I found a paper by J. N. Darby in Collected Writings, Vol. 27 the other day. It's not on STEM Publishing's website, so here it is: Dead with Christ, Risen with Christ.
For *we* are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and boast in Christ Jesus, and do not trust in flesh. (Philippians 3:3, JND)
I think of Philippians 3:3 as one of the definitions of a Christian in Scripture. J. N. Darby defined Christianity from 1 Thessalonians 1:9 & 10, Martyn Lloyd-Jones reputedly defined Christianity from 1 John 4:16; but I think Philippians 3:3 is as good a working definition as either of those.
There are three characteristics of the circumcision in Philippians 3:3, and I think they are worth considering. First, those of the circumcision worship by the Spirit of God. Scripture puts a great emphasis on worship, much greater than most Christians seem to. When the Lord Jesus spoke with the woman at the well in Sychar, He told her, "the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers" (John 4:23). You don't read a whole lot in Scripture about God seeking for things, but here's an example: the Father is seeking worshippers. Worship is a high and holy calling: perhaps the holiest calling of all.
But we're supposed to worship in a certain way: the Lord Jesus said the Father was seeking people who would worship "in spirit in and truth", Paul specified that we "worship by the Spirit of God." We don't just worship any old way: worship is to come from and be empowered by the Spirit of God. It is a sobering thought that throughout the history of Israel's idolatries, there was frequently a mixing-up of the worship of the Lord with their worship of idols. We might consider Exodus 32, where Aaron made the golden calf for the people to worship, "And Aaron saw it, and built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, To-morrow is a feast to Jehovah!" (Exodus 32:5, JND). Notice how quickly Aaron mixed the worship of Jehovah with idolatry. This danger isn't diminished today: 1 John (certainly one of the last books in the Canon to be written, if not the last) ends with the warning, "Children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21, JND). The mixing of Christianity with idolatry is a very real danger. I suppose we can fairly say that the first characteristic of worship by the Spirit of God is that it's not tied up with idols.
Do I need to mention that worship by the Spirit of God would be worship according to truth? The Lord Jesus explicitly tied these together in His conversation with the woman at Sychar. I've sometimes been accused of anti-intellectualism (which is perhaps another blog post), and I certainly won't say that having the correct answers is the priority... but we can't claim to be worshipping by the Spirit of God when we're flagrantly denying what He says. The fact is that the Spirit of God came here to guide us into all truth (John 16:13); if we're going to play fast and loose with the truth, we're not doing anything by the Spirit of God.
It is a fact that the Epistles consistently describe the Spirit as being in opposition to "the flesh." This has sobering consequences when we consider we're called to "worship by the Spirit of God." Worship by the Spirit of God will necessarily be something that's in opposition to the flesh. Now, we need to be very careful when we say something like that, because flesh is a very adaptable thing: it can put on religious airs easily. The history of asceticism is largely the history of the religion of the flesh, which is certainly counter-intuitive. But it is so: the flesh can be a very religious thing. When we consider passages like Galatians 5 or Romans 7, we need to be careful to recognize that the lusting of the flesh against the Spirit can be very deceptive. Flesh is quite willing to bow in prayer, so long as it doesn't actually have to submit to Christ.
Second, the true circumcision "boast[s] in Christ Jesus". There's a connection here with the first point (worship by the Spirit of God): we don't generally think of boasting "in" someone else. Usually we boast about ourselves. But the true circumcision is characterized by boasting in Christ Jesus. I was speaking in a meeting recently about 1 Corinthians 1:30--31, "But of him are *ye* in Christ Jesus, who has been made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and holiness, and redemption; that according as it is written, He that boasts, let him boast in the Lord. (JND)" Paul tells us we're to boast in "the Lord." Why? Because He is or righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking in abstractions: we think of things like holiness as abstract qualities, but God says these things are a Person. I am to be holy and live a life that's holy, but it's all based on the fact that God has given me Christ Jesus to be my Holiness. I ought to live righteously, but my Righteousness is the Lord Jesus.
The Epistles talk a lot about boasting in the Lord, and I think it's true that boasting in the Lord is based on our own inability and unworthiness. The man who's got it all together doesn't boast in Christ Jesus: the boasting in Christ comes from the realization that all my worth is in Him. If I have worth in myself, I don't look for it in Christ. I boast in Christ when I realize He's what I have. And this is what Johnny D would say is the secret to the Christian life: that God has called me to a life where Christ is my All in All. He's all I need, and He's all I have. Trouble and temptation come when I forget these two propositions: all I have is Christ, and He's all I need.
We're called to delight in God's Son like He does. We're called to be completely taken with one Person. God's Son has died here, has been buried here, has been raised from the dead, and has been welcomed back into Heaven. There He's been given the highest place. We're waiting for Him to come back. Now here's the secret: 2 Corinthians 3 tells us how we become like Christ Jesus, it's by "beholding His glory":
But *we* all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, JND)Want to be like Christ? Stare at Him.
Finally, the true circumcision doesn't "trust in flesh." I suppose this is connected with the two previous points, both worship by the Spirit of God and boasting in Christ Jesus stand in opposition to the flesh. But there is a deeper meaning here and we don't want to overlook it. There is the ever-present danger of trying to live "after the flesh," a danger Scripture warns against time and again.
