by T. Austin-Sparks
There are many misconceptions as to what the Christian life really is. I shall, however, not say very much about this negative side - that is, as to that which is either mistaken, confused or inadequate. The best way of dealing with all such difficulties is to take the positive line, by seeking to present the truth in its fullness, as we may be enabled, and so leave the comparisons to be made by those who read.
Our first phase of this matter, then, is the immense significance of the Christian life. That phrase embodies a principle of very great importance. It is this, that we shall never really appreciate anything presented to us in the Word of God until we see it in its full setting. If we regard it as just something in itself, we miss a great deal. We need to get its great background and its great setting in order to feel the full impact of its significance. That is what we shall seek to do now, as we are Divinely enabled - to see something at least of the immense significance of the Christian life.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE BEGINS WITH CHRIST
We shall probably be on the ground of common agreement when we say that the Christian life begins with Christ, but that means a great deal more than it sounds. To say that Christianity began with Jesus is true if you put Jesus in His right setting, and it is just at that point that an adjustment may be necessary in order to grasp the immensity of this matter. For neither the Christian life nor Christianity began with the historic Jesus. They did not begin when Jesus was born, when Jesus lived here, when Jesus died and rose again. It is just there, I say, that we need to make an adjustment. We must know what it is that the Bible shows as to our Lord Jesus Christ.
CHRIST IN THE 'BEFORE TIMES ETERNAL'
Now you take up your New Testament, and open at the Gospels. You find that Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus back to Abraham. Luke takes Him back still further, to Adam. Mark begins his life of Jesus at the time of His baptism, when He was thirty years of age. But John reaches beyond them all, back through the thirty years, beyond Bethlehem, back to Abraham and beyond Abraham to Adam; and he does not stop there, he goes still further back. "In the beginning" - whenever, wherever, that dateless time was - "in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That is a statement - and it is only a statement, a statement of truth, of fact - as to the Person of the Lord Jesus; and that, with one or two other sentences, is all that John gives us.
But we have in the New Testament, through another apostle, a much fuller revelation concerning Jesus in that dateless past. Through the apostle Paul we are taken right back and shown a very great deal about God's Son "before times eternal", not only before He came into this world, but before this present world order came into being. It is the general custom to begin a biography with something concerning the ancestry of the person in view, leading up to his or her birth, the whole thing being, of course, just an account of the human and earthly history of this person. But the biography of Jesus Christ does not only go right back long before His own birth into this world and beyond His human parentage or ancestry. A large section of the biography of Jesus Christ in the Word of God relates to that which is called "before times eternal". Here are some fragments of Scripture. We hear Him praying. He is praying to His Father, and He is saying: "Glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was" (John 17:5). That is really a bit of His biography, or autobiography - "the glory which I had with thee before the world was." And then the apostle Paul, in that matchless description of Him, has this one clause, this mighty clause of only five words: "He is before all things" (Col. 1:17). "The glory which I had with thee before the world was." "He is before all things."
It is right back there, then, that we travel to find the meaning of a Christian, the Christian life and Christianity. Let us contemplate the Lord Jesus there, from the standpoint of definite statements in the Scriptures.
First of all, as to His Person - what He was like then. "God... hath... spoken unto us in his Son... who being the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of his substance..." (Heb. 1:2,3). That certainly does not belong to the days of His humiliation. That goes right back, as we shall see in a moment, in the very connection or context of those words - "the express image of his substance", "the effulgence of his glory". That is what He was like before the world was.
What was His position then? "...Who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phil. 2:6). Though He was equal with God, on an equality with God, He counted not that equality with God as something to be grasped. Equal with God, on equality with God - that was His position then.
