The Young Believer's Difficulties

A Dialogue, the Substance of Various Conversations.

C. Stanley.

No. 1.

James. With your permission, John, before I state my difficulties, may it not be well to see first if we are agreed as to who are meant in scripture by believers? The words of the Lord Jesus you often quote to me, “Verily, verily, I say to you, he that hears my word, and believes on him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation” — do not these words teach that a believer is born again — Hath everlasting life? That he has not merely assented with his mind: but receives the words of Christ into his heart, believing God who sent Him.

John. Certainly, James: and as said elsewhere righteousness is imputed, or reckoned to us “if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 4:24; 5:1.) Such then is the believer. He has eternal life, as Jesus says, “I give to them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” And, believing God, he is accounted righteous. He sees his Sin-bearer once delivered to bear his sins, now in the presence of God his righteousness, raised from among the dead: sins all gone for ever, and never to be remembered any more. And, being accounted righteous, being justified on the principle of faith, he has peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: and therefore always the same peace.

James. Very well; now then, bearing in mind that we have — for, through the mercy of God, we have believed God, and our ears have been opened to hear the words of Jesus — yes, we have these two things, eternal life, and unchanging peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. I will now state my difficulties.

John. Stay a moment first, James. You might have named much more. Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed?

James. I have been much struck, with that question lately. It is a very solemn one. Most Christians seem to go no further than our having life: but I see a great distinction in Acts 8:16; 19:2. It would be a very important question to examine fully, and I should like on another occasion to do so; especially the difference between holding the Holy Spirit to be an influence, and, as scripture reveals Him, the very person of God the Holy Ghost. And, oh, to think that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost!

John. Then do I understand you to say that you have, since you believed, received the Holy Ghost?

James. It is a very solemn question, through grace I trust I can say so, though very young in the faith, and greatly desiring, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, to inquire more fully the meaning of the word of God.

The first scripture then I would name is Hebrews 6. If we have eternal life, and peace with God, what can this mean, “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, &c … If they shall fall away to renew them again to repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame”? There are many who feel this is a very difficult statement.

John. If this meant, should a Christian in an unwatchful moment commit a sin, and thereby fall from Christ, that then there is no possibility of restoration, then indeed the difficulty would be insurmountable. Indeed plainly Christianity would be far worse than Judaism. A Jew could bring a sin-offering and his sin would be forgiven him, as is stated in Leviticus 4. And this was true whether of the whole congregation, or of an individual. Now surely this cannot be the meaning.

James. That certainly is clear; but then what does it mean?

John. It is important to notice that this epistle was addressed or written to the whole of the Hebrews who professed to be Christians, who were also zealous of the law, as James said: “Thou seest brother, how many thousands of the Jews there are who believe; and they are all zealous of the law.” They were in a transitionary state. The law was not the perfect or complete truth. It contained the first, or elementary principles, of the oracles of God. The effect of their remaining in this state was, that they could scarcely distinguish between Judaism and Christianity: they were dull of hearing. “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God.” (Heb. 5:12.)

James. Then is that what is meant, “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ” (or the word of the beginning of Christ) as in margin, “let us go on to perfection”? Does this mean leaving the elementary principles of truth as known to a Jew, and going on to the complete truth, that is as revealed in Christ?

John. Exactly so; and that makes all that follows very simple. Let us take up each clause. “Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.” They had done this once if Christians, they had judged themselves as guilty of rejecting the Lord Jesus, and putting Him to death; yet faith toward God had owned Him, in raising up Jesus from the dead. This change of mind in utter self-judgment had accepted forgiveness of sins in His name, and thus the only foundation had been laid, which could not be repeated. But as they were zealous of the law, they were in great danger of going back when they failed, as of old, to repeated offerings and repentances. You observe, James, Christianity as set up of God the Holy Ghost, was such a contrast to Judaism. The Christian has no temple, no ritual, no sacrifices, nothing for the eye to rest upon. All heavenly: all spiritual worship: no wonder there was such a tendency to give up the spiritual, and go back altogether to earthly visible worship.

James. I had not thought of that: then do you think it was to meet that tendency to give up Christ, and go back altogether to the law that this Epistle was written? I mean to the washings of the law, the offerings and shadows, and even truth as imperfectly revealed, or incompletely known by the Jews? Does not the next clause mean christian baptism?

John. If you look, it is not baptism, but “of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands.” The same word is translated washings in chapter 9, “Meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances,” &c.

