Effectual Power and Imitative Effort.

W. J. Hocking.

1892 46 Divine spiritual power* is said in scripture to operate in three spheres, viz; (1 in the individual believer's life, (2) in the assemblies of the saints and (3) in the proclamation of the gospel. And in each of these relations there is found counterfeit action to which is may be profitable briefly to refer by way of warning.

{*It is not intended by the term "power" to overshadow the personality of the Spirit but to describe thereby His operation by means of human instrumentality, as in Act. i. 8. "Ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you."}

First then, it is plainly declared that God gives to believers the Spirit of power (Acts i. 8) in order that even the feeblest may boldly partake of the afflictions of the gospel in testimony for Him (2 Tim. i. 7, 8). And in proof of its divine origin, this power has the peculiar property of becoming more abundant and more easily available in proportion as it is needed and drawn upon, contrary to mere human power which must of necessity lessen the more it is used. This blessed fact the apostle learned from the Lord's words, "My strength is made perfect in weakness"; and on that account he gloried in his infirmities, so that, the power of Christ might rest upon him (2 Cor. xii. 9). Not only, however, in times of difficulty but constantly, the power of God keeps (1 Peter i. 5), strengthens (Col. i. 11), establishes (Rom. xvi. 25) and works in us (Eph. iii. 20), bringing our self-willed hearts into the obedience of Christ, and, instead of anger, lust and malice, producing love, joy and peace. Indeed it is only as God works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. ii. 13), that we can live acceptably before Him.

But it is by no means impossible to imitate the more manifest fruit of the Spirit; indeed hypocrisy is recognised and most severely denounced throughout the word of God. But however good the counterfeit, it must be empty and vain, being the product of human and not divine power. For instance, the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availed to shut and to open the very heavens above. James 5:16-18. But the street prayer, despite its punctiliousness and though accompanied by a disheveled beard and unwashed face, was of no value before God (Matt. vi). Although it counted much among men, it was neither heard in heaven nor answered on earth. For external imitations of love, zeal, beneficence to the poor, and the like, never deceive God Who views the motive in the heart. When the glory of God, however, is before the soul, His power works to the accomplishment of that end. But if self-glorification be the motive, the divine power ceases to act and human energy has to take its place. And often when there is a loss of real power, it is sought to remedy the defect by an increase of outward zealousness and devotion. As Samson, though shorn by Delilah, went out and shook himself even as at other times; but his strength had departed and would not return with a shake. It is always easier to pretend to power than to confess to failure; though, for all that, the latter is the real source of strength. "When I am weak, then am I strong." And as it is characteristic of these days to have a form of godliness denying the power thereof (2 Tim. iii. 5), may sincerity of motive and humility of heart be cultivated by those who desire to be faithful amid such unreality.

In the second place, the power of God operates among the saints in their corporate capacity. All that believe are united by intimate and indissoluble bonds (1 Cor. xii. 11–13); and an indwelling energy is ever acting "according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, making increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. iv. 16). Thus at the beginning, the whole body of saints, led on by the power of the Spirit, was tilled with the reciprocating desire for the well-being of the members, to such an extent that they sold their possessions and had all things common (Acts iv. 32 -37). These beautiful acts of self-denial for one another's benefit were counterfeited by Ananias and Sapphira, who laid down at the apostles' feet a part of the price of their possessions as if it were the whole. This intended deception was immediately judged by the Holy Ghost as abominable in His sight; and they were both cut off as a solemn warning to all such hypocrites.

Again, the assembly from the beginning was empowered to remit sins in a governmental way (Matt. xviii. 18, John xx. 23). This is exemplified in every case of reception at the Lord's table, wherein the saints formally declare their belief that the Lord has forgiven the sins of such and such a one; and, accordingly, they welcome him or her to a place of fellowship among those who have also been forgiven. Compare the case of Saul (Acts ix. 26, 27). In like manner, the assembly has the power of retaining sins. Thus if a believer persists in unrepentant sin, the assembly gathered together "with the power of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. v.) are capable of casting that one without the pale of the church in order that the honour of the Lord's name and the holiness of His table may be maintained, and also that the offender himself may be thereby brought to repentance.

A misuse of this power is seen in 3 John 8, 9. There we find that malicious self-will worked in Diotrephes to such a degree that he, usurping lordship over the flock of God, forbade the assembly to receive the apostle and moreover cast out any who would. This was mere groundless pretence to the power of excommunication. And the history of the church abounds in similar examples; and even our own times are by no means destitute of instances of such unwarranted assumption. And therefore it is by no means needless to point out with what supreme care these powers of exclusion and inclusions, vested in the church, should he exercised so that the action in every case may he of God and not a human sham.