Then as to His appointment. Here again is the Scripture context of the words we quoted just now. "God... hath... spoken unto us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things". "appointed heir of all things". When did that happen? That was not done in time, that was not at the time of His birth or subsequently. That was right away back there in eternity past. There was something done in the counsels of the Godhead, whereby the Son of God was appointed Heir of all things, when it was determined that all things should be the heritage of God's Son, His rightful inheritance as God's Heir. It was not, of course, that He was to come into it on the demise of God, but God bound up all things with His Son, and made Him their Inheritor. These are things that we know through the Scriptures. How did the men who stated them come to know? Well, they tell us. Paul, who says most about this, tells us quite definitely that it was given to him by revelation: God made it known to him.
That, then, as to the "before times eternal". And out of that relationship with God, out of that fellowship with God, and out of that appointment of God, came the next move, the creation of the present world: not the creation of the present world condition, but the present cosmic order; and again we are given very much information and light as to the relationship of Christ to this.
CHRIST THE AGENT OF CREATION
We are told in the first place that He was the Agent of it, God's Agent in the creation. Here is the statement: "All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made" (John 1:3). Or again another statement: "In him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him" (Col. 1:16). And if it needs another word to bear that out, here it is: "There is... one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things" (1 Cor. 8:6). He was the Agent in creation.
CHRIST THE OBJECT AND INTEGRATOR OF CREATION
He is the Object of creation. "In him were all things created". "All things have been created through him, and unto him". And yet another statement: "For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things" (Rom. 11:36). And then a further movement, or a further constituent of this creative activity and purpose, is indicated. It is found in the little clause which completes that wonderful statement that we have read earlier. "He is before all things, and in him all things consist" (Col. 1:17). The Agent, the Object, the Integrator. "In him all things hold together" - are integrated. He is therefore the very reason for the creation. Remove Him, and the creation will disintegrate. When they crucified Him and He committed His Spirit to God, saying: "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit", there was a great earthquake, and the sun was hidden, and darkness was over the face of the earth. The very Object of the creation has been put out of His place by man. The creation knows that its very Integrator has been rejected. These are but tokens of a great fact. Jesus Christ is the very meaning of this creation: without Him the creation has no meaning.
Perhaps, if you are a thinking person, you are saying, 'Well, these are tremendous statements; they may be a wonderful theory, a system of teaching, wonderful ideas; but are they facts? How can you prove them?' My dear friend, you are yourself a proof of them. In these talks we are seeking to discover the meaning of the Christian life. Until you find Jesus Christ you have no meaning at all in your own creation. The first thing that is livingly true about one who finds Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour is that they are conscious of having found the meaning of their very being - they have discovered why they are alive! Life then takes on its true meaning, and these are no longer just great wonderful truths, suspended in an abstract way for our contemplation, acceptance or rejection. They are borne out in the creation, and you and I are a part of it. There is no unification of our own individual lives; we are divided, scattered people; life is not an order at all - it is a chaos - until Jesus becomes the centre. But when that happens, there is a marvellous integration.
We shall have to come back to that presently. At the moment we are occupied with Jesus Christ, firstly away back before the world was, and then as the Agent, Object and Integrator of the creation. Out of this, three wonderful, though simple, things quite clearly arise. Firstly, His likeness to God - He was the very image, or impress, as the word is, of God's substance; secondly, His oneness with God; and thirdly, that aspect of His Person as the agency of God. I want you to keep those things in mind, because they are carried over and they come very much into this matter of the Christian life. With all this, however, we have to recognise a uniqueness and exclusiveness about Him, and I want to underline that as many times as I can, lest presently it might look as though I were on very dangerous ground. But I want you to extract those three things: likeness to God, oneness with God, and agency of God's purpose and God's work - in the case of Christ something unique and absolutely exclusive, gathered into the word Deity, 'very God of very God'.
That, in brief - but oh, what a comprehensiveness, what a profundity, what a fullness! - that in brief is what we are told about Jesus Christ before He came into this world. Let us now pass on to what the Bible has to say about man.