That is, we must go on to Christ, the one offering, leaving behind the doctrine of all the various washings, of pots and pans; lepers, and priests of the law. And also all the laying on of hands on the heads of goats and bullocks. We must go on from all that system of repetition, to the one sacrifice brought out in chapters 9 and 10.

James. That is new to me; but when we think of the object of this Epistle it is clear enough. But tell me, how can we go on from the doctrine “of resurrection of the dead;” is there anything more complete than that doctrine?

John. The Jewish doctrine of resurrection of the dead is certainly true as far as it goes, and was held by the Pharisees, and all Jews, except the Sadducees, who, like the heathen philosophers, denied it. But the Lord Jesus taught a resurrection from the dead, or, plainly, from among the dead. (Luke 20:35.) And have you not noticed this was the very thing that so grieved the Jews: that the apostles preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead? The resurrection which is from the dead went beyond all their teaching, and greatly offended them. And was not this the mark at which Paul aimed — the resurrection from the dead (not of the dead), at which he longed to arrive? (Phil. 3:11-14.) And has not God been pleased to reveal that the rest of the dead live not again until the thousand years are fulfilled? (Rev. 20.)

James. I had never thought of this important difference between the imperfect, or incomplete revelation to the Jews, and the complete christian truth in Christ.

John. I am glad to hear you put it that way; for though not explained in this Epistle, it is elsewhere. All this is linked with Christ the Head. We are conformed to Him in this, the first resurrection from the dead. It is the resurrection of them that are His. “But every man in his own order: Christ the first-fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming: then comes the end,” &c. (1 Cor. 15:23.) I am sorry to say, James, instead of going on, the professing church for many centuries went back to Judaism, and merely held the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead; and quite lost the christian doctrine of resurrection from the dead.

James. I will, the Lord helping me, give this subject a careful examination. But now the next clause, “and of eternal judgment.” Is not the doctrine of a general judgment as held by the Jews true? Will not all stand together before the judgment to be tried? Is not this the doctrine of creeds and councils? Does not scripture say somewhere that it is appointed to all men once to die, and after death the judgment? And does it not say that the wicked and the righteous will be raised from the grave together, and be separated as described, the sheep on the right, and the goats on the left? &c. I do not see how these things can be from what we see is said of the first resurrection. But, John, why I ask is this, so many speak in this way, it puzzles one very much.

John. If you examine these scriptures you will find they are very much misquoted. By adding even a word the whole meaning is altered. Thus if we add the word “all” to Hebrews 9:27, it alters the sense entirely. If you heard a fearful explosion in a coal pit, where three hundred hands are employed, and fifty had just come out, you might say that explosion is certainly the death of the colliers; but would that mean the fifty who had been drawn out? Or if twenty men were under the sentence of death, and three received Her Majesty’s free pardon, would that mean that the whole twenty were still under the sentence of death? It is quite true that all have been found guilty — all under the sentence of death.

“And as it is appointed to men [not all men] once to die, but after this the judgment; so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and to them that look for him shall he appear the second time, without sin to salvation.” (Heb. 9:27.) And now, James, if you will read that other scripture where the Lord Jesus describes the judgments of the living nations, there is not a thought of the resurrection of the good and bad together. There is not a word on that subject, it is simply the living nations; it is a judgment of the quick. Surely there must be a great difference between those still under judgment, and those already pardoned, and justified from all things? Her Majesty cannot pardon a man, and hang him at the same time. Then how can God both justify a man, whose sins Christ bore on the tree, and also bring him into judgment? This does not touch the blessedness of standing before the Bema of Christ, His judgment for reward.

Thus the apostle would go on from the elementary truth, as known to the Jews, to complete truth in Christ.

James. Then is all in contrast between the doctrine of a general judgment as held by the Jews, and Christ having once borne the sins of many; to them there is no judgment for sins but looking for Him without any question of sin to salvation? All I can say is, if that is the case, it is just the opposite of what I have been taught.

John. The word of God says it; and it must be so.

James. Then what was the difference between those who had tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, tasted the good word of God, &c.; and the true believers who had eternal salvation?

John. They had been in the shower of Pentecost and afterwards, they had tasted, but had not (like the earth in verse 7) drunk in the truth. Like the seed by the way-side, there was no root. The hard ground had not been broken. The heart had not been prepared by the Holy Ghost to receive the word.

James. Then what did they fall away from?

John. If they fell away from the profession of Christ, and went back to the washings and offerings of the law (just the thing they would be naturally), it was simply impossible now for those washings, and offerings, and carnal ceremonies, to restore them to repentance. Yea, for Jews to give up Christianity as a profession, they would, even to this day, have to treat Christ as accursed, as an impostor, “to crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” Will you read this chapter to the end, James? We must part now for a time.