The Epistles insist that we are "in Christ," that we are identified with Him in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. In Romans, men are alive in sin, but the believer has died with Christ. In Galatians, we're crucified with Christ, but He lives in us. In Ephesians, men are dead in trespasses and sins, but the believer is quickened with Christ, ascended with Him, and seated in the heavenlies with Him. In Colossians, the believer has died with Christ and has been risen with Him. So Romans and Ephesians are opposite in this sense: in Romans we started out alive and have died; in Ephesians we started out dead and have been raised.
In the Romans account, the believer is dead with Christ---dead to sin and to the Law. Our old man is crucified with Him, and we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin. Notice it doesn't say we're to reckon the old man dead: it says the old man is crucified with Him (Romans 6:6) and as a result we're to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11). After this---after we learn that our old man is crucified and the "body of sin" is annulled (Romans 6:6) and we're to reckon ourselves dead to sin---we meet a new character in Romans 7, "the flesh". Romans 7 says that the flesh is in us, and nothing good is in the flesh (Romans 7:18). So we have a strange situation in the believer: the old man is crucified, but the new man lives in the old man's body. We are redeemed just like Adam fell: Adam died spiritually the day he ate the fruit, but he didn't die physically for another 930 years. Similarly, we are redeemed and alive spiritually, but our bodies aren't yet redeemed, so we await for the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23). All of this is summed up in Romans 8:
But *ye* are not in flesh but in Spirit, if indeed God’s Spirit dwell in you; but if any one has not the Spirit of Christ *he* is not of him: but if Christ be in you, the body is dead on account of sin, but the Spirit life on account of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that has raised up Jesus from among the dead dwell in you, he that has raised up Christ from among the dead shall quicken your mortal bodies also on account of his Spirit which dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to flesh; for if ye live according to flesh, ye are about to die; but if, by the Spirit, ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live: for as many as are led by the Spirit of God, *these* are sons of God. (Romans 8:9--13, JND)Our body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But our mortal bodies will one day be raised just like Christ's body was. Still, we're not there yet. So we are called not to live after the flesh---that's part of the yet-unredeemed body---but to be led by the Spirit of God.
So Romans presents the very real conflict between the flesh and the spirit. We're spiritually redeemed, but we're still in the unredeemed body. Our mortal bodies will one day be redeemed, but we're still waiting for it: "we await the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory" (Philippians 3:20--21, JND). In this conflict, we need to be careful that we're not walking after the flesh.
And this brings us back to Philippians 3:3. We're to have no confidence in flesh. Let's consider this carefully: it was the religious leaders in Israel who rejected and crucified the Son of God. That's not to say we wouldn't have done the same thing: certainly the Gentiles were complicit insofar as it was actually a Roman who gave the order. But the point is, flesh can be a very religious thing. Fleshly religion generally takes two characters in Scripture: one is sensual, the other legal. The Colossians were warned that they were denying their crucifixion with Christ by being subject to ordinances (Colossians 2:20--23), and they were told that these ordinances were "to the satisfaction of the flesh." The flesh is us loves to feel religious, and it's quite willing to bring us into bondage of ordinances to do it. The Colossians were apparently getting into some weird legalistic mysticisms, the flesh loves that. The Galatians were borrowing from Judaism and the Law, the flesh loves that too. What is the Scriptural judgment of the Galatians? They had been justified by faith, but were trying to achieve perfection (i.e. spiritual maturity) by the flesh (Galatians 3:3). It doesn't work that way: you can't start one way and finish another. You have to walk in Christ the same way you received Him (Colossians 2:6).
This is a subtle error, and an easy one to fall into. But fundamentally, keeping law appeals to flesh. This is the uniform testimony of the Epistles. So Romans 7 begins with the solution, then presents the problem: "So that, my brethren, *ye* also have been made dead to the law by the body of the Christ, to be to another, who has been raised up from among the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God" (Romans 7:4, JND). We are dead to the Law, just like we are dead to sin. And notice, the whole purpose of being dead to the Law is so we can bear fruit to God. You want to be fruitful? You can't do it unless you're dead to the Law. And notice: you're dead to the Law just like you're dead to sin. If you want to say that being dead to the Law isn't really, you know, dead; then you're going to have to say the same thing about sin. We are as finally and completely severed from the Law as we are from sin.
But the problem is, we see lawlessness and we try to combat it with law. It doesn't work: it can't work. We're saved by faith to live by faith. We're not saved by grace to live by law. We're not justified by the Spirit to be made perfect in flesh. We didn't receive Christ by grace to walk "in Him" by law. It doesn't work that way.
Our verse says we're to not trust in flesh. When you reduce the Christian walk to efforts of law, you're placing confidence in flesh. This isn't an easy lesson to learn, and it's counter-intuitive, but it's important.
So how do we walk? Romans 8 gives us the answer, as does Galatians 5. Galatians 5 is more succinct, but perhaps less helpful:
But I say, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall no way fulfil flesh’s lust. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these things are opposed one to the other, that ye should not do those things which ye desire; but if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under law. (Galatians 5:16--18, JND)The answer in Galatians is, "walk in the Spirit and you'll find you're not fulfilling the flesh's lusts." So, how do we walk in the Spirit? I think it's this simple: look at Christ in glory, this will change you (2 Corinthians 3:18). Then, as we submit ourselves to Him, we'll find we're walking in the Spirit.