MAN MADE TO REPRESENT GOD
What is the very first thing that the Bible says about man? "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). That is the Divine conception, that is the Divine idea. And what does that amount to? Surely it amounts to representation of God. Any image of a thing is supposed to be the representation of that thing, and the idea or conception of man in the Divine mind was that man should represent God. Not, of course, in that exclusive sense - Deity - of which I have just spoken: that does not come into it with man at all; but in this matter of being an expression of God, bearing the likeness of God: so that if you should meet a man who answers to the Divine idea you have a very good idea of what God is like. If only that were more true! - but in a very limited way we do know something of it, when we sometimes meet what we call a 'godly' man (and 'godly' is only 'God-like' abbreviated), and we say to one another, 'When you meet that man, you seem to meet the Lord, you seem to find something of the Lord - you seem to touch what you think the Lord would be like.'
Now, that was the Divine intention, conception, idea, as to man; but the intention was that the representation should be a full one, that the existence of man should convey the knowledge of what God is like in His moral character, in the beauty of His personality, that in touching man you should touch an expression of God, and be led back to God. And therein is a principle, mark you, a principle that we ought to take up, and that is to be carried into this matter of what it means to be a Christian. All our talking about God or Christ is utterly worthless unless we convey God and Christ - unless our Lord is found in us. That is the best thing, and sometimes that does its work without any talking, whereas a vast amount of talking will do nothing unless there is the touch of the Lord there. The conception of man in the heart of God is just that HE should be found in a creation.
You see, the Lord Jesus when He was here was always trying to convey, by different means, sometimes by stories or parables, an impression of what God is like. He was speaking to people of very small spiritual apprehension. He could not go beyond illustrations, pictures and figures such as, for instance, the parable - or was it a life-story? - known as 'The Prodigal Son'. I think it is a misnomer. It would be better to call the story 'A Father's Love', and you would get to the heart of what the Lord Jesus was after. What He was saying was that when you have contemplated that father, his broken heart and his marvellous forgiveness and restoration, even smothering confession before it is finished, and lavishing upon that renegade son all that he had, you have got a faint idea of what God is like. And man was intended to be endowed and endued with the Divine nature. Peter even uses those words. "He hath granted unto us his precious and exceeding great promises; that through these ye may become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Once again, let me emphasize that we leave Deity out. It is enough that we may bear the Divine likeness - a likeness in nature - without aspiring to Deity.
ONENESS IN LIFE
It was God's thought, moreover, that man should become an inheritor of the very uncreated life of God. He was put on test, on probation, and missed it. It was there in the symbolic form of the tree of life, to be had on condition, but he missed it: and so man by nature - all the children of Adam right up to our own time and ourselves - has never possessed that Divine life outside of Jesus Christ. But that is the gift. As we shall see later, that is one of the great things that happen when we become Christians: we become partakers of God's own, Divine, eternal, uncreated life.
FELLOWSHIP IN PURPOSE
Then again, God's idea for man was not only likeness and oneness, but fellowship in purpose: that man should be brought into a working relationship with God in His great, His vast, purposes in this universe. The statement of Scripture is: "Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands" (Ps. 8:6) - fellowship with God. Here again we have a vast amount in the New Testament. I think we could probably say that ninety percent of the New Testament is occupied with this co-operation with God in His great purposes on the part of Christians. The Apostle Paul is so fond of using that phrase, 'according to His purpose'. Fellowship in the purpose of God - that was in God's mind in creating man.
But note, that all this likeness in nature, oneness in life, and fellowship in purpose, is related inseparably to God's Son, Jesus Christ: there can be none of it apart from the appointed Heir. We are said to be "joint-heirs"; that is, we come into things by union with Christ. So the apostle Paul has as his abundant phrase, found everywhere (two hundred times) in his writings - "in Christ", "in Christ": nothing apart from Christ, nothing outside of Christ. It is all in Christ, inseparably bound up with God's eternally appointed Heir of all things.
THE FAILURE OF MAN
Before we can follow that through into the Christian life, we have to look at that tragic interlude, as we may call it - the failure of man. We know the story, how it is written and how it is put. If you have difficulty in accepting the form in which the story is given, that is, either the actual way in which the test was set before Adam, as to the tree, the fruit, etc., or all this as symbolism, you should be helped in such difficulty by remembering that behind any form of presentation there are spiritual principles, and these are the essential and vital things. It is the meaning that matters, not so much the form of conveyance.
