by T. Austin-Sparks
Chapter 2 - The Cross in Abel's Life
Before we take up the matter which is before us, I want to say just this preliminary word. It is necessary for it to be clearly understood that, with regard to messages given in these conferences, there is no human selection but very much definite and long waiting upon the Lord for Him to quite clearly give the message; to cause it to be planted in the heart and grow there.
As we come to this series I feel it necessary to say this to you: that this is not a message which we have thought out and selected and decided upon, but it is quite really something that the Lord has said inside, and said continually and increasingly. The point in saying that is that for some part of this series of messages we are going to be occupied with the Cross - the Cross and the way of life. If the Lord had not said so, that is not the subject that I would have chosen. I know how much has been said about that, and how much you know about it, and I often sense that when the Cross is mentioned, there is a lack of special interest. Perhaps it springs from the feeling that so much has been said and so much is known, 'Oh, the Cross again, the Cross... it is all the Cross!' And the Cross can bring a sense of heaviness because associated with the Cross, of course, is the idea of death. But here we are.
And let me go on to say at once that the Cross never ceases to govern the Christian life. It governs the Christian life at every stage, in every phase and aspect. There is never a point in the Christian life but that the Cross is basic and dominant. A building may rise with every added storey, but it never moves from its foundation. However high you go, however much you add, it never moves from its foundation and in a sense the foundation governs each additional level. If the foundation should give way at any point, that is the end of your building, that spells disaster however far you have gone. And the Cross is like that. The Cross is the foundation of everything.
It is there, of course, at the beginning in what we call conversion and new birth, but after that the Cross governs the whole matter of spiritual growth and progress. We never make one bit of progress except by reason of the law of the Cross operating. The Cross is basic to the church, basic to fellowship. Fellowship is only possible in so far as the Cross is at work in all those concerned. Relatedness and corporate life demand a deep work of the Cross, for that is only saying, in another way, that the Cross has got to be planted very deeply into our individualism - I am not saying 'individuality', but 'individualism'. It takes a deep work of the Cross to do that and so make the way for related fellowship and corporate life. Every bit of fresh light (if it is real light - living light) which transforms and transfigures, springs from the Cross or some working and application of the Cross. And every bit of conformity to Christ demands the continuous operation of the Cross. It never ceases; it goes right on to the end. As for service, work for God, ministry, for this to be fruitful and effectual, living and powerful, it must spring out of the Cross deeply rooted in the life of the worker, the minister, the servant of the Lord.
Having said that, surely we are ready to contemplate and consider this matter still further, and no one will just shrug their shoulders and say, "The Cross again?!"
Human History Dominated by a Question
Now to take it up more definitely. Human history is governed and dominated by a question. In all ages, by countless ways and means men have tried to answer that question. It is the question that comes in with our very birth. There is a big 'Why?' over our birth, and that question remains throughout life, unless, of course, at some given point the answer is found. The question is not always defined, faced and put into words, but we know what it amounts to. The question is: What is the way that leads right through to fulness of life? Men in all ages, by countless ways and means, have tried to answer that question.
Let us break that up. The way... is there such a way? If so, what is it? Given that there is such, is there a definite point of crisis at which that way is entered, and if so, what is that point of crisis? Such questions relate to the way. Is there a way that leads right through, seeing that life for so many is the story of frustration, disappointments, unfulfilled promise, disillusionment, unrealized hopes, uncertainty, bafflement? Is there a way that goes right through with growing enlargement as you take it, and is there certainty of ultimate fulness? That is a question with which we here are all concerned, and it really lies behind life as a whole. Is there a way that goes right through to fulness of life? Is fulness of life possible, and is it assured? Is there an absolute answer to this question with which we are born, and can we now have evidence of this; that there is a way that goes right through to fulness of life? That is the big question that we are setting ourselves to answer at this time.
The Bible the Answer to the Question
The Bible from beginning to end is the answer to that question in all its parts, I mean, in all the parts of the question. From its first pages in the book of Genesis to its last pages in the book of the Revelation, that way is marked out. Despite the failure of people to always go right through, the Bible shows that the way does reach its end. The end of that way is fulness of life. No one who knows the last two chapters of the Bible can question that. But this fulness which is the end and the goal, is testified to right at the beginning. That is a wonderful thing! Whatever may be the experiences of trial and testing and discipline and suffering on the way, when you first enter it you know quite well that fulness is the nature of that life. It is testified to at once. It is just wonderful that if we have a true and proper and right beginning in the Christian life, call it what you will - being saved, being converted, being born again, accepting Christ - however you may put it, you at once have a testimony in your own heart to the fact that this is the way of the fulness of life. The testimony is there.