James. I see now it is a question of a Jew who professed Christ going back to Judaism. I should like to look at Hebrews 10:26, If we sin wilfully, no more sacrifice, nothing but judgment, &c. When could you explain this?

John. If the Lord will, we shall look at this scripture the next time we meet.

No. 2.

James. I am very glad to have another opportunity of speaking with you about those scriptures which have perplexed so many. Before we look at the question of sinning wilfully, I would just say, I have done as you wished in reading the whole of Hebrews 6, and the end of the chapter strongly confirms the view you gave me — that the falling away there was going back from Christianity to the washings and sacrifices of the law, which, of course, have now lost all their efficacy, and can never restore to repentance. Would you say that the principle of promise and oath of God is also in contrast with Judaism, that is, the covenant of works as given at Sinai?

John. Exactly so. For instance, in that covenant there were two parties, and Moses as mediator between them. God, on His part, engaged to bless them on condition of their obedience; and they accepted the conditions, and engaged to obey. We know they utterly failed; and so do all who attempt that principle of covenant. The blessing depended on the faithfulness of two parties — God and man. Man failed. Where it is the principle of promise, the blessing depends only on one. If you engage a servant, his wages are dependent on the faithfulness of two: you to pay them, and he to do the covenanted work. Now in this matter of our eternal salvation, God wishes us to have absolute certainty, sure and stedfast. He therefore gave us two things, in which it was impossible for Him to lie — His promise and His oath. The promise and oath of God are both immutable. Nothing can disannul the promise of God. (See Gal. 3:16-18, 19-22.) What a contrast this is to man under the covenant of law! Our eternal salvation depends solely on the promise and oath of God. Yes, as with Abraham, the promise of Genesis 12 was confirmed when he received in figure Isaac from the dead, in chapter 22. So the promise is fulfilled to us in the actual death and resurrection of Jesus from the dead. What certainty! what “strong consolation”!

James. Yes; but that just brings us to the point: if our eternal salvation rests on the faithfulness of One, and that one God, who cannot lie, what, then, is the meaning of Hebrews 10:26-30? “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more sacrifice for sins but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries,” &c. Can this possibly be the doom of one who is eternally saved, has eternal redemption?

John. You put the question strongly, but I am thankful for it. Better to look things fairly in the face. The question, then, again is this: if a true Christian should commit a sin, is there nothing but judgment and indignation for him? Solemn question, for then who could be saved? But then this would contradict the very context of the chapter. Would it not plunge all into despair?

James. I must confess, if this were so, I should be without hope: besides, such a thought would take away all the comfort of what goes before. And, may I ask, would it not deny the effect of the atonement, as stated in this very chapter? I should like to be a little clearer as to this — what is it to have no more consciousness of sins? (Heb. 10:2.)

John. It is to know that God has not a single sin to lay to my charge. If you met a person to whom you owed a large debt, and had no means of paying, you would be so troubled in conscience, you might want to turn up the first lane you could, so as to get out of his sight. The more you desired to pay it, the more troubled you would be. And if a friend had paid it, and you did not know it, you would still be troubled. It is thus common for an awakened conscience to flee away from God. How can I meet God against whom I have so sinned? Blessed, when the messenger of God meets the fleeing sinner at the other end of the lane, and says, Do you know that that very God from whom you are fleeing, sent His beloved Son to bear your sins on the cross; and, having purged them — put them from God’s sight by His atoning death — God has now raised Him from the dead, and received Him to glory? What, says the awakened sinner, have my sins been put away by the one sacrifice of Christ? Yes, and God will remember them no more. What could never be done by all the sacrifices of the law, Jesus has done by the one infinite sacrifice of Himself. Thus He has done the will, the eternal purpose of God, and is for ever sat down. “For by one offering he has perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” You will notice, James, that all this is in reference to boldness or liberty to enter the holiest — the holy presence of God in the heavens. As to this, all is done, all is complete.

James. How would you illustrate the contrast of this liberty by the one sacrifice of Christ, with the imperfection of the law?

