4.ii) ‘What a mercy…’

I have already highlighted the phrase ‘the means of grace’, and shown how very subtly that binds many to ‘going to chapel’ to receive blessing. There are other such phrases and emphases that ministers use which bring forth fruit in the minds and attitudes of the people which I believe are unscriptural. In the preaching the position of the child of God in relation to salvation, or to a blessed experience he might be expected to receive, is declared; which is often then punctuated by the phrase, ‘And friends, what a mercy it would be if we were made to feel these things’, or, ‘What a mercy it is to be brought to say with the dear hymnwriter…’ – or some like expression. So the person in the pew is left with this thought: ‘Oh, that what the preacher is describing of the Lord’s gracious dealings with his own might happen to me!’ In this there is little hint or thought of actual ‘repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’, just, ‘Will I be brought into the like blessed experience.’

My contention against this type of preaching, as I have said – and it bears repeating – is this. First of all it is not preaching the gospel; it is a preaching, at best, the effects of the gospel. Many sermons seem to be little more than declarations of ‘this is what happens to you when the gospel comes to you, and it will be our mercy if these things happen to us.’ The fruit of this type of preaching is that it leaves many hearers in almost a no man’s land regarding their standing before God.

What I mean is this. There arises a ‘third way’, a place or ground upon which people profess to stand which neither confesses, ‘I am saved’, or ‘I am lost.’ For instance, in conversation to one and another I have heard say, ‘I cannot be sure that I am a child of God; I hope I am, but I dare not say, My Father’; or, ‘Oh, I couldn’t attain to saying, I know that Christ has died for me.’ But on the other hand they can’t quite say that if they perished in the night they are certain to be found in hell. But where is the scripture to justify this attitude, and this state? I feel this indirect style of preaching is very unhelpful to a lost soul. Vague language like ‘the child of God is brought to feel’, which encourages such testimonies, is not language to be found in the New Testament. Nowhere do we hear the Lord Jesus or the apostles use such phrases, especially designed to bring forth sighs from the people, and vague longings for things to be other than they are.

Imagine for a moment that John the Baptist had preached in this style – and I write this not in levity, but am deadly serious; because this strikes at the very heart of this type of phraseology. Matthew 3:1,2 would have to read: ‘In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, What a mercy to be brought to repentance: as the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Compare also Peter on the day of Pentecost when the people cried out, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ How would the GS minister answer if some cried out thus in their meeting? ‘O friends, there is nothing you can do; it is all of God from first to last. Oh that the Lord would be merciful to grant you repentance unto life, and would make you feel your interest in the Saviour’s sufferings and death, and that… etc., etc., etc.’ But Peter didn’t say that; he said, ‘Repent, and be baptised every one of you…’!

Another phrase often heard in this vein is ‘sweet manifestation.’ Again, the faithless hearer hopes that all his Oh thats, doubts, fears and unbelief will be washed away by the melting experience of a sweet manifestation of God’s love to his soul. He hopes that the Lord might ‘smile’ upon him, that he might ‘appear’. But the Almighty God – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – is not once, in all scripture, described as ‘smiling’ on anyone! God smiling and frowning is found in the hymnbook; but, again, the hymnbook is not scripture, something often forgotten in the pulpit. I reiterate my contention that it is futile to use unscriptural language in the preaching, however spiritual it might sound, and however it makes the people feel that God is communicating to their souls through it, because he isn’t; for God is bound solely to his word when it comes to regeneration, sanctification, and all communication and revelation, 1 Peter 1:23, James 1:18, John 17:17, Psalm 119, etc. How we need ministers which have eaten The Book, and not just the hymnbook!

Something often quoted in GS preaching and praying is another hymn – 736, the first verse of which reads: ‘Show me some token, Lord, for good, some token of thy special love; show me that I am born of God, and that my treasure is above.’ It sounds like a humble plea, doesn’t it? Sounds spiritual and scriptural? – after all it is supposedly based on Psalm 86:17. But it is a misuse of Psalm 86:17. First of all, when David prayed the words, ‘Show me a token for good’, he was praying to his God who had already shown great ‘mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell’, verse 13; who had already ‘holpen [helped] me, and comforted me’, verse 17. David was in trouble, not because he had lost his assurance of salvation, or that he was not saved at all and needed ‘a word’ to save him, but because he was a child of God in the presence of his enemies. In verse 14 he had cried, ‘O God, the proud are risen against me, and the assemblies of violent men have sought after my soul; and have not set thee before them.’ Verse 17 reads more fully, ‘Show me a token for good; that they which hate me may see it, and be ashamed.’ Hymn 736 verse 1 therefore is a misrepresentation of the words of David.