But as we go on, it is evidenced in progress. The Christian life is a series of developments, new crises, and out of every new crisis comes something more, something fuller. And, as we said before, the crisis is only meant for that. Any crisis in the Christian life is meant for something more and something fuller and something further. And the testimony at the beginning and the evidence in the progress is realized in fulness at the end. This is the way of life.
The Cross the Way to Fulness of Life
Well, that brings us to the question: What is that way? The answer simply is: it is the way of the Cross. Strangely enough, contradicting all our morbid ideas about the Cross, disallowing ideas that the Cross is the end of everything and if you accept the Cross, well, you are in for it, you are going to lose everything, going to give up everything, and it is going to be a thin sort of life. It will not allow that. The Cross is the way of life; the Cross is the way itself. The Cross is not the journey, because the Cross is absolutely full and final at one moment, and that moment was long ago. The Cross is absolute at any moment in itself. It is not progressive. Get clear and straight on this. The Cross is not progressive. It is full, it is final in itself. Therefore the Cross is not a way. The progressive element is just a matter of our acceptance or rejection of it. How much we will accept, how much we will yield to it, how much of it we will allow to have a place in our lives; that decides the whole question of progression. There is no development in the Cross. The Cross does not grow, except in our apprehension, but in itself it is full. The whole matter of how far we go on the way of life depends entirely upon how we will allow the Cross to master, to dominate - how far and how much.
The Cross a Full and Final Principle
That brings us to this: that the Cross is a full and final principle, although it has many aspects. It is a full and final principle. We are going to see that the Cross in its fulness and finality was right there at the beginning of the Bible. As a principle, it was absolute then. It is just in so far as you and I bring our lives at this time of the day back to God's fulness in the Cross that we are going to know this progressive development and increase of life - so far and no more.
The Cross is a great divide. It divides people into three categories. Firstly, it makes a broad division between those who never get into life, and those who do. Whether men and women get into life at all depends entirely upon their acceptance of the Cross. But it divides further. It divides between those who do get into life, and those who go right through to fulness of life, and there is quite a real division there. Whether you like the theory or not, it is a fact.
There are many Christians who are in the way of life, that is, who have entered the way of life, but are not going right on to fulness of life. That is really what the New Testament is about - trying to get Christians who have entered into life to go on to fulness of life. The Cross divides between those, because, while we come into the way of life by the Cross, we also only come into the fulness of life by the Cross, and that is another thing - a fuller, deeper application of the Cross. So the Cross makes three categories, those not in Life, those in Life, and those in Life going on to fulness of Life.
The Cross as this full principle, was introduced immediately the door was closed to man. The Bible so early shows the closing of the door into life to man. It is all highly figurative, symbolical. That need not trouble us at all, but there the principles are set forth in symbolic forms and language. I am not going to stop to argue whether it was literal or not, that should not concern us very much just now. It is the spiritual principles that matter, whatever form they may have taken, but there in the symbolism was the garden with the tree of life in it closed to man who was expelled, and the door shut and guarded. The door was closed... but instantly, immediately, the Cross as a full principle of the way of life was introduced. It came in implicitly. It is startling; it is almost breathtaking to see how implicit it has always been. This challenge of the Cross, this verdict of the Cross, is nothing less than startling right at the beginning of man's history.
The Door Closed or Opened
We might here pause for a moment to see how startling it was. The story of Cain and Abel, that with which we are going to deal a little more fully presently, is really a terrific story - the man who got through to life, and the man who found the door closed and barred against him with no way through, and went out into the earth a vagabond with most awful consequences to him and his civilisation. The difference between Abel, who got straight through, and Cain, who found no way at all; a closed door, and an awful history following. The difference hung upon the principle of the Cross.
Follow through to the world and Noah, remembering that the world in Noah's day was the full development of Cain's civilisation, and that civilisation met a closed door in the flood. The flood was a closed door. There is no way through there, no way of life through that for that civilisation. And here is Noah and his little party who go clean through the flood and out on to the other side in life, in safety, in peace. The divide between the two, between Noah and that whole world, rested upon the principle of the Cross.