Romans 8 gives us more explicit instruction, "So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to flesh; for if ye live according to flesh, ye are about to die; but if, by the Spirit, ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (Romans 8:12--13, JND). Romans brings up the idea of mortifying the deeds of the body (notice the use of "body" in Romans 6--8, it's quite an interesting study). Here's the thing: self-improvement doesn't work. It can't work, it's not supposed to work. The whole point of Romans 7 is that there is sin in your flesh, and you are powerless over it. So you find that when you want to be good, you're bad. This is the plain teaching of that chapter. There's sin in you, and it's bigger than you are. So how do we go about mortifying the deeds of the body, when every time we try to do something good, we find ourselves doing the very deeds we're trying to mortify? This isn't a trivial question: it's what the poor tortured man in Romans 7 wants to know. It's what every sincere Christian will eventually struggle to answer.
Notice that Romans 8 carefully guards against asceticism: it's not that we mortify the deeds of the body, but we by the Spirit mortify them. This isn't some self-improvement plan: it's fueled by something entirely outside myself, the Spirit of God.
Do we understand that? Do we see that our only hope is to be led by, to walk by, and to live in the power of the Spirit of God?
So once again we return to the answer in 2 Corinthians 3:18. As we behold the glory of the Lord (with unveiled face), we are changed into the likeness of His glory. Beholding Christ is transformative. We're changed by what we see when we're looking at Him. And notice we can't look at Him except by the Spirit. The Spirit of God is explicitly given to draw our hearts to the Son (John 16), to remind us of what He Himself said, to show us what the Father thinks of Him. This is the secret to our power.
And really, this is the only power the Christian has. We're nothing, and that's what we're called to. We're called to be nothing, but to have Christ as our everything. God's not interested in autonomously good Christians, He's interested in having people who're absorbed with His Son.
There might be pain here, just like there's pain in physical circumcision. Paul felt it:
Because it is the God who spoke that out of darkness light should shine who has shone in our hearts for the shining forth of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us: every way afflicted, but not straitened; seeing no apparent issue, but our way not entirely shut up; persecuted, but not abandoned; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body; for we who live are always delivered unto death on account of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh; so that death works in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:6--12, JND)Death has to be at work so in us. That's the process by which the life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal flesh. See, God's glory shines in Jesus' face; but that glory only really shines out when it's expressed in unworthy vessels. God doesn't want us to think we have anything to do with it, remember we're supposed to boast in Christ Jesus. So the God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9) has us under a sentence of death, so that we learn to trust Him.
But it's not only negative. We're not Buddhists, we don't strive for nothingness. Notice Paul wasn't trying to put himself to death: it was God's work in him. He wasn't saying that we need to deliver ourselves to death, but that this is the process through which God takes us. Delivering ourselves to death is just the sort of mystical monasticism that Colossians condemns. There's nothing good there. We're not called to asceticism, but to delight in the Son. I'll repeat that as many times as necessary: when Paul described the principal of death working in him, his focus was on Christ. He wasn't looking at himself, but at the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Look at the end of 2 Corinthians 4,
Wherefore we faint not; but if indeed our outward man is consumed, yet the inward is renewed day by day. For our momentary and light affliction works for us in surpassing measure an eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are for a time, but those that are not seen eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16--18, JND)What was he looking at? He was looking at things that aren't seen. He was looking into glory. And notice that while his outward man was being worn down, his inward man was being strengthened.
I've known a lot of Christians who've become obsessive with death working in us, to the point where they forget there's a new man who's not being put to death, but who's supposed to be feeding and growing. We don't grow merely by the cutting away and breaking down of the outward man, but by nourishment, feeding, and sustenance of the new. We're not called to be nothing. The principle of death isn't our calling, it's merely a process God uses as He brings us down the path. The point of death in us is that we would learn to trust in the God who raises the dead, and so that Jesus' life would be manifested in our mortal flesh.
On the other hand, I hear and read an awful lot of "ministry" that encourages all sort of "spiritual disciplines" in order to grow in Christ. I've ranted about this sort of thing before, but I have to say it again: it won't work. It won't work, because it can't work. Scripture explicitly condemns efforts of self-improvement. Scripture explicitly condemns trying to war against sin. Scripture explicitly condemns fleshly efforts. We can't say we have "no confidence in flesh" and then say "next time I'll do better." It's foolishness. It's Galatianism. It's wickedness. We're called to walk in the Spirit. Walking the in Spirit doesn't mean setting your alarm clock to get up early and read your Bible, it doesn't mean making vows, promises, or covenants with the Lord to do this or that thing. Can you imagine making a vow and then saying you've no trust in flesh? Doesn't the very act of making a vow mean you're confident you can keep it? Isn't it, by definition, trusting in yourself? This is precisely what Scripture says we can't do. Consider 2 Corinthians 1:9, "we ourselves had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not have our trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead;" We cannot trust in ourselves. Making covenants with God is the very opposite of Christianity. It's exactly the sort of thing the Epistles warn us against. We're not made perfect through effort, just like we're not declared righteous through effort. God freely justifies when we believe (Romans 4:5). God gives us Christ as our Holiness (1 Corinthians 1:31).