John. Well, James, if you wanted a pass to travel from Derby to London, and you pay a certain price for a yearly pass, you present it to the guard, and he says, I must inform you that the way into this carriage is not yet made open for you: I cannot admit you yet, this ticket is only typical, a sort of promise of a better yet to come. Now, James, if you renewed this yearly pass year after year for fifteen years, and it never gave you a title to take your seat, it would not be very perfect, would it? The great day of atonement came round, for fifteen centuries, year by year, but never gave liberty to enter the holy presence of God. It was a typical promise, that pointed forwards. If a real friend of yours went to the Midland Company, and said, Cost what it will, I am come to purchase for my friend, not a yearly pass, but an everlasting pass. The pass is granted. The door is ever open, you have the perfect, continuous liberty to take your seat: no veil now to shut you out. Such was, and is, the love of Christ. He came to do the will of God. Yes, it was His will that we should have liberty to enter His holy presence without conscience of sins. And the Holy Ghost bears witness that the will of God the Father has been done by the Eternal Son of God.

James. Oh, John, there is just one point here I should like to be clear about. Does having no more conscience of sins mean that after we are saved we never sin again, are never conscious of sin? It is all very clear at conversion, but if the evil nature should act, and there should be sins after, what about those future sins?

John. Ah, James, that one point is the point with many an anxious soul. When we are born again, that is, have a new nature wholly of God, and are in the light of His presence, the more we are there, the more conscious we are of failure and sin. In that very epistle where we are looked at as in the light, as He is in the light, both these things run together: — “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin,” and also, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

James. I wish I could see this clearly.

John. May the Holy Ghost enable every anxious believer to see this, for He says, “and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.” Does not this take in all our sins from birth to glory? It is not their sins up to conversion. If so, what could put those away since? There remains no more sacrifice for sins. Has not the man Christ Jesus borne all our sins? Have they not been judged on the cross? Can God in righteousness ever impute one to us?

James. Then what must I do if I sin? Not that I want to sin, I long after holiness, for He is holy. I am sure I have at such a time lost communion of soul with God. What must I do? Have I then boldness or liberty to enter the holiest?

John. Certainly, you have boldness to enter by the blood of Jesus — indeed this is what you must do, come right into the presence of God your Father, and there confess your sins. Think, now, is not Jesus He who bore these sins on the cross, in the presence of God, and, for you, your Advocate with the Father? Is He not the propitiation for your sins — the mercy-seat? Is not the Father righteous or just to forgive? Never forget that He cannot impute or charge the sin on you. He can only forgive.

James. Oh, I see, He cannot impute the sin to one who has been purged by the blood of Jesus. Believing this, I have a purged conscience.

John. Very well; now we will look at our difficulty. What can be the wilful sin spoken of here — this trampling under foot the Son of God? It is compared to one despising Moses' law, to whom there was no mercy; and far sorer judgment must be inflicted on those who commit this sin. You will notice, as in chapter 6, the apostle spoke of those who had tasted, not those who had drunk in, the truth of Christ. So here, it is not those who had received the truth in the love of it, but those who “have received the knowledge of the truth.” This is a very different matter. This would, no doubt, for a time sanctify, or separate them for a while, with the company or people separated by the one offering of Christ. There were the two things at that time going on, the temple worship, with all its sacrifices, which can never take away sins; and the gathering together as believers in Christ to worship in spirit and in truth. Some were evidently giving up thus assembling themselves together. No if it were unpardonable of old for any to despise Moses' law, what was it to wilfully despise Christ — to trample the Son of God underfoot as an apostate — to treat His blood as unholy? Having shown the eternal efficacy of the one sacrifice of Christ, and that God had taken away, set aside, all the sacrifices of the law, had no pleasure in them, because they could not take away sins; he now simply declares that if any sinned wilfully, by rejecting Christ and His infinite sacrifice, there was no other sacrifice for sins: and to all who thus despised Christ, there was nothing to look for but certain fearful judgment.

Is not this so James? Have you so despised Christ?

James. Oh dear no, I want to know Him more and more. Despise the one atoning sacrifice of Christ, and go back to the sacrifices of the law; or to the pretended sacrifices of modern priests; or to despise Him by denying His Deity as Son of God; or His atoning death? No, no; I never thought of so denying my Lord and my God. It is strange I ever had such difficulty in this scripture. It is plain enough. If there is only one infinite sacrifice for sins, to despise it, there can be no other, there can be no remission, there must be terrible, everlasting judgment. Dreadful words, no more sacrifice for sins! Through countless ages of eternity, no more sacrifice for sins — Jesus dies no more — no more sacrifice — no more remission! Surely I never thought how terrible it is to despise Christ. What infinite mercy to be able to say, “But we are not of them who draw back to perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.” (Ver. 37.)

