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A SYSTEM OR A SAVIOUR?
By J C Metcalfe.
“Neither a messenger, nor an angel, but He Himself saved them . . .” (Isaiah 63 v9)
“I Know Whom I have believed . . .” (2 Timothy 1 v12)
It is so easy to by-pass the real source of Christian experience, that there are certain things needing to be repeated again and again. The most vital of these necessary reminders is that Christianity is A Person. It is not what we believe that is of primary importance, but in Whom we believe. The salvation of God is not a system to be mastered. There is no formula that can give us the right answer for Christian living. God has provided for us in His Son. I like Canon J. B. Phillips’ expression here. He speaks of “Christ, God-become-Man”. It is of this Christ that Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 v19, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself”. In the first chapter of his book ‘Christianity is Christ’, Dr.W.H.Griffith Thomas says, “The fundamental and ultimate idea and fact of Christianity is the Person of Christ. ‘What think ye of Christ?’ is the crucial problem to-day, as it has been all through the centuries. It is a test of Christianity and of man’s relation to Christianity. . . . On the one hand, Jesus Christ has been the centre of opposition in almost every age; on the other hand, He has been the Object of worship and of the heart’s devotion of all Christians. We cannot get away from this central fact; it influences our thinking, it controls our action and it tests our entire attitude to the religion of Christ”. Since this is true, we shall not be wasting our time by investigating some of the byways, which seem so right, and yet lead us away from Him. We must always keep steadily before us the fact “In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in Him . . .” (Colossians 2 v9-10). Here alone our hearts can be truly at rest.
The use of Scripture.
One common snare into which we all fall at times is the misuse of the Scriptures. We set much store by the doctrines which have been built out of Bible texts, and in this way not only miss the glory of our relationship with the Saviour Himself, but view everything from a completely wrong angle. In his book ‘The Knowledge of the Holy’, Dr.A.W.Tozer writes, “God is a Person and can be known in increasing degrees of intimate acquaintance as we prepare our hearts for the wonder. It may be necessary for us to alter our former beliefs about God as the glory that gilds the sacred Scriptures dawns over our interior lives. We may also need to break quietly and graciously with the lifeless textualism that prevails among the Gospel Churches, and to protest the frivolous character of much that passes for Christianity among us. By this we may for the time lose friends and gain a passing reputation for being holier-than-thou; but no man who permits the expectation of unpleasant consequences to influence him in a matter like this is fit for the Kingdom of God”.
Two passages of Scripture seem to be designed particularly to warn us of this ‘lifeless textualism’. Look first at John 5 v39-40, “ye search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of Me. And ye will not come to Me that ye might have life”. The whole purpose of Scripture is to lead to the Saviour. After His resurrection He opened the understanding of the bewildered disciples, that they might see, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets . . . in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself”. Here is the reason that we so often fail to reach the hearts of men as we preach the Gospel. We have wandered into ‘Bypath meadow’, and are trading in systems based on the Bible, forgetful of the figure which dominates all Scripture and applies it to Himself. It is wise to remember that ‘Bypath meadow’ leads directly to the castle of Giant Despair, because there are so many Christians, who never get fully out of the Giant’s clutches. “This truth, Christ in all the Scriptures,” says William Hendriksen, “unlocks the mysteries of the Old Testament (as well as the New), and apart from it the Bible remains a closed book . . . .” Yes, closed both to us, and to our puzzled hearers and observers. It is also the key that throws wide open the doors of the Giant’s castle.