We want to get behind that man's failure. The Bible tells us what the source of that failure was. Here again, marvellously, we are taken right back before the creation. The veil is drawn aside and we are shown something happening outside of this world, somewhere where those counsels of God have become known, His counsels concerning His Son and the appointment of His Son as Lord of creation, as Heir of all things. It has become known amongst the angels, the hierarchy of Heaven, and there is one there, the greatest created being of all, Lucifer, son of the morning, who becomes acquainted with this Divine intention. How - this is the mystery - how into that realm iniquity could enter we do not know: we cannot fathom the origin of sin; but what we are told is that "unrighteousness was found" in him (Ezek. 28:15). Pride was found in his heart.
Pride immediately works out in jealousy, does it not? Think of pride again. It always immediately shows itself in jealousy, rivalry. Pride cannot endure even an equal. Pride will always lead to a trying to 'go one better' in whatever realm it is. And so all the jealousy and all the rivalry sprang into that heart. We are told in the Scripture that that one said: "I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; ...I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High" (Isa. 14:13,14). He was jealous of God's Heir, and a rival to His appointment; Heaven was rent. But that one was cast out (Ezek 28:16-18). We are told that he was cast out of his estate together with all those who entered into that conspiracy with him against God's Son. Those "angels which kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation" (Jude 6), were cast out.
The next thing we see is the appearance of this one in beautiful guise - not with horns and tail and pitchfork! - but in beautiful guise to deceive; we see him coming into the realm of God's creation, to man and his partner. Now, what was his method? We shall never understand the meaning of the Christian life until we grasp these things. What was the method, what was the focal point, of the great arch-enemy's attack upon the man - this man whom God had created to come into fellowship with His Son in the great purpose of the ages?
The focal point was man's self-hood. I doubt whether the man had any consciousness of selfhood until Satan touched him on that point and said, "Hath God said?" The insinuation was - 'God is keeping something from you that you might have; He is limiting you. God knows that, if you do this thing which He has forbidden, you yourself will have the root of the matter in yourself, you will have the capacity and faculty in yourself for knowing, knowing, knowing. At present, under this embargo of God, you have to depend entirely upon Him: you have to consult Him, refer to Him, defer to Him; you have got to get everything from Him. And all the time you can have it in yourself, and God knows that. You see, God is withholding something from you that you might have, and you are less of a being than you might be - so God is not really favourable to you and your interests.'
It was a maligning of God. But the focal point was this: 'You, you - you can be something, you can do something, you can be "in the know" about things' - self-centredness, self-interest, self-realisation, and all the other host of 'self' aspects. The 'I' awoke, that 'I' which had brought the enemy out of his first estate. 'I will be exalted above the stars, I will be equal with the Most High'. To awaken the 'I' in man - so that, instead of man having his centre in God, deriving everything from God, he aspired to have the centre in himself; instead of being God-centred, he was self-centred - that was the focal point. And man was enticed into the same pride as had brought about Satan's downfall, leading to the same act of independence - nothing less than a bid for personal freedom from God.
As to the results, well, we know them. The older this world becomes, and the greater the development of this race, the more and more terrible is the manifestation of this original thing. We see a picture of man trying to get on without God, man saying that he can get on without God; man seeking to realise himself, fulfil himself, and to draw everything to himself; seeking to be himself the centre of everything, not only individually but collectively. That is the story, that is the history. The results? Look at the world - all the terrible, terrible suffering, all the misery, all the horror. We should never have believed, had it not become an actuality in recent years, what man is capable of doing - all because of his break with God. We will not dwell upon it; it is too awful. If we ask, Why, why should all this suffering and misery and wretchedness go on in the world? - surely the answer is this. God can never remove from man the consequences of this act of pride and disobedience, independence and complicity with His arch-enemy, without letting man go on in his independence. All this is God's way of saying - the way in which He is compelled to say - It is an awful, awful thing, to be without God, to be in a state of breach with God.
