by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: Acts 1.
When we view and come into touch with the situation as it is today amongst the Lord's own people, and seek to diagnose the position, and to reach the point where we see and know what the need above all others is, I think we are not far from the truth when we say that the matter of preeminent importance is that of LIFE. Everything, I feel, can be gathered up into that. It governs all other matters. It touches all other situations. When all has been said and done in relation to Christ, and His work, in relation to doctrine, in relation to the Christian life, in relation to the whole work of God, the point upon which everything rests and revolves, and that which determines its practical and abiding value, is life. It is not, for instance, soundness of doctrine as something in itself that is the determining factor. It is not the Scriptures alone. It is not New Testament order in itself. It is not a matter of fuller truth, and it is not a matter of the work or service of the Lord. Ultimately it is a matter of life. The former are all important and indispensable, and they may all be the marks and the issues of life, but it is possible for every one of them to be present without the life, and therefore to be ineffective; it is possible, in a word, to have perfectly sound doctrine without life. It is possible to have the Scriptures; by that I mean a very comprehensive thorough-going knowledge of the written Word of God: it is possible to have a great deal of Bible teaching: it is possible to have much of what might be called "fuller truth": it is possible to have a perfect New Testament order; and finally, it is possible to have a tremendous amount of Christian activity or work for the Lord, and for it all to be lacking in real effectiveness, because without the life.
Mark you, the case is not one of presenting a choice between these things; for the life will require these things and will accompany them, or be accompanied by them. But it is possible to have all that side of things without the life, and therefore for this very complete outfit to be lacking in vitality, in Divine energy, spiritual dynamic, abiding effectiveness, undying fruit.
If that is so, then it means that there are matters which come before these, and such matters have to be established. There is something that must come before all or any of the things mentioned. There is that which is basic to a large grasp of Scripture, a fuller measure of truth, a great deal of Christian work, and service, and so on. Something comes before all that, and that something has to be established.
This raises two points, which we may mention at this juncture.
Firstly, that we may put things round the wrong way, and by so doing come to a false place where we have a very great deal which is not getting us to the place of real and full value and satisfaction. It is here that we meet with the tremendous handicap of much teaching, when the teaching remains as a teaching. It is possible to be mummified by teaching, to be wound up from tip to toe and smothered by teaching. There are those who cannot breathe for the amount of teaching they possess. A condition like that is a very tragic one. Such persons are familiar with all that has ever been said or written about sanctification, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the Church, the coming again of the Lord, and many other aspects of truth. It is very difficult to give such people any new light. They have read; they have listened; they have been in touch with all the specific or specialised movements, and this whole thing has become a dead weight, so that it is really a handicap to them. There is a very great peril in having these things without the life. And perhaps it is there that the most drastic work has to be done, which is the work of undoing in order to do.
This is what we mean by putting things round the wrong way, and in doing so to come to a false place where we know it all, while yet it is of very little effective value; a false place, where to know after that manner is to put us outside of the pale of receiving newness, freshness. It is a terrible state in which to be.
The second thing is that we must re-read our Bibles, especially the New Testament, from a specific standpoint. What is that specific standpoint? It is not the theological standpoint, not the doctrinal standpoint, not the academic standpoint, but the spiritual standpoint. If the preeminent question is that of life, and it is possible to have all these things - doctrine, truth, Bible knowledge, and so on - and yet be without the life, then our approach to the Scriptures will have to be changed, or will have to be a certain kind; that is, we shall have to re-read our New Testament, not with a view to learning the doctrine, not with a view to comprehending truth, not with a view to knowing the Scriptures, the written Word as such, but we shall have to read from the spiritual standpoint.
How Do We Read Our Bibles?
We will explain that. Our approach to the New Testament can be in two ways.
