we owe everything and ourselves to God, it is the free and thankful outgoing of our new nature, the life of Christ in us (as would have been the case as to Adam in respect of his life of innocence), not an imposed claim of law, but different in principle and nature, and higher in its measure as in its nature; not what the first man ought to be for God, but what the Second was as displaying Him. We have — fruits, the fruit of the light, the fruits of the Spirit, not a necessary and enforced claim — obedience, (for who shewed such as Christ did?) love enjoyed and active, holiness, God's holiness, of which He makes us partakers.

179 Let us see how the scriptures speak of these things. First, Peter tells us we are made partakers of the divine nature; we are born of the Spirit, born through the word which reveals the divine mind and nature. Christ Himself is our life. (Col. 3.) The life of Jesus is to be manifested in our mortal body. (2 Cor. 4.) We are to produce the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5), of light (Eph. 5);* i.e., of that which is our nature as in the Lord. The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given us. (Rom. 5.) Hence we dwell in love, that is, in God, and God in us. So we know we are in Christ and Christ in us. The Father and the Son, as to our enjoyment of it, come and make their abode with us. It is well we should recall these things, that we may cultivate communion and attribute whatever good is wrought in us, or displayed by us, to its true source, and that, not by looking at the good, but at the source of it, so that it should flow forth. And the apostle uses the fact of the indwelling of the Holy Ghost as a motive against common gross sins. What lifts us above saves us from what is below. The divine nature and its manifestation is our model: "Be ye followers of God as dear children, and walk in love as Christ has loved us and given himself for us a sacrifice and an offering to God as a sweet smelling savour." It does not cease to be obedience. It was such in Him. It does not fail of having consecration to God in heart and ways, even to death if needed; that characterized His life. The love that comes down working in man always goes up first of all to God in self-offering; and in that is love to others, offering oneself for them. This is divine perfection as manifested in Christ. We, as faithful to Him, loving Him, ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. Hereby know we love, that He laid down His life for us, and we shall shew His life and spirit in doing it.

{*This is the true reading.}

The rule of life then is, not a legal claim on man as man, just and right as that was, but the manifestation of divine life and love in the place in which they, and the divine grace which has given us a part in them, have set us (Christ Himself being the pattern and display of this in its own perfection). This will be the relationship in which we are to God in Christ, to a sinful world, and to the brethren, as it was in Him. "He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk as he walked." God makes us through His discipline partakers of His holiness. We are light in the Lord, and are to walk as children of light, and Christ gives it to us. Let our light (not our works) so shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify the true source of them all. It is a new nature, the divine nature, the life of Christ, the Holy Ghost dwelling in us as its power, in which, knowing we are in Him before God, and perfect love and acceptance resting upon us, we are set in this world the manifestation of the divine character in man and its ways in Christ, the epistle of Christ. Conflict exercises, that our scenes may discern good and evil according to this, always carrying about the dying of the Lord Jesus in our body, that nothing may hinder the manifestation of the life of Jesus; death thus works in us as to self, and so only life in Christ in others with whom we have to do. All this there will or should be; but the rule and measure of life is Christ, the display of His life, walking as He walked, following His steps in the joy in which the consciousness of being in Him before God places us, in the sorrow that filled His heart in passing through a world of evil. No doubt there has to be growth in us, but God is faithful not to suffer us to be tempted above that we are able to bear. And a young Christian, a babe in Christ, if devoted in heart and humble, has his place and beauty in Christ as well as the father. It is a wonderful place, but the place in which God has set us.

180 It has been said, Still Christ kept the law. Surely He did; He was "born under the law," of course was perfect in it; and in result so does he who walks in love; but He, besides this, manifested God in a man. And we are connected with Him, united to Him when He is no longer under law, having died to it in Him when He died, and risen up from death wholly out of that place. It is this that Paul refers to (i.e., this whole position of Christ in flesh), when he says that he knows Christ no more after the flesh. It is this, I doubt not, which is the true force of Ephesians 2:10 — good works which God hath afore prepared. The kind of work was prepared afore, as well as the place and blessing in Christ — works suited to this place were afore prepared too.