Now suppose you come into the Christian life. That does not remove all the misery and suffering in the creation, and it does not remove the suffering from yourself, but there is a difference. The mighty difference between one who is outside of Christ and one who is in Christ is this: both suffer, but whereas the one suffers unto despair and hopelessness, in the sufferings of the other there is the grace of God turning it all to account to make him or her Godlike again. The others suffer without hope, die without hope, but the sufferings of a Christian are to make that one like their Lord. It is a marvellous thing to see the likeness of Christ coming out in His own through their sufferings.
THE INCARNATION OF THE LORD JESUS
We come now to the next phase of things - the incarnation of our Lord Jesus: for it is just at that point - the incarnation - that all that was appointed for Him, all the Divine design and conception of God's Son in this universe, all the creative activity through Him and by Him and unto Him, and all the meaning of man's creation, as we have been trying to show, is taken up in a definite way for realisation.
This incarnation, the coming of the Lord Jesus into this world, is a far, far greater thing than any of us has yet appreciated. The Word of God makes a great deal of this coming into the world. You know that, at a certain season of the year, we are talking all the time about the birth of Jesus - about Jesus being born in Bethlehem. There is much about that in our carols and in our talk. It is all about the birth of Jesus. But the Word of God, while it uses that phrase, "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem...", says far, far more than that about His coming. That was not the beginning of Jesus: that was the coming of Jesus. He definitely and deliberately and consciously, in that full form of His eternal existence with God, made a decision about this matter, a deliberate decision to come. Coming in baby form had its own particular meaning - we cannot now stay with all the details of this - but it was a coming.
And what the Word of God says first of all about that coming is that it was a mighty, mighty renunciation on His part. Listen again. "Who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:6-8). And there is a clear implication in that sentence in His great prayer: "Father, glorify thou me... with the glory which I had with thee before the world was" (John 17:5). He has let it go, He has given it up. That was the mighty renunciation by God's Son of His heavenly, eternal glory, of His position of equality - down to what? Servanthood. The word is 'bond-servant': a bond-slave, the form of a bond-slave. You and I cannot grasp all that, because we cannot grasp what it meant for Him to be equal with God. We cannot understand all that He was and had in the eternity past. We know so little about that; we understand less. But here it is: it has all been renounced, and He is now here in incarnation, not as a master, but as a bond-slave. "The Son of man", said He, "came not to be ministered unto, but to minister" (Matt. 20:28). "I am in the midst of you as he that serveth" (Luke 22:27). "He took a towel, and girded himself. Then he poureth water into the bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet" (John 13:4,5). That was the job of the slave, the bond-slave.
The next part of the statement as to this cycle from glory to glory is - "being found in fashion as a man". This just relates to the central feature and inclusive meaning of the Incarnation: i.e., to all that is meant by the fact that everything was by Man - as man - for man. There were many theophanies in Old Testament times (theos = God; phaino = to show), manifestations of God to man by actual appearances (some believe that these were the Second Person of the Trinity, but that need not be discussed here). But the Incarnation is something different, and its essential point is that the great work of redemption was not committed to angels, but, as the hymn goes:
'O generous love! that He, who smote
In man for man the foe,
The double agony in man
For man should undergo.'
It was Man for man assuming responsibility for this state of things, and for the recovery of what was lost and the reinstating of what had been forfeited, the redeeming of man and creation. For that He became incarnate, and then straight to the Cross. He had no illusions about that - He had come for that. One of His great imperatives was always related to the Cross. "The Son of man must be delivered up... and be crucified" (Luke 24:7). That imperative was in His heart as overruling and overriding everything else. He knew it, and that is why He repudiated and rejected the cheap offer of the kingdoms of this world at the hands of the Devil: because He had come, not to have them as they were, but to have them as God ever intended them to be, and that could only be by the Cross.