Now turn to Revelation 2 v2-4. The Lord of the Churches is speaking to the Church at Ephesus. “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience and how thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love”. Their knowledge and zeal had left their hearts behind. So it will always be with those who follow the ‘thing’ rather than The Person. The Expositors’ Greek New Testament treats this lack of love as being the love of the brethren; and, after all, John does say, “And this commandment have we from Him, that he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 John 4 v21). The comment runs, “During any prolonged strain put upon human nature, especially in a small society driven jealously to maintain its purity, temper is prone to make inroads on affection and forbearance; it was inevitable also that opportunities for this should be given in early Christianity, where party leaders tended to exaggerate either the liberal or the puritan element in the Gospel . . . . The purity which is not peaceable cannot be adequate to the demands of Jesus, and nowhere did this need reinforcement more than in the townships of Asia Minor, where factiousness and division constantly spoiled their guilds and mutual relations. “Can we not go even farther than this ? Is not the Christian life something more than the poverty of our human response to the ‘demands of Jesus’? Are we not those who, sharing His death, are, therefore, actually ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1 v4)? Does this not link us in the closest and most sacred of bonds with the Person of the Lord of Glory? Is it possible, then, to be content with a system? Can we build an ‘ism based on theological concepts? It is not possible to organise ‘life’, and we must never forget that, “He that hath the Son hath life and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” (1 John 5 v12). This life we share with every true-born child of God; and this constitutes the “unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4 v3), which overflows all man-made barriers of ecclesiastical or doctrinal tradition.
A healthy corrective
Does not 1 Corinthians 13 provide us with a healthy corrective here? Look at the first three verses, and note how the list of ‘things’ given there are dead and valueless without the quickening fire of love “The tongues of men and angels” - “the gift of prophecy” - “the understanding of mysteries” - “knowledge” - “faith” - “zealous sacrifice for others” - “to-the-death loyalty to principle” - all these excellent things are summarily swept aside unless they spring from the warmth of an overflowing love relationship with the Saviour. Now meditate on verses 4-7. What does our chill ‘systematic theology’ look like set side by side with the heavenly vision of that Person in Whom this love is seen in perfection and Who, let us say it with fear and wonder, dwells in our “hearts by faith” (Ephcsians 3 v17). The last verses, 8-12, form a perfect crown for the rest “Then shall I know even as also I am known”. What can I care for prophetic systems with their alarming variety, when I am moving forward to see Him? Can I be satisfied with the shadow, when the substance is set before me? As I write I can see in my mind’s eye a picture that I was shown in Cardiff City Hall. A medieval castle occupies the whole canvas. In the courtyard a man in armour is leading a horse up and down. Far above, a door from the living apartments is wide open, and a young knight in full armour, but carrying his helmet, is standing on the landing at the top of the stairway. The sun is shining on him, so that his shadow is clearly seen thrown onto the battlements behind him. Beside him is a girl. With a piece of charcoal she is drawing the outline of his shadow on the wall. In a few moments the young man will clatter down the long stairway, leap on his horse, and ride away to battle. The maid will be left with only his carefully drawn shadow. Will that content her? No! Nor can we find true peace and lasting joy apart from the daily presence of the Saviour Himself, until that day when, delivered from our human limitations, we shall “be like Him,for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3 v2).