So let's forget this self-improvement nonsense and turn to Scripture. Want to live like the true circumcision? Then worship by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and don't trust in flesh.
If you really want to be like Christ, look at Him. That's the Scriptural answer. As we behold His glory, we'll be transformed to be like Him.
We strive to know Christ. He is our object, He is our goal. As we learn Him, as we know Him, as we love Him, then we're led by the Spirit. And it's as we're walking in the Spirit that we find we're not fulfilling the lusts of the flesh.
There are several Psalms that are considered "messianic" by the majority of Christians. These are the Psalms that the New Testament explicitly quotes with regard to Christ: Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 40, 45, 69, 102, and 110 are examples. Quotes from the Psalms are scattered all through the Gospels and Hebrews as a demonstration of who Jesus Christ was, and would have been a powerful argument to the Jewish people at the time. No Christian can seriously dispute that at least some Psalms are Messianic, but I've come to believe that the vast majority---perhaps even all that Psalms are Messianic.
Certainly all the Psalms are Messianic to some degree or another simply by virtue of the fact that the Psalms reflect the experiences of God's people on earth. Christ, of course, was the ultimate example of God's Man on earth, so there is a sense where He ultimately fulfilled the Psalms. Now, some heresies and some blasphemies (and probably some blasphemous heresies) have been developed from this very idea. We want to be very careful to maintain Christ's Impeccability (i.e. He did not sin, and He could not sin); so when we go to a passage like Psalm 51, we want to be sure we don't think it indicates that the Lord Jesus was ever separated from the Father for sins He committed. On the other hand, we are positively told that He was made sin for us (although He Himself knew no sin), and so we can fairly say the He understands the full weight of sin. In fact, Christ knows the weight of sin much better than any of us ever will: He bore our sins in His body on the Cross, He was made sin for us. This is a very intimate thing. None of us will ever truly understand just what that was like: we'll never know sin the way He did.
But even if we concede that not all the Psalms can be truly applied to the Lord Jesus, I think we fall far short of understanding the full extent to which they contain God's thoughts about the Son. So I'd like to think just a little bit about Christ in the Psalms. Perhaps this is more of an "application" and less of an "interpretation", but I really think it's valid.
Let's start with the Chief Musician. This title is used in 55 Psalms as well as the last chapter of Habbakuk. The Chief Musician is the Lord Jesus Himself, and every Psalm addressed to the Chief Musician is to some degree Messianic. Certainly several of the Psalms generally-accepted to be Messianic are addressed to the Chief Musician (Psalms 22, 40, 45, and 69 for example); but Hebrews goes on to describe the Lord Jesus as the Chief Musician, quoting Psalm 22:
11 For both he that sanctifies and those sanctified are all of one; for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, 12 saying, I will declare thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly will I sing thy praises. 13 And again, I will trust in him. And again, Behold, I and the children which God has given me. (Hebrews 2:11--13, JND)The Lord Jesus is the one who leads praise in the assembly: He is the Chief Musician.
Another significant title in the Psalms is "Son of Man." This title is used of three people in Scripture: Daniel, Ezekiel, and Christ. Christ alone is referred to as "the Son of Man" with the definite article, and He refers to Himself that way some 200 times in the Gospels. The Psalms are full of "the Son of Man." Hebrews 1 & 2 would remind us of Psalm 8 and the question, "Lord, what is man that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man..." And while in context Psalm 8 doesn't seem to be very Messianic, Hebrews 2:6--10 insists that's exactly what it is.
The Son of Man figures in Psalm 80 (another Psalm to the Chief Musician), which I consider to be significant in light of the parallels between Psalm 80 and Ezekiel. Just like Ezekiel, Psalm 80 is to the One who sits between the cherubim (Ez. 1), it's addressed to the "Shepherd of Israel" (Ez. 34), and discusses Israel as "the vine" (Ez. 15). Psalm 80:17 talks about the Son of Man, who is the man of God's right hand.
And even the Psalms differentiate between "a son of man" and "the Son of Man". Consider Psalm 146: we're not to put our confidence in "a son of man", although Psalm 80 tells us that "the son of man" is the One whom God has made strong for Himself.
One title I've often considered in the Psalms is "the man". I think this is also a prophetic title of Christ, although I haven't fully studied it out. Certainly the Epistles use "the Man" as a title of Christ: there is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). Even Pilate said, "Behold the Man!" (John 19:5). I've yet to find the title "the man" in the Psalms where it isn't applicable to Christ. There are places where "man" or "a man" is used that clearly aren't the Lord Jesus, but "the man" seems to pretty consistently apply to Him.
An interesting Psalm in this regard is Psalm 32:
1 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! 2 Blessed is the man unto whom Jehovah reckoneth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile! (Psalm 32:1--2, JND)The first verse talks about someone who has sin to cover, the second verse talks about "the man" to whom the Lord does not reckon iniquity. Now, I have no doubt that these two verses are really discussing the whole issue of forgiveness: Romans 4 makes that plain. But I can't help but notice that the phrase "the man" is used in the second verse but not the first. Again, I'm not claiming Psalm 32 is Messianic (Christ had no sins to cover), but that the Scripture doesn't use the title "the man" except where it's possible to apply those statements to Christ.