Firstly, it can be from what we may call the cumulative standpoint; that is, as we have the complete writings of the New Testament. Here is the Book completed; we have it, entire. Now we may approach it as a complete whole. We believe that God has nothing to add to it, though He may have much more to reveal from it. But, so far as the Book is concerned, it is final, it is complete. We may approach it, therefore, in its completeness, and we may take a subject or a theme, and with the whole Book in our hand piece that subject or that theme together. It will be touched upon here, and there, and there, and throughout the whole Book; and we gather up those pieces, those fragments, those touches, and put them all together, and as we do so, form them into a system of truth; we systematize the Divine revelation by gathering up its scattered fragments and bringing them together, and making of each, or any one of them, a whole, so far as we see. Or we may take things like the atonement, justification by faith, reconciliation, and a multitude of other themes and subjects, and collect what is said about these matters from various parts of the whole cumulative record, and put them into an order, and thus they become a system, a doctrine, or doctrine systematized. We can approach the New Testament, or the whole Bible, in that way, from what we have called the cumulative standpoint. That is one way.
There is another way. We can approach it from the personal and the experimental standpoint of the writers and of the people to whom they wrote. That is to say, we may move with the Apostles in the practical side of their life which led to and called for the doctrine. That is an altogether different way of approach. If you think about it, and I hope you will, you will be able to determine which is the academic, the theological, the doctrinal, and which is the living, according as you meet with it, and the meaning of what we have said about having things round the wrong way, and of being placed very largely in a false position will become quite clear to you. (You will have to be patient, I know, but this touches the heart of things.) The big question, after all, - and it is an open question - is whether the New Testament was intended to be systematized as to its teaching at all?
I wonder what Paul would think, for instance, were he to come back today and look over the literature of the past many centuries upon his letters, the systems of truth, of doctrine, the wonderful organisations men have made of the things which he said in a moment of inspiration and need - I wonder what he would say. I think he would look at it with blank amazement, and say, Well, that ever they could have made that out of what I said! That ever that could have resulted! I am not sure that he would recognise his own teaching. I am quite sure that he would be very doubtful as to whether it was the right outworking of what he said.
I simply raise that as a question, and yet include it as something upon which to reflect. Does not a systematizing of truth result in limitation, in a setness which breathes death? The New Testament themes are far, far too big for our moulds. You cannot systematize the Cross of the Lord Jesus, you can only go on your knees and worship, conscious that you see something really far beyond your power to compass. But immediately you have boxed it in a system of truth, you have reduced it from its divine and eternal dimensions, and robbed it of its power, and brought it into a realm of death in that measure. The Person of Christ, the resurrection of Christ - take any one of the great themes of the New Testament - when you have so wonderfully brought together all the fragments and organized them, and put them into a manual, a text book, you have killed the thing.
It may be very helpful and very useful to know what the Bible teaches about various things. I am not saying that it is wrong to know that, to follow out, and follow through, to know everything that the Word of God has to say upon any point. But I am saying that it is a question as to whether the New Testament was intended to be systematized as doctrine.
We must always see to it that we leave enough room for God; and when you say, or when any body of people or any individual says, Now that is the teaching upon any given subject, and you must accept that, conform to that, you have systematized things and created a mould into which you are trying to force people, and you will find that, sooner or later, it becomes akin to the mould of the law, to judaistic legalism, which is bondage, which does not leave enough room for God.
The Jews had the Old Testament Scriptures. They systematized those Scriptures, and so treated they taught them thoroughly. Every fragment they so thoroughly threshed out that one Rabbi drew up fifteen hundred odd laws on the one law of the Sabbath. Now the Sabbath is governed by over fifteen hundred bylaws! You can understand that they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and put them upon men's shoulders. And if they did that with every fragment of Scripture, no wonder it proved to be an impossible yoke. But so thoroughly did they systematize things, as to say in effect; Now this is the law, analysed and applied, and outside of this you must not move: within this compass you must have your being: by this your horizon must be fixed and set!
When the Lord Jesus came, and in Himself gave some interpretation to the law, some light upon the law, which did not fall within the compass of their system, there was no room for Him, there was no room for God in His own law. There must be room left for God!
How Doctrine came to the Apostles
Now we must remember this, that the teaching of the Apostles was not hammered out in the study, in the lecture room. The teaching of the Apostles was hammered out in the practical occupation with situations and conditions. They are in the work, and in the work they are coming up against situations of tremendous difficulty. They are brought face to face with the biggest practical problems of human relationship with God, human need. They were in the thick of these things, in the fire; and right there on the field, while up against things, the doctrine was hammered out over against the practical question and issue. The truth was not an academic thing, it was a practical thing. They found themselves up against a position which demanded some revelation from God by the Holy Ghost, and being forced to the issue that either God must give Divine revelation, light, understanding in this situation or else their entire position went to pieces, the whole thing became an immensely practical question, and their light was life, their doctrine was living, because it had a practical and living background to it. There was a specific and definite occasion for every bit of New Testament doctrine.