Chaldea - a great civilisation was Chaldea, very, very great developments by men with which we have no time to stay, and one man, Abraham. And the one man goes right through to today, and is still going on. Chaldea - where is Chaldea? What of Chaldea? A closed door. Sooner or later, Chaldea finds there is no way through, and disintegrates, becomes but a name, a far-off story not alive today. The whole divide rested upon this principle of the Cross between Abraham and the Chaldean civilisation.
Into the life of Abraham... Abraham and Lot. Say what you will about Lot, it is a sorry story of a man who has to be literally dragged out of Sodom and Gomorrah, sees everything consumed by fire, and turned to salt. The whole history of Lot's relationships, his voluntary relationships, is a Dead Sea; no life. Abraham goes on. The whole thing turned upon the principle of the Cross. We shall see that that principle of the Cross was not just latent, but patent and positive. It had a concrete point at which the turn was taken, the decision was made.
To press on - Egypt and Israel. Well, Egypt was no little thing, no insignificant thing; it was a great régime, a great system, a mighty world power, and a very highly developed civilisation. Yes, Egypt was nothing to scoff at in the days of Israel. Where is Egypt, that Egypt, today? Where is all that glory, all that development? It is a story that is told... something dead. Go to the Sphinx, go to the pyramids, they are dead things; monuments of something that was thousands of years ago, and now is not. Israel has gone on. Israel is not dead yet. The whole thing turned upon the night of the Passover, the principle of the Cross. The Cross governed that.
Still on - to Babylon. Babylon and the remnant of Israel. Well, how long and how interesting would be the story of Babylon's greatness and Babylon's glories, "This great Babylon which I have built" (Dan. 4:30), said its king. Yes, it was fabulous. Where is Babylon - amongst the seven wonders of the world, but where? What about that remnant? It all turned upon the principle of the Cross.
Still on in history - to mighty Rome. What a world power, subduing and subjecting the world to itself! What a structure, what a story, what a sight! Christians - poor, helpless Christians on the other hand. Where is Rome and its empire? Well, you can go to its city and see the ruins of that mighty empire. The historians who are present will be calling much to mind, the ravages of that city and civilisation, the work of the vandals, a story of long ago. It is dead. Where are the Christians? Here we are, we are alive and there are many more, and it all turned upon the principle of the Cross.
Yes, this mighty thing is not just some transaction on a green hill far away two thousand years ago. It is something running right through all the centuries as a mighty power, a terrific principle capable of overthrowing the mightiest civilisations. How great is this Cross! Yes, it is a power ever present at any given time in history, ever present in principle. The dividing factor, wherever division has been made, has always been the Cross.
The Meaning of the Cross
Well, we must come nearer still. What is the meaning of the Cross? What do we mean by the principle or the law of the Cross? What is the meaning of the Cross? I am going to sum it up in one statement. The meaning of the Cross is this: that there is that which God has fully and finally rejected, forsaken, and handed over to death, and He will never change His attitude toward it. Let me repeat that. There is that which God has fully and finally rejected, forsaken, from which He has turned His face forever, having handed it over to death. For that there is no remedy, there is no healing. It is a state which is not amenable to separation between good and bad. No surgeon's knife, no physician's potion can get in between good and bad and separate them in that realm. It is all so much of a piece that even God will not tackle the problem of disintegrating, separating, analysing and dividing. God has turned His face from it forever to have nothing to do with it. Till you and I have grasped that, we do not know the meaning of the Cross.
Oh, that immense thing, that unspeakable thing that happened when, with a breaking heart, the Son of God cried "My God, Thou hast forsaken Me", the very Son of God, the Son of God's love, broke His heart in that moment, a broken-hearted cry... forsaken of God. We have never plumbed and fathomed that yet. But that is the sum of this. There is that in this universe, in this creation, which God has abandoned, forsaken, and handed over to death, and which He does not attempt to remedy. Where God is concerned, death has already taken place in that realm, and death is death.
Now, it is the recognition and acceptance of that fact, that truth, that reality, or the ignoring or rejection of it that determines whether the way is closed or open. It all resolves itself into this: whether we accept the fact that death has taken place and that there is that, and we belong to that by nature which God has abandoned. Whether we recognize that, accept that, and submit to it, or whether we ignore or reject it, determines whether the way is opened or whether the way is closed. That is the principle of the Cross. It is very utter. It is what I meant when I said that it is implicit and final.
The Meaning of the Cross in the Lives of Cain and Abel
Well, that can bring us now to the first illustration and object lesson of that truth: Cain and Abel; for all this truth of the meaning of the Cross is gathered into the story of those two men.