Along those lines, I have come to believe Psalm 1 is Messianic. It is the Psalm about the Blessed Man, and it describes the life of the Lord Jesus. In fact, I think the Gospel is displayed in vv. 5 & 6. For the first three verses, there is one man who is walking godly, but in the last two verses, there is a whole congregation of the righteous. This is the essence of the Gospel: one righteous Man has stood in the place of countless of unrighteous men, and God has accepted Him on our behalf.
But I hasten to say again, lest I'm charged with eisegesis, that every Psalm is to some degree Messianic, as Christ is the ultimate Antetype of the godly man on earth. So in that sense, even if you don't believe Psalm 1 is prophetic, you certainly must admit that there was no more blessed man who walked the earth than our Lord Jesus.
Even Psalm 23 is ultimately Messianic: it is the song of the Lamb. Doubtless the Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and what Psalm 23 says about the Shepherd certainly applies to Him. But He is the Lamb of God, and we can see in Psalm 23 a hint of the confidence He had in the Father while He was walking down here.
One place I've found the Psalms very helpful in Bible study is in tying together lines of truth. That sounds more "brethren" than I meant it to... what I mean is that the Psalms will frequently connect different images from the Old Testament into a single thought. So when I go back and examine those images in the Law or the prophets, I find the connections made between the different images combine into single thoughts. I suppose a good example is Psalm 80, which combines the Shepherd, the Vine, and the Son of Man together. Or we might consider Psalm 84, which combines the sparrow with the Altar. That just screams Psalm 102, doesn't it?
I'm no expert in the Psalms, but I find myself gravitating more and more to them as a series of prophetic images of the Saviour.
Every once in a while I get an email from someone who's stumbled across my blog. Some of these emails have turned into virtual friendships, which I greatly value. Some of them merely turn into conversations, and a couple have become somewhat combative. You can't win them all.
A lot of people seem to find my blog because of authors I quote, which I didn't necessarily expect. I get quite a few hits from people who heard about Darby, Stoney, et al. in Miles Stanford's writing; but I get a lot of email from people in and around "brethren" too. One way or another, John Nelson Darby comes up quite a bit in email conversations that are spawned from this blog.
I've been accused of being a Darbyist (which is somewhat true): I'd like to be a little ego-centric today and give some of the back-story.
I grew up in what I'd call an "open brethren" home; my Dad was a staunch Gospel Chapel man: seven-age Dispensationalist, hard-core pre-Trib, thoroughly anti-clerical, dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist. I think very highly of my Dad, I did then and I do now. We lived in a town that wasn't the most ecclesiastically diverse: with no "brethren" meeting in town, we went to the Baptist church every Sunday and then were debriefed at home about what we'd heard. I myself became a member of the Baptist church when I was baptized; I find that concept appalling now, but it's where I was at the time.
A number of events that don't really matter for this discussion culminated in my parents' decision to start meeting with the Gospel Chapel in the next town over. That was when I was 16, and I think of that as my first introduction to "brethrenism" as more than a peculiarity of our family.
I've mentioned before that I listen to a lot of the MP3 sermons on
When I finished high school, I went off to Victoria, BC for University. I had no real plans about church: that's just a thing you figure out when you get there, right? So I went at least a month just church-hopping. I eventually met a guy named Matt at an IVCF meeting who was at Victoria Gospel Chapel. I went to meeting with him the first time and then quickly claimed that as "home" in Victoria. I really miss VGC: from what I can tell, they finally completely folded, sold the building, and dissolved. If anyone knows differently, I'd love to hear from you. I learned a lot at VGC: they were kind, gracious, and patient with the young, arrogant, and foolish guy I was.
It was then that I first encountered "open brethren" as more than the isolated phenomena I had grown up with: it wasn't just a weird persuasion of my parents, nor just this weird and isolated "church" in a small town in BC. I was part of a gathering that had relationships with other gatherings: I was in a place that had conferences and weeks-of-meetings. I was listening to ministry by various godly men and giants who would travel in those circles. It was exciting.
But that's also where I first encountered the dark underbelly of the beast: that's where I first encountered "brethrenism," and all the sectarianism that goes with it. I don't mean VGC was leavened or anything like that; but we were part of the circuits for the traveling preachers, we were a significant gathering, we were on the map. That's where I first heard brethrenisms like, "The Man who died was God, but God didn't die." That's where I first met someone concerned with a home Bible study being announced after the Lord's Supper, because unless it's under the authority of the elders in the assembly, it shouldn't be announced there.
It was at Victoria Gospel Chapel that I first heard of "exclusive brethren" and John Nelson Darby.
The "open brethren" have some funny ideas about JND: they seem to think he was some sort of wild cult leader who set out as a young man to shipwreck as many people's faith as possible with an obscure and deathly strict brand of legalism he dreamed up one night. But at the same time, they grudgingly respect him. The typical mention of JND in "open" circles starts out something like this: "For all his faults, Darby..." For a young man who was trying his hardest, steeped in law and legalism and doing his best to be made perfect in flesh, there was an obvious attraction to this Darby fellow.
