I started reading JND when I was in University, largely out of curiosity. I figured someone so widely reviled but also widely adulated must be worth a read. In the last ten or fifteen years, I've read a little over half of Darby's work. I've read the first 24 volumes of The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby cover-to-cover, and I've browsed and dabbled in a good deal of the rest. This doesn't make me a bona fide expert on Darby, but it means I've read a good deal more of what he actually wrote than the vast majority of people who talk about him.
Darby had some flaws, but I would have been honoured to meet him. I still consider him among my favourite authors. It was he who wrote in a letter, "The eyes see farther than the feet go." He realized he understood more than he actually walked out. Would that I did half so well as he!
I'd like to offer a list of "Darby's Top Ten". But I'm not sure how easy or feasible it will be, so I've decided to post about several of my favourites, one or two at a time. I'll list them as some sort of ordered list, but please understand at the outset that the listing is largely arbitrary. #1 today might well be #7 next week.
#10 "The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2)
This is listed in the "Prophetic" volumes of CW, but it's possible it ought to have been listed in the "Doctrinal" section. It is available STEM Publishing.
Melchisedec is one of the "mystic figures" of Scripture. He appears in Genesis 14, is forgotten until Psalm 110, then fades away again until Hebrews. Like Elihu in Job, Melchisedec comes from nowhere, makes astonishing statements, and disappears again. Hebrews says Christ is like him, "having neither father nor mother," etc.
Interestingly, Melchisedec is the first priest named in Scripture, but he doesn't do what we most associate with priests: he offers no sacrifice. He gives Abram food and drink, blesses Abram and God, accepts a tithe of Sodom's spoils, and disappears. This is in contrast with the Levitical priesthood, which centers on sacrifices.
JND draws comparisons and contrasts between Melchisedec and Aaron, and discusses the place the Christ plays in His role as Priest, with insights drawn from Melchisedec's actions in Genesis 14.
#9 "The Sabbath: or, Is the law dead, or am I" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 10)Available from STEM Publishing.
This paper discusses the role of Law in the Christian life. It is unfortunately slightly rambling---one gets the impression it might have been a discussion over coffee, rather than a published article---but it's actually very good, if one is patient in reading.
JND presents the core of Dispensationalism very succinctly in it:
Without law [flesh] is lawless; with law it transgresses; with Christ it rejects and slays Him, and in him even who has the Spirit as a believer, lusts against it. (p. 276)
Dispensationalism centers on the idea that God tests man; not to find out whether man is good, but to prove he isn't.
I've said it time and again: "brethren" weren't a movement about church order or prophetic interpretation. As a movement, "brethren" arose out of an understanding of personal salvation and sanctification that stood at odds with the sacramentalists on the one hand, and the staunch Reformers on the other. This is the same balance Cranmer and Hooker had tried to maintain two centuries earlier.
Modern dispensationalists have really turned away from dispensationalism in every realm except (possibly) prophecy. But early "brethren" took the Dispensationalist position in its entirety, including and emphasizing the conclusions relating to sanctification and Christian living.
Flesh may remain in us, as the old stock in the grafted tree, as a thing hostile to the Spirit, for exercises and humbling profit, so that we may overcome, and have our senses exercised to discern good and evil; but it is never formed into a new (till glory changes all); it is as a nature hostile and condemned, and only that; not subject to the law of God, nor can be; enmity against God, where it has a mind at all. The second Adam is, morally and spiritually speaking, substituted for the first, does not restore and recover it. Without law it is lawless; with law it transgresses; with Christ it rejects and slays Him, and in him even who has the Spirit as a believer, lusts against it. (p. 270)
It is because men have believed in a recovery of man in flesh — and so a continuance of law, which applies to men alive in flesh, only spiritualized and suffused into a new system of grace — that they have argued for the maintenance of law; while others have sought to prove that the law was dead, and did not bind, Christ having abrogated it and introduced something more suited to man. Both are alike wrong. It may seem presumptuous to say so; but the word of God has authority above all men, as I am sure the great body of those I refer to would cordially acknowledge. (p. 278)
I... produce from Scripture the testimonies which shew that we are not under the law; yet not because the decalogue or law is abolished or buried, but because we are dead, buried, and risen again in Christ; because we are a new creation, redeemed out of the position we were in in flesh. That we are redeemed from its curse no one denies, so that I do not argue that point, all important as it is: that we are not justified by it is admitted in terms, but I think not really known and held, and is closely connected with our argument: still it is admitted in terms, and hence I do not argue it here. (p. 279)
This is the key to the dispensationalist of denying the Law is the Christian rule of life: not that the Law has been abolished (it most certainly has not), but that the Christian has been done away with, and is now a new Creation, one to which the Law has never been applied in Scripture. Of course, dispensationalists themselves have departed from this, saying the Law has ended with the Cross. This is untenable in the face of 1 Timothy 1, but I digress.
So those are the first two "Best of JND" articles on the list. I have several others I want to share, but I'll reign in my enthusiasm for another day.