So the Cross was the great repudiation of the world as it was and is, the great repudiation of man as he had become, whom God could not accept, in whose heart was found this pride. For, representatively, in the judgment and death of Jesus Christ God was saying concerning the whole race, 'I have finished with that', and turning His face away. The heart of the Son was broken as He cried, 'Thou hast forsaken Me!' Why? Because He was there as man's representative, the world's representative as it was, and He had to die as it. He "tasted death for every man", which meant experiencing God-forsakenness, repudiation, and the closed door of Heaven, God's eternal 'No' to that fallen creation. By that means He redeemed man, He redeemed the creation, and in His resurrection-ascension to the right hand of God He reinstated man, representatively, in the place that God ever intended man to have. This is not all isolated action on the part of Jesus Christ. This is related all the time. He is the inclusive One, and what happens to Him is what God means to happen to man. Until man is in Christ he is repudiated by God. There is no way through. "No one cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). But in Christ the inheritance which was lost is recovered. In Christ, personally at God's right hand as his representative, man is reinstated. Christ is there as the earnest of what we shall be and where we shall be, by the grace of God. But, mark you, the Christ risen is not now the Christ made sin in our place, but with sin put away, and a new creation instated, though still man.
Well, all this is the setting of the Christian life; this is the background of a Christian. Is it not immense? We struggle for words in order to try to set it forth, it is so great. All I can hope to do is to leave an impression on you. I cannot explain, I cannot define, I cannot set it out, I cannot convey it; but all this, which is so poor an expression, surely, surely, should leave at least an impression upon us. We should at least grasp this - that a Christian is set in an eternal background. It is a wonderful thing to be converted and to become a Christian; it is blessed to be saved; but oh! our conception and experience of the Christian life is such a little thing compared with God's thought. We need to get the eternal dimensions of the significance of Jesus Christ as the setting of a Christian life.
Christianity does not begin when we accept Christ. By accepting Christ we are placed right back there in the eternity of God's thought concerning man. We are brought into something that has been from all eternity in the intention of God, and, as we shall see later, linked on with a realisation unspeakably wonderful in the ages to come. To become a child of God, to be born again, however you may define or explain it, is to come right into something that is first of all not of time at all - it is of eternity. It is not just this little life here on earth; it is of Heaven, it is universal in its significance. It is a wonderful thing, beyond all our powers of grasping, to be a Christian. If we could only get some conception of the cost of our salvation, the cost of redemption, the cost of recovering the lost inheritance; the cost to God, the cost to God's Son - the awful depths of that Cross; if only we could get some idea of this, we should see that it is no little thing to be a Christian. It is something immense.
What I have said has not been outside the Word of God; I have been keeping closely to the Book. I have not turned you from passage to passage, but there is a vast amount of Scripture behind what I have said. All that I have given you, and more, is in the Word of God. And the important thing is that what I have said can be put to the test - it can be made true in experience, now, in this life. That is just the wonder of it: a truly born-from-above child of God knows within himself or herself, 'This is true; this is why I have a being; now I have the explanation, and much more.'
Now if this is true, if all that is the meaning of being in Christ - and I put the 'if' by way of argument - what an immense challenge it is to be a Christian, and what a terrible thing it will be not to be in Christ. What an immense thing it will prove to be, not only in this life, but more, infinitely more, in the ages to come, to be in Christ!
If there is one reading these lines who is not yet in Christ, it is a challenge to you. You are not dealing merely with your father's or your mother's beliefs or faith. You are not dealing with something that you call 'Christianity', or with your own conception of a Christian, which may be all wrong, faulty, or at most inadequate. You are dealing with a vast thing, an immense thing. May God help you, from this contemplation of the setting of the Christian life, to reach out, if you have never yet done so, to embrace God's gift. If we know what it is to be in Christ, let us make sure that we are set upon knowing all that the Christian life means, that we are not going to be content with a little Christian life, with anything less than God's fullness for us; and if we have a lot of experience and knowledge, let this all lead us to a new determination that we shall not stop short anywhere of God's full and ultimate intention in apprehending us in His Son.