Referring to another phase of the same fact, we find 1 Cor. xii. and xiv, show in detail that power has been bestowed in the assembly for worship and ministry. Now man supposes that, unless a plan or system of worship is devised and adhered to, the result will be confusion, On the contrary confusion has a human origin (1 Cor. xiv. 33) and springs from a want of faith in the Spirit of God to conduct the exercises of the saints in prayer and praise and in dispensing the word of life for the nourishment of His people. Everything, in fact, apart from the divine order is confusion; and examples of this are not far to seek. In place of the unhindered movements of the Spirit of God in supplication or thanksgiving, a petrified liturgy may he seen, as unmerciful to the desires of the people as ever was Procrustes to his victims. And instead of allowing the Spirit to energize the various gifts in the assembly, "dividing to every man severally as He will," the saints themselves in other cases undertake the management of their "minister," prescribing his collegiate course, his special qualifications and his mode of ministry to their own satisfaction, expecting the poor man to he pastor, teacher, evangelist and what-not with equal facility and success. These and all other set ecclesiastical arrangements of a similar nature can only be but bad imitations of the real thing, differing one from another, and all from the truth, and therefore (despite outward appearances) a source of permanent weakness to the saints of God.

In the third place, the power of God is made manifest in the proclamation of the gospel; for it has pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (1 Cor. i. 21). Naturally the Acts, which narrates the founding of the church is very full of this subject. From the sermon of Peter at Pentecost to the preaching of Paul the prisoner at Rome, we have a practical exposition of the words, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth" (Rom. i. 16). Far and near the gospel went forth, "not in word only but in power" (Acts iv. 33; 1 Thess. i. 5). Unlike the lifeless philosophy of the day, it laid hold of men of all ranks and classes, and won them to its embrace. For though philosophy had refined eloquence, a certain knowledge of the human mind and character, a personal devotion to principle and a code of morality beyond its times, it possessed not the power of God like the gospel. And since that power has not yet departed, it is obviously of the very highest importance that it should be allowed to operate in the preaching of Christ's cross.

And like all God's gifts this power seems to be readily accessible. It would appear from the Acts that it is to be had for the asking, always remembering that prayer in scripture implies a thorough sense of inability to act without God. When the apostles had prayed, we are told, "they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (Acts iv. 31, 33). And we know what mighty results followed.

When the power of the apostles to cast out demons was sought to be imitated by the sons of Sceva, they signally failed. Though there were seven of them altogether, and though they used the name of Jesus as the apostle had done, the demons exposed their deceit, and they had to flee in confusion (Acts xix. 13-16). Is it not possible for preachers today to fall into the error of these "vagabond Jews" and think that a mere recital, rhetorical or otherwise, of the facts of the gospel are sufficient to save the soul? The failure of such will be a striking parallel to that of the exorcists.

And none will deny how easy it is to allow care for external appearance to minimise, if not obliterate, the conscious need for internal power, or even to suppose, like Jacob who planned first and prayed next, that the perfection of human arrangements is after all the best recommendation for divine aid. It may be well therefore to remind one another that the divine power does not reside either in logical analysis or vivid imagination, in the apt illustration or the striking simile, in the appropriate gesture or the rotund voice, in the novel subject or the odd treatment, in humorous remarks or in graveyard solemnity. For that which commands human attention cannot be said of necessity to command the blessing of heaven. And if God deign to use one or the other of the more worthy characteristics just named in an honoured servant of His, it is not that the rest should imitate him in this particular and thereby pretend to that which they do not possess. But as the secret of success lies in the co-operation of divine power, let that be earnestly sought above all things. Let the closet be occupied more than the study. Let the prayer-meeting be looked to as the source of blessing. For it is useless to have everything else if there is no power; it becomes in such a case no more than the affectation of a grand display.

The difference between real power and outward pretence was seen on Mount Carmel ages ago (1 Kings xviii). There at the outset the cause of Baal appeared to the best advantage. He had his choice of the sacrifice, the sympathy of the court, and a numerous priesthood, zealous for his (i.e. their own) interests. Throughout the day they rent their throats, if not the heavens, with their cries, "O Baal, hear us." They madly gesticulated, leaping frantically upon the altar, and cutting themselves with knives till the blood gushed out upon them. But the very exuberance of their efforts showed how ineffectual were their endeavours. There was no reply. The mountain of zeal brought forth not even a mouse-like result. But it was not so with Elijah. He, though alone, was supremely confident in Jehovah. He even took elaborate precautions to exclude every suspicion of human collaboration. The altar and sacrifice were repeatedly drenched with volumes of water. Then, in answer to his prayer, the sacred fire fell from the cloudless sky and consumed everything. God acted humanly speaking, under, the most unfavourable conditions for the glory of His name.

This great lesson of God's sovereignty is repeated in the Epistles to the Corinthians. Paul speaks of his being with them "in weakness and in fear and in much trembling:" yet, as they well knew, his preaching was "with power" (1 Cor. ii. 3, 4). That weakness and power should thus coalesce seems most paradoxical to man but was a most blessed fact to the servant of God. For he could and did rejoice when the excellency of the power was thus seen to be of God and not of man.

However, leaving this subject to be pursued farther to greater advantage, the following points in connection therewith seem of sufficient importance to be briefly summarised:
(1) That since the power of God is the only efficient power in the proclamation of the gospel, this fact deserves most serious consideration;
(2) That the glory of God as our object and the sense of humble dependence in the souls of His servants seem connected with the exercise of this power;
(3) That a formal routine of gospel work denies the power of God as much as a system of worship;
(4) That the imitation of a successful evangelist ascribes the power to him and not to God;
(5) That weakness in point of numbers or the like is no bar to the working of this power, provided there is real faith and earnestness.