Some might point to verse 16 of the psalm and say, Well, look there, David is praying for salvation because he says, ‘Save the son of thine handmaid.’ But this is typically lax GS exegesis of scripture in this regard. See the word ‘save’ anywhere in the scriptures, especially in the Psalms, and so often it is interpreted as meaning initial salvation from sin, a being brought from death to life. But this is such a limited view, for the child of God needs constantly saving after he has been saved! Saving from the power of the flesh, and from the power of the enemy, which seek to swallow him up by temptation and unbelief; saving from the allurement of the world, and the natural propensity to love and crave after it; and saving from religious pride and false doctrine! And David here, evidently a child of God, needed saving from his enemies. But time and again one seems to hear of salvation only as that great initial act of God which he performs in the saving of a sinner, and so many verses with the word ‘save’ in which, in the context don’t mean that, are often made to mean it; cp. Psalm 54.

How many people have prayed a verse of scripture, or a line of a hymn – which has not been a fair representation of scripture, or has not used scriptural language – and prayed it, and prayed it, but never received their expected answer? Well, is it any wonder? The word of God must be handled truthfully and faithfully in preaching, praying, and, if desired, in poetry, for he will not bless its misuse. When one prays in this thoughtless and slack way, just hoping that their repetitions of spiritual sounding language will be heard, not troubling themselves to think whether they are employing scriptural phrases properly, or that the minister is applying them correctly in context, it is no wonder that he goes on for years without any communication from the Lord, or any ‘blessed experience’. And, therefore, it is no wonder that so many feel to be in this no man’s land of vague standing before God.

But the true preaching of the gospel of Christ doesn’t bring this degenerate fruit of merely hoping that ‘Oh thats’ will be washed away at times in melting experiences of God’s ‘smiles’, or sweet manifestations: as if this is all that salvation was! Rather, the experience of salvation is of a real sinner – not just a service-time sinner – under real conviction of sin ‘striving to enter’ at the strait gate; of giving God no rest day or night, seeking, seeking, seeking – for ‘diligent seekers’ only will find, Heb. 11:6 – for grace and mercy, and for that freely bestowed, but alien to the desires of nature, ‘repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’, see Luke 13:24. It seems Paul never tired of emphasising those words of Acts 20:20,21.

One of the main reasons why many people do think that the Christian profession is just a string of manifestations, experiences, words and meltings is because the style of the preaching is so indirect. Not only do the preachers usually address the congregation in the third person – ‘the child of God is brought to this… The Lord’s people are made to feel that…’, but so many of them don’t even look at the people at all. But when Jesus taught, countless times we read that ‘he said unto them…’ But I want to address the fear of direct exhortation later.

Often when talking with one and another about spiritual things, lest it all becomes too personal, the other will often seek to put a swift end to the conversation by saying something like this: ‘Well, of course, what we need is…’, and they will profess some vague hope regarding salvation, perhaps quoting a verse of scripture or line of a hymn. Now this can often sound very humble, unassuming, and careful language – and I grant that with a few, at times, it may very well be; but generally I feel that it is more likely a shallow cover for their unbelief, is a false humility, and is perhaps a sign of there being no real desire to be saved at all.

Well, how many reading this who say such things really do desire salvation as if your whole life did depend on it? Or is chapel-going and the repetition of a few spiritual sounding phrases at times enough for you? How many times have you sung, or said in prayer, ‘I would’, when really, you wouldn’t at all! How many years have you been singing, ‘’Tis a point I long to know…’ when in fact you’ve rarely had the slightest care to know; it not giving you anything more than a momentary ‘anxious thought’ before some diversion comes along? How often have you ‘paused’ to ask yourself the questions of hymn 698, while that’s all it’s been – a pause, and usually only when you’re feeling a bit ‘solemn’ in chapel? Do you not realise that you are accountable to the God before whom you make these lying assertions? He will surely bring you to account for every time you’ve borne false witness in this way in the ‘act’ of ‘worship’. How many reading this who have ‘prayed’ ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ – as you are taught to do from the pulpit – have found yourselves ‘beating upon your breast’ at the same time? O beware of turning even scripture into vain repetition, Matt. 6:7.

If in the preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified was being evidently set forth, lost souls wouldn’t be satisfied with vague longings, but would be drawn to him, would call upon him, and, at length, receive the salvation he promises to such. But as the people are encouraged to look within for evidences that show they might be God’s children, if they’ve felt this, or experienced that, then they are not being pointed in the right direction at all. Take the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda in John 5: he was waiting for an angel to come down from heaven to stir up the water in the hope that he might be drawn into the blessing and be healed. And he still thought that even when the Saviour was standing by him and speaking with him. But it was Jesus who made him whole, not some manifestation or sign! I believe that much GS ministry encourages, very subtly, faith in the signs and not in the Saviour. But ‘blessings’ never saved a man! It is Christ that saves. O hearken unto Jesus’ words when he says that it is ‘a wicked and adulterous generation [that] seeketh after a sign’, Matt. 16:4.