My first encounter with Darby was my first little Darby Translation I bought in 1992. There's a story there, but no time to tell it. At any rate, I started reading my little DBY out of curiosity, but curiosity quickly turned to love. To someone who was ultra-analytical (I was a Physics major, after all), this is the ultimate translation. It's obtuse and wooden, but it is painstakingly exact. If you were to take a NASB and if in every place the NASB has a margin note that says "Literally..." you were to put in the literal text, you'd end up with something pretty close to the Darby. But ultimately what got my attention with my little Darby was the number of places the translator notes say something to the effect that "I don't think this is the best translation of this word, but I can't find a better one." I figure anyone who's honest enough to say he's not satisfied with a word, or to say he can't make out quite what a passage says is someone to listen to when he's certain about something.
Then I got a copy of Max Weremchuck's biography, John Nelson Darby. I'm no big fan of biographies, but that particular book is excellent. It does a great job of presenting an amazing man, warts and all, without hero worship on the one hand or a metaphoric pummeling on the other.
When I moved to the States, I found to my dismay that the "open brethren" assemblies where I fellowshipped were not at all like I had come to expect. I remember at one meeting, one fellow saying something like "I'm not too impressed with Darby, but he wrote some nice hymns". I think it was right then and there I decided I would read everything Darby wrote.
Since then, I've not read everything he wrote, but I've managed to read through the first 26 volumes of Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, as well as some other sundries. My reading schedule is not very constant or very linear: I tend to read voraciously for a few weeks, then utterly neglect reading for quite some time. It comes in waves. And I've read a lot more than Darby over the last 14 or 15 years since I picked up Volume 1.
I knew when I set out to read all Darby's books, that I'd end up becoming quite a Darbyist. I understood that I was essentially signing up for a brainwashing. I figured I'd spend a few years more or less imbibing this one guy's views, then I could spend a few more where that might wear off a bit. Of course I didn't expect it to take me this long to read them all. I guess I'm averaging about two volumes a year so far. But what really gets me about Darby, why I keep going back to his books, is that he writes like he knows God. When he writes about the Lord, he writes like he's talking about a friend, not a subject from a book.
More than anyone else I've ever encountered, Darby has a clear grasp of God's grace. I've read Darby, Bellett, Kelly, Stoney, Dennett, Raven, Mackintosh, Coates, Turpin, and a whole host of others; none of them seem to really grasp the grace of God like Darby does. This is perhaps the best outcome of my reading of the man: not that I'm some kind of expert on Scripture (or even an expert on Darby), but that I've gotten a glimpse of God's heart. Darby writes about the God who loves sinners, and it comes out in everything he says.
I've also been deeply impressed with his hermeneutic. I've tried to use my time with his books as a sort of lesson on how to read my Bible. For every single question Darby addressed, he always looked for answers in Scripture. Collected Writings, Volume 10 is almost entirely dedicated to the question of the Law, and it's striking how he approaches the issue. It's all about Scripture. There is no issue where he doesn't quote chapter and verse, and explain how it fits into the whole counsel of God.
The "whole counsel of God" is really a good summation too. He manages to avoid tunnel vision in a way I've never seen before. There's no question of limiting his views to a few topics, or avoiding what might make him squirm. He seems as comfortable in the minor prophets as in the epistles or the psalms. And every verse leads him back to Christ.
Finally, Darby was able to study the whole counsel of God without ever developing a theology of it. I find this frustrating with so many authors, even when I think they're right. It seems everyone wants to first build a theology, then argue from it, rather than from Scripture. Darby is an exception: it's all about Scripture to him. I want to be like that.
So that's why I read Darby, and why I keep picking up his books, rather than someone else's. Sure, his English is tortuous and difficult. As Epimenos said, Darby and James Joyce basically wrote the same way. And as someone else once told me, it takes about a whole volume to figure out his dialect. But in the end, there are very few times I've picked up a book and thought it better than Darby's writings on the same subject.
There are some really, really difficult passages in the Scripture. Some are hard to understand, some are hard to live, some are hard to remember. Some are all of those things. I find 1 Corinthians 12:13 one of the hardest on all points:
For also in the power of one Spirit *we* have all been baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bondmen or free, and have all been given to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13, JND)
As far as I've been able to tell from Scripture, this is the only statement we have about how one becomes part of the One Body. That puts a lot of pressure on this verse, so to speak. Contrary to what I hear so frequently, the Church is not made up of all true believers between Acts 2 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That statement is flatly contradicted by this verse: the Church is made up of everyone who's been baptized into it in the power of one Spirit. Now I admit that the two groups may well be identical, but the Scripture very carefully distinguishes between them: we believe and are justified, we are baptized in the power of one Spirit and are thus put into one Body. We must be careful to distinguish what Scripture distinguishes.
It's a hard verse to understand, because it's frankly pretty mystical. I keep talking about justification, and that's a lot easier to get our arms around: we believe God and He declares "not guilty!". That's justification. But baptism into one Body is harder to describe. We believe it, but we might not understand it.
Perhaps the place to begin as far as understanding it is concerned, is with the very important acknowledgment that the Church of God on earth is explicitly described as being made of those who "have been given to drink of one Spirit." At the very least this gives me a very different perspective of the Church than I might otherwise have. The Church is defined by the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth. That was the promise the Lord Jesus gave the disciples in John 14, it was actually fulfilled in Acts 2. This is a wholly new thing, as John 7 insists (v. 39). God's presence on earth in the Holy Spirit is a big deal: it's such a big deal it logically has to have an effect; one of the results is this thing called "the Church," which Paul describes in Ephesians 2 as "an habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22).