John. We often find, by patient study of the word of God, that what at first sight seems to present a difficulty, when understood is full of richest blessing. Just think now what this chapter 10 presents to faith. The atoning death of Christ is seen to be the very eternal will of God. This has been accomplished by the Son of God. The worshipper, therefore, once purged, has no more conscience of sins — for ever perfected by the one offering of Christ. The Holy Ghost bears witness to all this. Sins no more imputed, no more remembered, and we have boldness to enter the holiest by the blood of Jesus.

James. What peace of conscience and heart this gives! The will of God. The work of Christ. The witness of the Holy Ghost. The three Persons of the Godhead engaged in bringing the poor sinner to God.

John. Well, James, have you any more difficulties? as we must part again for a time.

James. I am glad you are willing to continue these conversations. At our next meeting I should like you to explain this: a person in our parts asked me this question. He stated that the apostle said, “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” Now, said he, does not that imply at least that even Paul thought there was a possibility of his becoming a castaway, or reprobate? This seems to make many persons question that salvation is not eternal.

John. Well, James, if there really were such a scripture we must honestly admit it would imply the possibility of a true Christian becoming a castaway, or reprobate. In the meantime, will you look if you can find such a text. For the present, good-bye.

No. 3.

John. Well, James, have you found such a scripture as the apostle saying, I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway, or reprobate? As we said in our last conversation, such a scripture would clearly imply that even Paul might become a reprobate; and this, of course, would shake to the foundation the truth of eternal salvation.

James. But is there not such a scripture in 1 Corinthians 9:27? And, to tell you the truth, John, it is a scripture that has greatly troubled me, and thousands more. The possibility of a Christian becoming a castaway, or reprobate, as I am told the word really means, is no light matter.

John. Read it carefully; and now, where is there a thought in it of a Christian becoming a reprobate? It is, lest “I myself should be,” not, should become, a reprobate.

James. I never noticed that before. Surely that makes a wide difference.

John. You will see this still more clearly, if you turn to another scripture written to this same assembly. “Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me … Examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith … Know ye not your own selves how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be [not become] reprobates?” (2 Cor. 13:3-5.) This is the same word reprobates as is translated castaway in the other scripture. Thus, with the apostle, there were only two things before him: either Christ Jesus in you, or ye are reprobates. No thought of a Christian becoming a reprobate. He says, “But, I trust that ye shall know that we are not reprobates.” Neither had he any personal uncertainty in the first epistle. (Chap. 9:24-27.) It was the apostle’s habit to say I, when he transferred the question to himself, as in 1 Corinthians 4:6. What he shows is this: it will not do to trust to being a preacher to others. Just as he shows in chapter 10 it will not do to trust to merely making a profession by baptism.

James. Then do we understand that a man may be a preacher to others, and yet be a reprobate, if there be no holiness of life, the fruit of faith?

John. No doubt that is the fact distinctly taught in the word, in more places than one. There are many such preachers — not a few — who are reprobates; Christ Jesus never was in them, as He says, He never knew them — men held in great estimation, and who seem to have done a great work for God, and yet are reprobates, and will perish everlastingly. You know, James, if a preacher is a reprobate, he cannot become one.

James. I was going to say, this is dreadful to think on. Surely it is very heart-searching. It is enough to make every one, preacher or not, say, Am I resting on myself and my doings, and all the while practising sin? or am I resting in Christ, and, by the power of the Holy Ghost, walking in holiness — keeping under my body? But does the scripture teach there are many such preachers?

John. Hearken to the very words of Christ: “Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matt. 7:20-23.) And did you ever notice, a mark of a reprobate preacher, or one who takes the place of servant, but says in his heart, “My Lord delays his coming and shall begin to smite his fellow-servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken”? Will not the Lord appoint him “his portion with the hypocrites; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth”? (Matt. 24:48-51.) It is rarely a faithful word is spoken to preachers. But you see it is not a question of a true christian minister becoming a reprobate, but of “false teachers among you” who are reprobates. Are there none in this day who say in their heart, My Lord delays His coming? Are there no preachers who smite with pen or tongue their fellow-servants, and who find their pleasure at the world’s table? They may not be drunkards, but find their pleasure with the drunkards.

James. This is very solemn truth, it makes me tremble. Just think: a man to be a preacher to others, and yet a reprobate! And not to know it; be trusting to his supposed official character and popularity; and yet at last to hear those dreadful words, “I never knew you.” It reminds me of Noah’s carpenters, if he had any; what an awful thing, to be so near the ark, and yet shut out. In the ark, or out of it; in Christ, or out of Christ. But, John, you said something about false teachers. If I mistake not, that is in the very chapter I wanted to ask you about: yes, these words have been quoted to me to prove that the Christian has not eternal life, or eternal salvation, but that, after all, he may be lost — that the latter end with them is worse than the beginning. These verses are so often used to perplex souls, I should like to read them over with you. “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it is happened to them according to the true proverb, the dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:20-22.) Does not that really look as if a true Christian, one of Christ’s sheep, to whom He gives eternal life, may, after all, be lost? What do you say to this, John?