Just how many words and manifestations does one need anyway? ‘Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly. Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me’, John 10:24,25. Is that the reader? Blaming Christ for your unbelief ? But don’t you have ears to hear? Are your eyes completely blind to his works? Perhaps he has ‘told you’ already, but because you have hardened your heart in unbelief you cannot hear his voice or see his works. Anyway, why should Jesus ‘tell you plainly’? Have you been going to chapel all your lives and yet you still don’t believe in him? If that’s the case then perhaps he isn’t there, perhaps he’s done no work among you, perhaps he isn’t speaking by those men in your pulpits, and perhaps you don’t really need him anyway.

You might answer, ‘Ah, but you didn’t go on to verse 26, where Jesus says that they didn’t believe because they were not of his sheep, so we wouldn’t presume…’ There, then. You have just exposed your unbelief, and condemned yourself. For the judgment isn’t so much that they were not of his sheep, but that they ‘believe not.’ If you don’t think you are one of Christ’s sheep then what are you doing going to chapel every week, as if you were those that would worship God and hear from him? That’s nothing but hypocrisy and blasphemy. And I didn’t go on to quote verse 27 which shows the evidence of those that do believe: ‘and they follow me’; but you won’t even profess him openly, let alone confess to be his followers, although you pretend to play at being a Christian week after week. Please do think about these things and examine yourselves.

I suspect that if one were to hear the testimonies of a good number of people who sit under this type of ministry year after year, then much of the following is fairly typical of the things you would likely hear; but is it the fruit of a true gospel ministry? and would the apostles have countenanced such testimonies in the early church? I don’t think so:

‘I had a word then, and another one there, and then I had a manifestation to my soul here; but after that I went through many years of doubts and fears because the Lord had departed [denying Hebrews 13:5, by the way, and blaming him again]; but then the Lord’s servant preached on ‘Fear not’, and told us not to cast away our ‘little hope’ [a reference to hymn 1028, but not a scriptural phrase[1]], the sweetness revived my poor faith, and then I felt I wanted to follow the Lord in the ordinances of his house, but was so exercised about it, was I really a child of God? Then I thought I needed a word, and felt this one word laid on my spirit, but I wanted it confirmed, and I lay under this trial eighteen months until the Lord’s servant came and said, ‘and he baptised him’ – although he said he hadn’t known why he said it; but I was melted, the tears flowed and I knew that I could join the church… etc.’

Surely this poor soul is being woefully let down by an inadequate ministry, which is putting her, really, in bondage to her feelings, and is teaching her to look to those feelings for evidences that the Lord might be working in her for hope and assurance of salvation. For actually in her mind and expectation the ultimate ground of assurance is not Christ and his blood at all, but what she has been brought to feel as a supposed result of Christ having died for her: no sign of repentance and faith either, Acts 20:21.

Another confession which is heard from time to time among the members of the denomination is this: ‘Oh, I was so blessed that if I’d died on the spot I’d have gone straight to heaven!’ So heaven is gained by momentary feelings after all! But do you ‘feel’ you’d likewise go ‘straight to heaven’ if you died in the middle of a spiritually barren period? That if you weren’t under a ‘smile’ when you passed away would you expect to enter some sort of transient state – a GS purgatory perhaps? But I thought salvation was by the blood of the Lamb, and by faith in that blood alone, regardless of how one felt at any given time. This shows how perverse things can become when one deviates from the true gospel.

Where are those who preach the plain word of God in all its simplicity, leaving the people in no doubt as to where they stand, and with no excuses? It seems the best that many can attain to is to be ‘raised up to a little hope’ – a hope foreign to the New Testament gospel hope, cp. Heb. 6:17-20, 2 Thes. 2:16,17. But Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, not to raise them up to a little hope, withdraw, and then keep them in doubt, fear and darkness for year upon year, yea, and decade upon decade! I can find no scriptural justification for supposing that God’s people – with an indwelling Spirit?! – will be left for just about all their lives with little or no assurance of salvation. Where is the power of God in that? There is no ‘power of God’ in that! Therefore the ministry which produces such a testimony cannot be called a gospel ministry, Rom. 1:16. I verily believe that there are some, encouraged by the words ‘at evening time it shall be light’, Zech. 14:7 – woefully misapplied, and again, out of context – who expect to live in the relative darkness of doubt, fear and unbelief until, on their deathbed, they are given that assured phrase to utter just before the final breath goes. But, again, this is a great travesty of the life-changing truth of the gospel of Christ in those who live by faith.