Practically, the recognition that the Church is defined by the presence of the Holy Spirit, both in the Church as such and in the individual believers (who've been "given to drink") should affect me. It should minimally make me walk respectfully of the believers, and of the Church on earth. These aren't just really annoying people who happen to believe [more or less] the same things I do, they're not just people who identify as Christians, they're not even merely God's children; they're people who carry around the Holy Spirit.
Wow. Just writing that out is pretty convicting.
1 Corinthians 12:13 isn't only hard to understand, it's really very hard to live. Note carefully the exact words of the verse: "we all". Let's consider for a moment what those words mean: everyone who's been made to drink of the one Spirit has also been baptized into the one Body. That's everyone who's got the one Spirit. So I, who remember the Lord with a pretty rag-tag bunch of Christians in a tiny building in Tacoma, am part of the same "one Body" as the staunch Presbyterian across town, or the devout Anglican down the street. Of course not everyone in the Presbyterian church is truly born again, nor is everyone in the Anglican church, nor is everyone who meets in a rag-tag assembly like I do. My point is not to say that everyone who cries "Lord, Lord" actually knows Him, but that there are people scattered all through various ecclesiastical gatherings who are baptized into the same "one Body" that I am.
And pointing that out pretty much makes my point for me. We're not baptized into "many Bodies", we're baptized into "one Body". I am part of the same Body as everyone else who's been "given to drink of one Spirit". It doesn't matter where they sit on Sunday morning, or what name is over the door they darken. Honestly, it doesn't even matter if they're involved in some things I can't be involved in with a clear conscience: the fact is that I don't get to decide who's in and who's out. The Holy Spirit has already made that decision and I need to respect it.
In practical terms, there is the constant problem of sectarianism. And to be honest, sectarianism often starts with genuine conviction. I look at some of what I've seen in various ecclesiastical groups and I think "I can't have fellowship with that," and there is a Scriptural basis for that. We can't walk in fellowship with known sin, right? But when we look at the Epistles and we limit their applications to our little group, we've crossed a line. Let me give an example: if a brother (or sister) is excommunicated at the Baptist church up the road and he (or she) comes knocking at the door where I am, how do I respond? Do I say, "Well, what happens over there is their business, here you get a fresh start." Isn't that really denying the unity of the Body? Shouldn't I respect the one Body enough to at least respect that (whatever my concerns with the Baptist church, and whatever excellent reasons I may have for not fellowshipping there) this brother (or sister) has been disfellowshipped from the Church of God on earth? It's entirely possible we might look into a matter and realize these Baptists were wrong, but we need to at least begin with the acknowledgement that they acted as the assembly of God on earth.
In practical terms, we need to try and see the Body as God sees it. Members of the Body of Christ are scattered all over the place: this is not what was supposed to be, it is the result of man's meddling in holy things. But whatever the ruinous state of the Church on earth, we must endeavor to acknowledge this truth: those who are baptized by the one Spirit are fellow-members of the one Body with me.
I think the hardest part of this verse is in the remembering it. It's difficult or impossible to understand, and it's so very difficult to live out, but remembering it might be the most difficult part of all. I hear myself (and others) deny this verse all the time in our speech: we're not remembering it. We say things like "local body". What is that but a flat contradiction that we have been baptized into "one Body"? We're not in multiple bodies: there is only one. I quote some verse about the Church, thinking only of the small gathering where I remember the Lord, or maybe of the slightly larger "circle of fellowship," but certainly not of the various members of Christ's Body that are spread around this area. Or maybe I make a snide comment about the Baptists or the Anglicans or Presbyterians in this town, completely forgetting that they too are part of "one Body" with us.
Now, I know there are very good and important reasons not to be part of some gatherings. I walked away from a "brethren" group in 2007 for all sorts of reasons I've outlined on this blog, then I spend some time with a continuing Anglican group, some time with various "churches", some time with some Presbyterians, and finally a year with some "open brethren" before settling into the small gathering where I am now. I'm not at all saying there's not better and worse places to be. But what I am also saying it this: everywhere--- everywhere--- we went to remember the Lord, there were true believers. In every one of those places, from the most lax to the most strict, there were those who have been made to drink of one Spirit. I met Presbyterians whose theology appalled me, but they truly loved the Lord. I met Anglicans who were more than a little confused about some really important doctrines, but they're the Lord's. I know people from every group shy of bona fide cults who know, love, and walk with the Lord Jesus. Every last one of them is a fellow-member of the Body of Christ with me.
Is everyone who calls himself "Christian" truly born again? Of course not! But everyone who is, no matter how much I might shudder at his or her ecclesiastical position, is part of the one Body.
I need to remember that.
I was listening to another MP3 sermon recently, this one an introduction to Dispensationalism. I need to listen to it a few more times before I reach any conclusions, but my prognosis is that it's really a confused mess. There are a lot of problems in it, but the one that stands out in my mind is an apparent misunderstanding of grace.
Dispensationalists and Reformers both have a tendency to miss the mark on grace: dispensationalists seem to think it's a period of time between Acts 2 and 1 Thessalonians 4; Reformers seem to think it a mystical and/or spiritual tool in God's tool chest. (I'm painting with a broad brush here: I know there are plenty of exceptions on both sides.) I think they're both missing the point: grace isn't so much a thing or an administration; it's God's character.