The letter to the Romans has been regarded as a most wonderful systematizing of truth, and it has been dealt with as a masterpiece of systematized doctrine. Now withal it was nothing of the kind. It was the outcome of an Apostle being brought face to face with the biggest issue that Christianity ever had to encounter. The whole position for Christianity was at stake. What was it? The significance of Christ risen. Everything was hanging upon that. The Old Testament was hanging upon that. The Cross was hanging upon that. And so you are not far into the letter before you find that the great basic and all-inclusive statements are concerning Christ risen. The Gospel of God concerning His Son, "declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead." And if you follow through, you will find that Paul, while dealing with every other thing, hangs everything upon the resurrection of Christ and what it means. But that is just suggested for the moment. We shall refer to that again perhaps more fully.
The point is that the letter to the Romans was hammered out, as we might say, on the mission field. A man was up against something, and this revelation, this unveiling, came, shall we say, to rescue the Testimony, to rescue Christianity in an hour of dire need, and pressure. It was a practical matter. It was not academic. Paul never went to his study (if he had one) and sat down to write a treatise which has become known to us as the Letter to the Romans. He is at hand-to-hand grips with a living and terrible situation, and this is being drawn out of him, and that is why it has so much life in it.
The letter to the Galatians presents a similar position. It was called forth to meet a specific occasion.
Every one of Paul's letters, every bit of doctrine that ever Paul gave, was to meet a specific situation an actual position, something that had arisen in life, and it was meeting that. We get the whole result accumulatively, and then we put these things together into a system and thereafter impose it upon all and sundry and say, That is the Christian doctrine! What we need is to be flung into the situation that makes that bit of light and truth a matter of rescuing us from either despair or destruction, and then the thing is more than doctrine, it is life.
I think it is quite a question as to whether Paul knew that his letters would become Holy Scripture, and for the next nineteen hundred years or so be analysed, studied, dissected, resolved, put into an organized form or body of doctrine. I doubt whether Paul knew what was going to happen to his letters. What he knew was that situations had arisen which called for a statement of Divine truth, for the mind of God, to meet that situation. His perception may have gone beyond that, and there are hints to the effect that he thought that after his departure they would have these writings to help them. But we may be quite sure that Paul never looked down nineteen hundred years and more, and foresaw that these letters that he was writing were to become so much a part of the Bible for the rest of the dispensation.
Do you see what it is we are seeking to press home? There are two ways of approaching the Word of God. There is the backward way of starting from the end and working to the foundation, starting with a mass of data, of material, and approaching it as students; or there is this other method of starting alongside of the writers and those to whom they wrote in an experimental way, and being in sympathy with them in the need, in kinship with them in the situation, so that their position is our position in a spiritual way, and we must needs have the truth that saved them to save ourselves.
See what a difference there would have been. Here are all these volumes written by men who spend their whole life either in a study or in a classroom, or in both, simply taking the body of Scripture and bringing to bear upon it their analytical mind, and dealing with it in that way, until you become loaded and overloaded with a systematized presentation of truth. But there is no experience, no heart cry, no getting down alongside of these saints in the various places in their desperate situations; no being down alongside of an Apostle in the hour of his heartbreak, seeing that, unless God reveals something at this time, the whole position is going to break down. The true way is the living way, the way of life. God never gives His heavenly revelation as something upon which our brains are to take hold for purposes of dissecting and analysing. God gives heavenly revelation to save us in an hour of desperate need, and that is why He allows us to be led into situations which make necessary a new revelation. God's is the practical way, not the academic way; the living way, not the way of a system.
We have to be very careful of how we talk about schemes in relation to God. We talk about the scheme of salvation, the Divine scheme, and there is a peril there. The usage may not be ultimately wrong, as we shall see in a moment, but there is a peril, and the peril is this, that everything we touch in the Word of God is a matter of grace, and you cannot stereotype the grace of God.