A tragic mistake
This brings us face to face with the tragic fact that many earnest Christians spend their lives in frustration because they try to put into operation some system of sanctification. Our Conventions and Conferences are full of such. I am sometimes asked to what particular ‘school of sanctification’ I belong. How can anyone rest on a teaching or system, when he knows that “of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, Who of God is made unto us . . . sanctification” (1 Corinthians 1 v30)? I have nothing in myself, but I have all in Christ, in The Person. Bishop Moule, commenting on 2 Timothy 1 v12, says, “In these last scenes of apparent uttermost defeat . . . he (Paul) knows himself to be the King’s own messenger, ‘herald, apostle, teacher’. True, the enemy has him apparently in a hopeless grasp. But he is the King’s undoubted servant, now as much as ever, and he has only to think upon his King to feel misgiving and despondency vanish at the thought. Nay, his very sufferings are an occasion for an even triumphant reliance . . . He finds his secret of reassurance in no complex reasonings. He certainly does not find it in the aspect of circumstances. He takes a clear and steady review of the whole field of seeming disaster; and then says, with a grave tranquillity, ‘I am not at all disappointed!’ And the reason is a Person. The sufferer elaborates no fine drawn theory of his own safety. It lies just in this, ‘He is able to guard my deposit’, to guard myself and my all, always, all along. Through life He will guard it, through death, and ‘unto that day’, that unnamed day when at length he will see his Guardian face to face . . . . Behold faith in action. We perceive that it is a reliance, absolute and open-eyed upon a Person infinitely trustworthy and infinitely willing to be trusted. And that Person is ‘the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever’ (Hebrews 13 v8)”. This is so important that I want you to listen with me to another witness, who is known as one of the great Convention speakers of all time, Dr. Andrew Murray. Speaking at the Mowbray Convention in South Africa, Dr. Murray emphasised strongly our need to find our all in a Person. He said: “Accept and value your place in Christ Jesus. God delights in nothing but His beloved Son, and can be satisfied with nothing less in those who draw nigh to Him. Enter deep into God’s holy presence in the boldness which the blood gives, and in the assurance that in Christ you are most well-pleasing. In Christ you are within the veil, you have access into the very heart and love of the Father. This is the great object of fellowship with God, that I may have more of God in my life, and that God may see Christ formed in me. Be silent before God, and let Him bless you. This Christ is a living Person. He loves you with a personal love, and He looks every day for the personal response of your love. Look into His face with trust till His love really shines in your heart. Make His heart glad by telling Him that you do love Him. He offers Himself to you as a personal Saviour and Keeper from the power of sin. Do not ask, ‘Can I be kept from sinning, if I keep close to Him?’ but ask ‘Can I be kept from sinning, if He always keeps close to me?’ and you see at once how safe it is to trust Him.”
All I want
Our reading this morning was John 6; and it was borne in on me, that here this same thought is clearly underlined by the Saviour Himself. Is not this, in fact, the point of the whole chapter? The five thousand could only be fed by His power. The disciples made no headway in crossing the sea because “Jesus was not come to them”. Immediately He came all was changed. Then He taught the people, and again and again turned their thoughts away from everything but Himself. Look, for example, at verse 57, “As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me”. Can anything be plainer? And yet this chapter has been a battleground down the ages. It has been used to support Eucharistic teaching; and verses from it have been much used as proof texts for Calvinism. It is no part of my task here to speak either for or against these systems of ritual and doctrine. I simply point out the fact. But if we miss the central meaning of such a passage of Scripture, is it legitimate simply to use it to try to prove the ideas we hold? Does not this great chapter say to us all in the clearest accents: Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find?
Perhaps the most striking part of the whole discourse is the effect it had upon the hearers. It still has the same effect to-day. The majority turned away, and left Him. Somehow or other the human mind loves to systematise, and even we Christians are slow to be prepared to trust Him and Him alone. Many evangelical believers are so wedded to ‘things’, movements, teachings, activities, ideas, techniques and such like, that they will not listen to the declaration that ‘life’ is found alone in Him. The result is that they are never satisfied. Look at all the abstract terms of Scripture such as ‘life’, ‘peace’, ‘hope’, ‘truth’, and so on. You will find each one ‘personalized’ in Jesus Christ. He is the sum of all God’s dealings with man. Christ is all.
In the end the Lord Jesus turns to the twelve and asks a question that you and I will do well to pose to our own hearts, “Will you also go away?” (v67). Peter, as well he might be, was bewildered. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” he asked. To whom, indeed. You and I are asked to believe and accept just one thing. Listen again. “In Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And you are complete in Him . . . .” How satisfying. What heart rest is here. Do you recall two of the verses of one of Bishop Moule’s great hymns ?
“This cruel self, oh, how it strives
And works within my breast,
To come between Thee and my soul,
And keep me back from rest.
How many subtle forms it takes
Of seeming verity,
As if it were not safe to rest
And venture all on Thee.”
Yes, indeed, sweep them all away. And may we be like the disciples, when on the Mount of Transfiguration, every vision vanished, and “Jesus was found alone” (Luke 9 v36).