Now, I want to say here in parenthesis that I am not at this time dealing with the doctrine of justification by faith, which I know to be a great doctrine associated with Abel and with all those to whom we shall refer. I am not referring to that, and I am not dealing with that now. But in every case which we shall have before us, what I am doing is to focus upon one central principle. That principle will be found in different instances, and different situations, but the principle is the same in every case, and it is just upon that principle - a single, ultimate, inclusive principle - that I want to focus at this time.
Cain's Offering and God's Rejection
Coming then to Cain, it was not a matter of God closing the door to Cain. The door was already closed. With Cain it was this question of recognizing or ignoring that fact, that the door was closed. He just did not recognize the fact that the door was closed. In other words, he did not recognize the fact of death, for it is written that God had said before they were born to their parents concerning the truth of the knowledge of good and evil "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen. 2:17). And I believe that that means what it says, that in the day that they did eat, they did most surely die. It was not something potential and prospective. They died. Death took place.
On what do we base that? Listen! This is from the New Testament: "Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin..." (Rom. 5:12) - by one man. That man was Adam. Sin entered, and death through sin, "so death passed unto all men." Now that is a long section in Romans 5 - read it. It runs from verse 12 to verse 19, a long section, and it is all focused upon this: that death passed upon all men - all are dead. Through one man death entered. Or again in that wonderful letter to the Corinthians, first letter, chapter 15, verses 21 and 22 – "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die...". Death was a fact; it had taken place and Cain did not recognize the fact, he did not accept the fact, he ignored the fact. And this whole matter of whether the way is closed or open depends upon our recognition and acceptance of that fact, and there is no way through for us in our natural state. And it is a matter also of putting our approach to God upon that basis. That is what arose here.
Let us look at the features, then, in Cain's case. It was not that Cain was a godless, irreligious man. He was not atheistic, ignoring or disputing or doubting or denying the existence of God. He came to the place of worship! There was evidently a place of worship where there was an altar. God had not been ruled out of his universe, He was still allowed a place in their thought and in their attention. Cain was not, in that sense, a godless man, irreligious. Cain had worked hard and worked well. This fruit of the ground which he brought represented skill, energy, interest, and if the Lord's words still obtained – "in the sweat of thy face" the Lord had said (Gen. 3:19) - this fruit was that, it represented all that where Cain was concerned. It was the embodiment of his mind, the embodiment of his heart, the embodiment of his will. He had put himself into that fruit. We are going to give him as large a place as we can. We are not despising Cain in a certain realm. He had put himself into his fruit. That fruit was the expression of himself. It was all out from himself, and that was the deadlock and the impasse.
This is tremendously searching. A man's best and fullest consecration to his life's work, putting himself - mind, heart and will; intelligence, skill, devotion and labour - into producing something fine and good and bringing it to God and finding the door closed. That is searching. That was the beginning of a long history, that long history of self-sufficiency and its brood, for the brood of Self is a very, very large one - self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, and so on and on - a long history. It is the history of that which in a very large development focused upon Jesus, and murdered Him. This was the beginning of murder. You see, God knew Cain's heart even when he was at the altar with his fruit. He knew what was in that man's heart which only needed certain conditions and circumstances and provocations to divulge it. You do not have to divulge a thing for God to know. It is there, and He knows all about it. He may draw it out, but He knows all about it beforehand. This is the beginning of a history of what, in our time, has come to be called 'humanism': that man has it within himself, his own intelligence, his own power, his own will, his own resource, to find his way through, to get through, to save himself. It began here.
And do you not see that this was the beginning of that final development which is so far on the way to consummation now - Antichrist, the super-glory of man in his achievements, inventions, discoveries, and what not, by which he is going to save himself and his world - and it is nonsense! The Cross makes nonsense of it all, and says: There is no way through! And if men are not capable of seeing that there is no way through to heaven by the hydrogen bomb or any other weapon, they are fools indeed. "The god of this world hath blinded the minds of the unbelieving" (2 Cor. 4:4). It began here.
See what it amounts to. You and I, by the best that we can do and produce, never can get through with God. All such ideas and thoughts are the ignoring or rejecting of this fact: that the door was shut long, long ago, and death took place, and we are born dead every one of us - a mighty active death.