Grace is God acting the way He wants to act, without regard to what I actually deserve.
So when our Reformed friends use the term "sovereign grace", they're hitting the nail dead on the head. Grace is sovereign in its essence: it's God deciding sovereignly and unilaterally to act a certain way. Grace is God saying, "I don't care what you deserve, this is what I'm going to do for you."
I've heard a lot about grace here and there over the years; one of the biggest problems I've encountered is people confusing grace with laxity. Scripture teaches God is gracious, it doesn't teach God has a "don't worry about it" approach to sin. Romans 3:25 & 26 gives us an intimate view of God's grace:
[Jesus Christ,] whom God has set forth a mercy-seat, through faith in his blood, for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness, in respect of the passing by the sins that had taken place before, through the forbearance of God; for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness in the present time, so that he should be just, and justify him that is of [the] faith of Jesus.We see a glimpse of tension in God's heart: God wanted to justify, but He needed to remain just. God can't just sweep sins under the carpet, so to speak; but He wasn't interested in allowing sinners to just perish. God acted in presenting Christ as the mercy-seat, or "propitiation". What is propitiation? It really means offering something to God so that He is for us, not against us. So Romans 3 tells us that God was able to "pass by" sins before Christ, because He was doing it on credit: He was looking forward to Christ's death and thus He was able to forgive sins in the past.
What's the difference here between what Scripture teaches and what people think? The difference is that our justification had a real cost, which God paid for Himself. The egregious (but common) error equates "getting away with it" with grace. But grace isn't letting someone get away with something: it's taking care of the cost yourself. God's grace is not expressed in His ignoring sin: it's expressed in His providing the payment for it Himself.
God's not a politician: He doesn't take credit for spending someone else's money.
Let's take an example: suppose you're driving down the road in a long line of traffic and you see someone waiting to make a right turn and join the line on a side street. It's not really grace for you to let the person in ahead of you. That seems like a kind thing to do, but really what you've done is make things worse for the people behind you. Grace would be if you signaled a turn and pulled into the side street so that the person could take your spot in the line. See, grace isn't grace if it doesn't cost you anything. If God merely said, "Look here, let's just forget this whole sin thing," that wouldn't be grace. That would be complicity, as in God would be making Himself an accomplice to your sin after the fact. Grace is when God sends His own Son to die in your place. Grace costs something.
God's grace is most dramatically shown in contrast to our own wickedness. The more we understand just how bad we are, the more we are astonished that God would want to save any of us. The more clearly we see ourselves, the more significant we see God's grace to be. In a sense, this is the whole purpose of the Mosaic Law: to demonstrate just how bad man is. If I may say so, this is the whole point of Romans 7: it's one thing to be justified by faith, but to really see ourselves for the wretches we are takes bitter experience. And it's only when we see just how bad we are that we begin to comprehend just how good God is.
There is a surprising result to this, which is that "liberalism" is effectively a denial of grace. Unless we are willing to acknowledge that men (and women and children) really aren't any good, we really don't have a gracious God. It wouldn't be remarkable for God to treat people kindly when they deserve it; the surprising thing about grace is that God treats us well when we don't.
But liberalism's not the only problem: another problem is when we think God gives us what we deserve. Let's be honest, we all tend to this at some point. But grace by definition contradicts the idea that we get what we deserve. Grace is God acting the way He wants, with no regard for what I deserve. I deserve to burn in Hell; God's grace says that He saves me with no regard whatsoever to what I deserve.
The fundamental flaw in what we call "legalism" is to think that God isn't gracious. And this is really an egregious error: the legalist completely fails to understand who God is. So the legalist thinks, "God will bless me if I'm good; therefore I need to be good." Listen, grace means your being good doesn't impress God. God's not impressed with human effort, He's impressed with His Son. God's not going to heap blessings on you because you're good, He heaps blessings on you because He is gracious.
So the end of Romans 3 and start of Romans 4 is almost entirely centered on this one point: justification is by grace. So Abraham was reckoned as righteous before God as a gift (Romans 4:3 & 4). Notice that justification has always been by grace, by faith. Scripture doesn't allow that there is ever someone justified in God's sight who wasn't justified by faith. Even the Old Testament saints, under the Law, were justified by faith, but I digress. But scripture puts grace and law as opposites: we can't be justified by works of Law, but we can be justified by grace. What you can't earn, God is willing to give to you freely.
But the role of grace isn't limited to justification, the command to the Colossians was, "as ye have received the Christ, Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him" (Colossian 2:6). We're not justified on one principle and called to live on another. We're justified by faith, we live by faith. We're justified by grace, we are to live by grace. That's the word to the Galatians as well, right? "Are ye so senseless? having begun in Spirit, are ye going to be made perfect in flesh?" (Galatians 3:3). We live like we start: we live by God's grace. In his excellent commentary on Romans, William R. Newell says, "To believe, and to consent to be loved while unworthy, is the great secret" (Romans Verse-by-Verse, chapter 7.).
And that, I suppose, brings us back to the beginning. Grace is not merely some abstract principle, it's a description of who God is. And ultimately this is what underlies and empowers the Christian life: the Christian life is a reflection of who God is. It's a demonstration of God's character in our lives.