John. Nay, it is not what I say, but what does it say? Are they Christians at all that are spoken of? Is a dog, or a washed sow, a sheep? All depends on who the “they” are. “If, after they have escaped,” &c. If we read the whole chapter, then we see clearly that the “they” are “false teachers among you.” What a picture of every feature of false teachers, from that day to this, in Christendom. Jude describes the same persons as natural men, not having the Spirit. One most distinct mark is that they mock and scoff at the coming of the Lord. They cannot bear it. (2 Peter 3:2-4.) “Scoffers, walking after their own lust, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming?” This must be the case when a natural man, not having the Spirit, is educated for the christian ministry. The end is sure to be bad, one way or other. It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness. The difference between mere knowledge and saving faith is very important. It does not say they had believed. There is not a line in this chapter describing the false teachers of Christendom that has not been fulfilled for these eighteen hundred years. Have you not noticed, James, that wherever the Spirit of God begins a work, the false teachers are sure to try to hinder it? But it would be most unjust to say this was also true of the faithful servants of Christ.

If you read a description of counterfeit, bad, false half-crowns, you would never dream that genuine ones were meant by the description. It might be difficult to tell them asunder, they might be electro-plate, but all would wear off in time. Just so the false teacher; he may be electro-plated with education, and the knowledge of Christianity, but in the end be like the dog, or the washed sow. How strange that godly souls should have been troubled with this chapter; there is not a word in it about them, except this, “The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation, and to reserve the unjust to the day of judgment to be punished.”

James. I see it is not, to use your figure, the good half-crown becoming a bad one.

John. Just so. Never is there such a thought in scripture as a child of God becoming a reprobate. Can your child cease to be your child? It may become very naughty. It may fail, and you may have to chastise it. Even in nature the relationship is unalterable. If, then, a Christian could cease to be a Christian, the Spirit would never have used such a term expressive of unchanging relationship.

James. Certainly there is a great difference between a servant in a house, and a son.

John. Yes, it is the Lord who says, “and the servant abides not in the house for ever, but the Son abides ever.” Doubtless this applies primarily to Himself: but what says the scripture to those who are born again, who are the children of God? Are they to fear that some day they may not be the children of God, but lost? No; “For we have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” (Rom. 8:15-17.)

Now, James, whilst a servant that is a professor, even a greatly admired teacher, may be a reprobate and perish everlastingly, yet a child is a child for all that. Do you think, James, if a Christian, a child of God, could be lost, that God would use such language as this? — “And because ye are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” (Gal. 4:6-7.) A servant abides not in the house; the Christian can no more be on that principle. Oh, the blessedness of that unchangeable relationship! if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. If Satan and men tell you this is not true, will you believe them, or God? If the Spirit of God dwell in you, you are a joint-heir with Christ. Wondrous unity! He must cease to be Christ, if you can cease to be a Christian.

James. It seems almost too good to be true. That assurance of joint-heirship with Christ is so different from my past state of fear, and doubt, and uncertainty. I do not think, John, you can have any idea of the gloom such teaching as I have had produces. I do not wonder that many who are sincere lose their reason. I have been told I might be a happy, faithful Christian all my life, just about to enter heaven, fail at last — just at last — and go down to endless woe. Like a ship, they say, after having braved the storms of a long, long voyage, and heavily laden with merchandise, is just entering the port with streaming flags; see, she strikes a rock as she enters the harbour. Down she goes, and every hand perishes in sight of home. Now, John, can a man be happy under such teaching as that?

John. Happy! I should say not. All well enough if applied to a mere deceived professor, a reprobate. But to teach the child of God such dark unbelief, must surely be the work of him who long ago urged, “Yea, has God said?” Will you read Ephesians 1? Has not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as truly blessed the believer now even with all spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ, as he will be blest with when in glory? Is he not “sealed with that holy Spirit of promise which is the earnest of our inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of his glory?” Does not that seal make the inheritance as sure as if we had it now? Think of this, James: joint-heirs with Him who is raised from the dead, “and set at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power,” &c. Oh, think of that man Christ Jesus in the glory, Heir of all things, and that we are joint-heirs with Him! If he abides ever, all the Son’s joint-heirs abide for ever. Remember we have been reconciled to God by His death. (Rom. 5:10.) So far from Paul having such a thought as that he might personally become a reprobate, he says, “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For, I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8; read vers. 28-39.)