Abel's Offering and God's Acceptance
Pass over to Abel. Now Abel did not begin with any advantage over Cain. Cain had no handicap put upon him by God. Indeed, I think Abel may have been less accounted amongst men than Cain. It does not require all this intelligence and skill and labour and sweat to look after a few sheep. No, with God there is common ground for all, whether Cain or Abel. God has no favourites; God puts no handicap upon any particular class of person. Abel, so far as the ultimate fact was concerned, was as handicapped as Cain. The door was closed; death had passed upon all men, including Abel. Do not get romantic about Abel. His heart was no better than that of Cain in the sight of God. But what was the difference? Abel accepted the principle of death. He surrendered himself to the great fact and came to God, not with all that he was, but in a substitute and a representative; another's life, not his own. Simple, but thoroughgoing.
Look at the two offerings. Cain - beautiful fruit, the ripe product of his best energy of mind and heart and will. His fruit was undoubtedly a beautiful sight to look upon. Abel had a dead lamb. A weak, defenceless, helpless thing; foolish, little, young. An undeveloped lamb. Dead - could anything represent nothingness more than a dead lamb? But Abel got through! God opened the closed door to Abel, while He kept it closed to Cain. Oh, I say, that is the principle of the Cross right up to date.
"Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone."
I can do nothing, I can offer nothing, and I am nothing but a dead thing. My way through is a Lamb, a slain Lamb, the Lamb of God - the principle of the Cross. Very drastic, very thoroughgoing.
And this, on Abel's side, was the beginning of another long history, leading right up to the Lamb of God, to Christ. Listen to Him; listen to Him in the presence of Cain, "The Son can do nothing of himself" (John 5:19). That is the principle of the Cross. He accepted that position of being able to do nothing out from Himself. It must all come out from God. There is no way through otherwise. Cain would say, 'I can do it, here it is; this is my doing, this is out from myself, this fruit is out from myself. I am in this, and I make this that I am in and have done - that I have achieved and brought about - I make that the ground of my approach to God.' The door is closed.
Now, that is not only a message to sinners, but the New Testament makes that the message to Christians, because it not only governs our entrance into life, but it governs the whole course of life in every aspect and phase. If it is a matter of more life; then more acceptance of the Cross... which means more and more realizing, acknowledging and submitting to the fact that it has all got to be of God. Yes, whatever that 'all' may be! It will touch everything.
There was a revolution in my life thirty years ago when that principle of the Cross came flat up against ministry - ministry that for years I had been producing - against all my study, reading and late nights, to get up the stuff for ministry, till the whole thing became an intolerable burden in myself. Others perhaps thought it to be pretty good, but the crisis when - listen to me, men and women who are in ministry, or contemplating it - the whole turn came upon the recognition of this principle, this principle of the Cross when, with the door closed, I said to the Lord 'I am finished in all ministry, I am never going to preach again unless You do something now. I have been doing it all these years; I have been producing this, now I am finished. You have got to do it.' But I saw that principle, you see, as the principle of the Cross and I meant it.
Forgive me speaking of myself, but I must bring this home in some way. The next week would have seen my resignation in with my church officers, and I would have gone out from ministry if the Lord had not done it. But the Lord was true to His own principle. It was an utter end of anything that I could produce for ministry, and I meant it to be like that, because I recognized that God meant that. That was the principle of the Cross - nothing out from ourselves. No fruit that labour and study of the mind and heart could produce has a way through in the work and service of God. God was true to His own principle - He always is. From that day to this, there has been no trouble about ministry. It is easy to let ministry go, and much more easy than to accept it. This clamouring for ministry - it is uncrucified flesh. Well, there has been an open heaven since then. Again I beg your forgiveness for making this personal reference, but this is a true thing. It is a principle which covers all the ground.
Some of you here are interested in, and concerned with, local assemblies. What are your difficulties in that matter? Probably your first difficulty is relatedness and fellowship, getting even two leaders to be absolutely one - and as for three...! And when you get beyond that, ah yes! But there is a solution. There is a solution. That can be. It can gloriously be, and it can last, and it can grow, if only you will plant that thing right upon this basis of the Cross, where, in each one concerned, all that is personal goes out. All that is merely individualistic is buried, crucified; all your personal likes and dislikes and preferences and all that sort of thing, where you come into the picture either to be something or to do something, it simply goes out, and it matters not at all whether you figure in the business. You see what happens when that position is reached! The church grows then. And that principle, I say again, applies to every detail of life and service, and to all God's purpose with Christians individually and collectively. The Cross is the law of life, the way of life, and the way to fulness of life.
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