Many might like to revert again to the word of man here and ‘come in’ with hymn 393. With a suitably humble tone they will voice their desire that it is but ‘a crumb of mercy’ they crave. In this they think to liken themselves to the woman who confessed to Jesus that even ‘the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table’, Matt. 15:27. But they are not like her at all; for she didn’t ask the Lord for crumbs; and crumbs would not have satisfied her. A careful reading of the text reveals that, far from asking for crumbs, her desire was for mercy, and great mercy at that; rich and powerful mercy that could relieve her daughter from nothing less than the ‘grievous vexation of a devil’! Nowhere does she voice a desire for ‘dainties such as angels have’, but she wanted mercy, and at length she received mercy, for she came in great faith, unlike those who thoughtlessly repeat the hymnwriter.

Just listen to the woman’s words: of Jesus she declared, ‘O Lord, thou son of David.’ Then she believed him to be the Messiah, no less, and therefore David’s Lord, see Psalm 110:1-3, Matt. 22:41-45. Who does the reader believe Jesus to be? He is infinitely more than a heavenly dispenser of blessing, you know. And then, unperturbed by apparent rejection she came and worshipped Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ (And that was no denominational vain repetition put into the mouths of mostly unconcerned people to encourage them to sound needy.) It was only then, after Jesus had at last replied to her, that she voiced her great faith with the illustration of dogs eating the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Again, although she used that word out of desperation in her tireless importunity, it is evident that she craved more than mere crumbs. And in the end what did Jesus give her? And would she have gone away calling it ‘crumbs’? Certainly not! ‘O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.’ Great faith. Great mercy. Let us not denigrate the rich mercy of the Saviour, and liken it to mere crumbs in our faithless expectation.[2]

But, alas, the word ‘a crumb’ along with other words like ‘a glimpse’, ‘a smile’, ‘a touch’, etc., are often used to describe the professed desire of those in the denomination who say they would receive something from the Lord. But it is a clear indication that they wouldn’t presume to aim too high, or to have too much faith; that is, that their ‘Jesus’ cannot really bestow much more than their faithlessness could imagine. Perhaps the reason for this is that they just don’t want to receive so much blessing that will tear them out of their quiet and cosy ‘chapel only’ religion – such as it is. Therefore their professed ‘unworthy to be fed’ is shown to be hypocritical, and therefore vastly different to the woman’s, and to the genuine seeker’s attitude of mind.

But if we look at what the genuine Lord of glory actually does feed his truly praying and seeking people with, well, it is nothing less than ‘food convenient’ for them, Prov. 30:7,8, that is, himself, the bread of life! And can he be described in such a meagre, insulting, and blasphemous way as being merely ‘a crumb’? No, with him you get the whole loaf! Scripture just does not lead us to believe that the God of all grace bestows anything other than fulness, abundance and riches upon his people: just read the first chapter of Ephesians! After all, Jesus did say that he had come to give his people ‘life, and that they might have it more abundantly’, John 10:10. When he fed the five thousand men, besides women and children, they didn’t receive – as the infidels would have us believe – a few crumbs each in a great magnanimous act of sharing, but ‘they did all eat, and were filled ’, Matt. 14:19-21: that is, they were all filled; Jesus filled thousands; and after the meal they were so full that there were twelve full baskets left over at the end – presumably of crumbs – which none of the thousands had any more room to finish off!

Again, after his resurrection, when Jesus’ disciples had been out fishing all night and had caught nothing, he told them to cast their net on the right side of the ship, and they would find. And what did they find: a few sprats and minnows? ‘They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes’, John 21:3-6. Fulness, you see! ‘And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace’, John 1:16. Boaz, the great type of Christ in the book of Ruth, saw to it that the Moabitess received ‘handfuls of purpose.’ Handfuls! Ruth 2. When the queen of Sheba ‘heard the wisdom of Solomon’ – yet another type of Christ – she confessed, ‘behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard’, 1 Kings 10:1-10.

This is Jesus the Son of God. It is no wonder then that the apostolic exhortation is this: ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water’, Heb. 10:22, with context.

 

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[1] Far from the child of God having ‘little hope’, he has ‘confidence, which hath great recompense of reward’, Heb. 10:35.

[2] In a similar vein, I once heard a minister speak on ‘the woman with the issue of blood’, Mark 5, who spent a large part of his sermon expounding hymn 302 verse 1 instead of the scripture! But yet again the hymnwriter introduces a thought – which was well emphasised in this sermon – foreign to the scriptural account: ‘unbelieving fears’. For far from being fearful and in unbelief, the woman came only in single-minded, determined faith, verse 28, as Jesus testified, ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole.’ Poetry which adds to or twists scripture is to be rejected as nothing short of abominable.

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