James. That seems unanswerable; but they say, Yes, but there is the rock at the harbour: if he should sin before he gets into heaven, he will be lost.

John. And the scripture says, “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.” And again, “My little children, these things write I to you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 1:8; 2:1-2.) Oh, precious Advocate and mercy-seat! I may fail, James, but He will never. I dare not trust myself one step of the way; but my heart has perfect rest in Him. He who has sought His lost sheep, and placed it on His shoulder, will safely bring it home.

James. I am thankful there is no such thought as that of a true Christian becoming a reprobate in the word of God. If there had been, I should have been certain to become one. I hope now to rest in Christ. There is another scripture I should be most thankful to look at — it is this, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I can assure you, great numbers are troubled by these few words, and I do not know exactly how to answer them. They will have it, that after all, salvation depends on themselves.

John. We must close here, James, for the present. If the Lord will, we will take up that subject in our next conversation. In the mean time seek to keep your eye on Christ, and not on self.

No. 4.

James. I am thankful for another opportunity of conversing with you on such portions of the word as many feel difficult to understand. The scripture I named was this, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12.) Many understand by this that they are by works of their own righteousness to finish, or complete their salvation. Some would say they were regenerated, or saved, by baptism, but that their final salvation has to be worked out by themselves. Others have some idea that they are justified by faith to start with; but still their final salvation depends on their own working it out some way themselves, and they quote this scripture in proof. So that the difficulty is this — How can salvation be eternal, if it depends on our works of righteousness?

John. If we examine the context, the very opening of the epistle shows that the apostle could have had no such thought. He says, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you, will perform [or finish] it until the day of Jesus Christ.” It is said, too, in connection with these very words, “Wherefore [or so] my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: for it is God which works in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

James. Then the apostle’s confidence was in God, that He would finish the work in them to the day of Jesus Christ.

John. Now, further, James. As you have beard these words explained, did it not look more like words of our own righteousness for salvation?

James. Well, that is what it comes to. I am saved by Christ so far, but never learnt how far; but my final salvation depends on my working it out to the end, so that I must keep the law for righteousness, and the day of judgment will decide whether I have done so.

John. But if on that ground, and if that can possibly be the meaning, we do not need to wait for the day of judgment. If we think we are working out our own salvation by works of law, we are surely condemned: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse;” and “Christ is become of no effect to you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 3:10; 5:1-14.) “But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.” (Ver. 18.) Indeed, nowhere is this truth more forcibly brought out than in this very Epistle to the Philippians. This doctrine of salvation by works of law is the concision of which we are to beware. (Chap. 3:2.) And Paul, looking back on his whole religious life as a Jew, could say, “touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” But what does he say of all that system of works for salvation? He says, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.” Yea, he utterly renounces this plan of works for salvation, and “counts them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” Now mark, this not only expresses his then present state, but that at the very end he should not be found in, or having his own righteousness. He longs for the resurrection from among the dead, and then to be found in Him (Christ), the righteousness which is of God. Therefore Paul cannot possibly teach doctrine the very contrary of all this, as though Christ had saved us in a very limited sense, and we had to complete what He had begun by our works of law for righteousness. Have I made it clear that he could not mean by “work out your own salvation,” that we had not eternal salvation in Christ, but it must be by works done by ourselves?

James. You have certainly made it clear as to what it does not mean; indeed, I remember the apostle says elsewhere, “And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace.” And again, “But to him that works not, but believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5; 11:6.) But, John, the question is, what do these words mean, “Work out your own salvation”? I am quite satisfied as to what they do not mean; for if a man could work out his own salvation before God, what need was there at all for the death and resurrection of Christ?

John. Quite true. We will, then, now look at what these words do mean. The Lord give us the teaching of the Holy Spirit. And first, it is of importance to notice that these words are not addressed at all to an unconverted sinner, nor even to an individual saint or believer, but to an assembly. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops [or elders] and deacons.” Of course, as the assembly of God is composed of saved individuals in Christ, what is said to the assembly as a whole is said to each individual member, but still in the assembly character. Further, notice, the state of this assembly was such that the apostle could say, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all, making request with joy; for your fellowship in the gospel, from the first until now.” Now, James, do you see that all this must first be settled in your soul before there is a word about working out your own salvation? Are you a saint in Christ Jesus? Remember, to such there is no condemnation, and no separation. (Rom. 8.) All such are accepted in the Beloved. “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” (Eph. 1:3-8.) In Him they are complete, made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light. For Christ is made to them “wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” (Col. 1:12-14; 2:10; 1 Cor. 1:30.) Thus, if we look at the saint as seen of God in Christ, his salvation is accomplished and eternal, He “having obtained eternal redemption for us.” And all this fully proved to be without works in Romans 3, 4, 5; Galatians 2:16. Nay, as many as are of the principle of works for salvation before God are under the curse.