Take some of the great things mentioned in the Scriptures: According to his purpose which he purposed in Christ before the world was, the eternal purpose. And then, as part of that, or subsidiary thereto: Foreordained, elected, according to the foreknowledge of God, predestined. Immediately the speculative type of man leaps at things like that. Oh, these are tremendous hints; these are things which carry vast ranges of Divine intention; these are suggestions of something! There are implications here: let us get the whole thing! And then we get to work on the eternal purpose, then on election, predestination, foreordination, all beautifully arranged, until all this is wonderfully systematized and stereotyped, set, fixed. Its beginning, its end, its entire range is beautifully rounded off. And in it all we have failed to see that every fragment of that is of the grace of God. Foreordained? Predestined? Elected? - all is according to the grace of God. And what is academic so often takes worship out, life out, wonder out, takes awe out. You can present these things in a wonderful way as a great plan of the ages, without the heart being bowed under the tremendous impact of it, Oh, the grace of God to me!
Systems of Truth can be Dangerous and Cruel
That is why it is necessary to come into truth in a living way, and not a mental way. That is why it is possible to have the whole system of truth, and yet not to have the life. There is a fascination about things like that, about Bible truth, a wonderful mental fascination; but it carries with it this awful danger of missing a practical application and a practical challenge. No! The Christ of God can never be stereotyped. Herein are those paradoxes of Scripture. Chosen in Him! Yes, but never coming into that choice, save through the infinite grace of God, and only on the ground that you recognize that it is not merely a sovereign choice, it is of grace. You and I will never come into God's eternal plan simply because God has chosen us to be in it. There is another side. You and I will only come into anything for which we have been chosen in Christ as we come to the place where in utter self-emptying, in utter brokenness, we recognize that this is the grace of God. We must not put too much upon the predestinating. It is a glorious thing, but there is the other side - grace, grace, and we have to recognize the grace of God before ever we can know anything about the foreordaining of God.
That is why systems of truth have become so cruel. It is simply because they are one-sided. You can over-emphasise the subject of predestination until it becomes very icy, frigid, stern and almost cruel; cruel, in the sense that so many people have been driven almost to desperation by questions as to predestination. The whole thing has to be balanced with grace, and we come into it through grace.
We have only used that as an illustration. We are speaking about the danger of thinking in terms of Divine schemes, as though schemes were everything. Schemes are not everything. There may be a plan: there may be a purpose; there may be a wonderfully ordered arrangement, with every detail set; but then that can all be so cold and lifeless. What we need is life. Life is the basic thing. You and I will never come into the scheme, the plan, except by the way of life, and you and I will only develop according to the plan on the basis of life, and the plan will only have its realization in parts and as a whole on the basis of life, Divine life, this specific life.
All this does not mean that there is no system of truth, or order of practice in the Word of God. There certainly is. There is a Divine order, a Divine plan, a heavenly system, but the question is as to how we arrive at it. Do we arrive at it by mapping it all out, gathering the Scriptures together and making them into an organized whole as to the order? You may state that in this way: Take the New Testament and mark the order of the Church in the New Testament, and bring all the scattered fragments together about Church order; and of the result it can be said, Now we have the whole thing, and we can put it beautifully, form the New Testament order. We can have Churches according to this order, and get the people together and put the order upon them, and say: That is the New Testament order, conform to that! These are New Testament laws and regulations of governing the Church! Are we going to get into it in that way? If so, we are going to have death, while we have New Testament order. It is possible to have perfect New Testament order as to the letter, and have no life.
That may sound a hard saying, but it is true. It is not that there is no order; there is. God is a God of order, and God does everything in a proper and ordered way, and He has, as we have said, His heavenly system into which we have to come, but the question is, How are we coming into it? Are we coming into it from without, as a set order, or is it going to grow spontaneously and express itself on a basis of spiritual life? That is the only way in which it becomes a living expression of the Divine life. It has to express itself from within by a principle of Divine life. You cannot have assemblies of people upon whom you impose a New Testament order. You must have the coming together of the Lord's people in a living way, under the absolute Headship of Christ and the government of the Holy Spirit, and you will find that the Lord's order spontaneously comes about. That is living.
Which of these two ways of approach will determine whether the thing is life or not life? Just at that point we reach the great matter to which all this leads, but we can suspend it for the time being, and go on later.