Then, James, are you in Christ? If you are, then Christ is in you. (Rom. 8:1-9.) And this is the first statement, the foundation of all that follows. “To the saints in Christ Jesus.” Mark, James, to such there can be no uncertainly as to the final issue. “Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you, will perform [or finish] it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Ver. 6.)

You will find it will help to clear the meaning of this difficult text, that as justification before God is the subject in Romans 1-8, and justification before men the subject of James; thus, the one by faith, the other by works (both true and important, surely, in their place), and no contradiction, but in perfect harmony; so the subject of the believer’s standing in Christ is the theme of Ephesians 1, 2, 3. The saints, as seen of God in Christ, having eternal salvation, perfected for ever, as Hebrews 10. So, in Philippians, the assembly is presented as seen amongst men, pressing through this wilderness-world to the glory yet to be revealed. So that, James, I do not well see how any believers can understand this working out their own salvation until they have first seen what it is to be in Christ Jesus before God, and that this is secured to the day of Christ. And, further, they must be on the same ground of the one assembly of God on earth amongst men.

James. I had never thought a word about all this.

John. I dare say; and as little have they thought who try to perplex you with this text. But are not these the facts? Was not this epistle written to such as were in Christ? and is it not chiefly occupied with the assembly’s behaviour in this world? much as James and Peter teach works before men. What men see (James 2:14-24), “ye see.”

James. Why, John, already the epistle becomes quite new to me. What a pity it is to jumble the scriptures together, and thus lose their distinctive teaching!

John. We will now go on, only carefully notice the assembly character of the teaching. “Only let your conversation be as it becomes the gospel of Christ; that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel, and in nothing terrified by your adversaries … For to you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” (Chap. 1:27-30.) I must say, James, I cannot see how Christians can work out these divine assembly principles, unless they are on the ground of the one assembly of God, in the unity of the Spirit. How could the company of a ship work out the orders of the captain in the spirit of unity, if they had left the one ship, and were flying their sails in boats of their own? I do assure you, James, these words are very precious and timely to all who desire to do the will of God. You see, James, it is the assembly of God on earth in the midst of many adversaries. Pursue it, and study every verse. “Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” Has not Christendom sadly departed from all this? Yes, even to defend divisions the very opposite of this assembly truth.

Then, James, we have the Lord Himself, as seen as Man on this earth. “Who, being in the form of God … made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant,” &c. In this world He took the lowest possible place. Now, is not the aim of the multitude in Christendom just the opposite of this? every one seeking to be a little higher in the world before men. The blessed Lord looked forward to the glory He should have, not in a world where Satan is the acknowledged prince, but with His Father.

“Wherefore [or so] my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much wore in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: for it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Now, whether we look at the verses before or what comes after, it is plain this is not the question of the soul’s salvation from sin, the eternal salvation wrought out by Christ; for sin is nowhere the question in this epistle, but the simple point is the difference between the presence and absence of the apostle in the assembly at Philippi. They had had his support in the midst of terrible opposition. He had laboured hard to save them as an assembly from adversaries. Now he was absent, a prisoner of Jesus Christ at Rome. They would now have to work out their own salvation, or deliverance from enemies without or within, with fear and trembling; not with high-mindedness and boasting. Christ was their example. And mark, he does not direct them to a bishop in his absence; no, “For it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” It is a salvation similar to that meant when Peter said, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” (Acts 2:40.) Jude speaks of the same thing, not, however, to make them uncertain as to eternal salvation — no, but “to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Christ Jesus.” Then follow directions how they are to behave in the sad circumstances of these last days.

James. Then how were the Philippians to work out their own salvation?

John. Read on, James. “Do all things without murmurings and disputings; that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life,” &c. Are you satisfied, James?

James. It is altogether so new to me; would you mind having a little further conversation on this subject, and especially as to its present application to those who desire to be on the ground of the assembly of God?

John. It will give me pleasure to do so the next time we meet, if the Lord will.