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Lebensbeweise lebendiger Gemeinden (Vital Signs of a Living Church)
|Date||January 01, 1913|
Vital Signs of a Living Church
[Arnold, Eberhard and Emmy papers – P.M.S.]
[Draft Translation by Bruderhof Historical Archive]
Vital Signs of a Living Church
(Living Churches: The Essence of Their Life)
Parts I and II
by Dr. Eberhard Arnold
These articles are meant as a personal testimony as well as a personal greeting to all friends back home.
The most important concern for the author – whose only allegiance is to the Lord himself and to all who belong to him – is that we turn our hearts and minds more than ever to the Lord alone. This is the only way today's fellowship movements can find vigorous new life and overcome the danger of squandering their strength and exhausting themselves in antagonisms.
It is through the love for Jesus, our Lord and Redeemer, that we have community with all believers. For community is the inner relationship of the heart that unites us in the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). Churches that put this community into practice in a real union undertake a special responsibility for this life entrusted to them by God. This applies also to those groups that do not call themselves a "church," but are perhaps known as a "meeting," "fellowship," or "association." In everything written here the author has thought equally of all children of God.
God's grace binds the author with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with unfailing love (Eph.6:24).
Ober-Bozen, South Tyrol
Love for the Lord Jesus
A church is the union of people who have felt the grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus. It can only exist where its members enjoy true inner community through a personal experience of Christ. In Revelation 3:1 we read of a church that has the name of being alive but is dead. The Lord, living in the midst of the seven churches (Rev.1:20), states this shaking fact, evident by their actions: their vitality was missing. He found their works imperfect in the sight of God (Rev.3:2). He, who judges men according to their deeds (Rev.20:12) and their words (Matt.12:37), is the same whose eyes flame like fire (Rev.2:18). What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart (Matt.15:18). Jesus sees why these vital signs are missing. The reason lies deep in the heart. He has to remind the church to hold to what she has received and heard (Rev.3:3). The lack of life, as shown in deeds, originates in disease at the root. The proclamation of the Lord Jesus, as he was witnessed to by the apostles, who both heard and saw him, is the nerve center of the church. Only by accepting this message will the church come to know community with the Father and with the Son (1 John 1:3). Only he can abide in the Son and the Father in whom this proclamation abides (1 John 2:24; 1 Thess.2:13).
Acceptance of the Son in the proclaimed word brings with it the strength to abide in him. It is only through the proclamation of faith that the Spirit can be received who alone can give strength (Gal.3:2), the Spirit of God, who is not to be found in the world (1 Cor.2:12; John 14:17). The Spirit that makes us sons and daughters of God (Rom.8:15) guarantees that we receive the grace of God (2 Cor.6:1; Rom.5:17). It is possible to receive the gospel from Jesus only through the Spirit (Gal.1:9), without whom we cannot truly call him Lord (1 Cor.12:3). This is the Spirit of life whose life-giving law has freed us from the law of sin and death (Rom.8:2). Therefore, wherever life in Christ Jesus degenerates, the message without which we would have remained in death and sin must be proclaimed anew. Paul testifies to this message most powerfully: how it was imparted to him, how he proclaimed it, and how it alone can save and guard those who receive it (1 Cor.15:1-8). He says that only those who still take their stand on this message, only those who hold fast to this gospel forever, can be sure of salvation.
The fact that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and reawakened, according to Scripture – this alone is what brings a church to life and keeps it alive. We have grown to love him because through his death he gave us forgiveness of sins. Every weakening of our love for Jesus points to this fact.
Whoever no longer brings his sins, failings, and omissions to Jesus has forgotten how he was cleansed from his former sins (2 Peter 1:9). He is caught in the gradually deadening process of inner unfaithfulness. When our conscience makes us aware that we no longer bring our whole love to the Lord Jesus, then it is most urgent that we lay down every sin (Heb.12:1) at the foot of his Cross and look up to him who through his redemptive deed is the originator of faith. A living church will never tire of fervently exhorting the believers to lay down their sins at the Cross; this is the only salvation, ever renewed. Let us love him more and more, for he loved us first (1 John 4:19). If there is anything that can reawaken a lukewarm person who is drifting back to the world, it is the Cross. Has anyone, out of friendship, ever sacrificed his life for you? There is nothing greater. Jesus did this (John 15:13). Yes, he died for you, his death was on your account; his love sought you out while you were still his enemy (Rom.5:7-10). Man can become indifferent to anything. But this love is like the sun bringing forth blossoms and producing fruit with its rays (2 Cor.4:6). It has brought forth blossoms in you. You awoke from death to life. But where is the fruit? Where are the works, the proof of life, that Jesus sought in vain in that church? He died for all in order that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for the One who died and was raised to life again (2 Cor.5:15). This alone is the proof of life: that we live for him, that we love him so much that we continually seek to know him more deeply, to live more faithfully for him.
Can we, who have the Spirit of power, be as devotedly faithful as that proud man of India who dedicated his whole life to the service of a European because this man had rescued him on a tiger hunt? The Indian lived only for him, who had done nothing more than his duty, and that perhaps only for the show of heroism. And how is it with us believers who boast of knowing the love of the Son of God, who left the glory of heaven in order to sacrifice himself for us in a most terrible way? Should not even the coldest heart be shaken at how dull and apathetic we have become in the face of this love?
"But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first" (Rev.2:4). One of the most depressing signs among present-day Christians is the pious resignation and calm admission that they have lost the first love. Brothers, sisters, is it possible that what our beloved Lord has against us, and calls us to repent of, can leave us so cold? "Remember then from what you have fallen, and repent!" (Rev.2:5) And do the first works, the deeds of love, the proofs of life that spring from a glowing, heartfelt personal love for the Lord Jesus.
How glorious it is that we can show this love to someone who is alive. How cold, in spite of the zeal, is the worship tended a Buddha, a Goethe, or a Nietzsche! They are dead. They have left us nothing but thoughts, lofty thoughts varying in worth, but with no power of life, for they are dead. But Jesus lives! Not like Schiller's God, only "up above heaven's starry canopy." No! He is very near to you. He is always with his own (Matt.28:20). The Spirit proves how close he is to our hearts. The Lord is the Spirit (2 Cor.3:17). The empty tomb was so decisive for Paul and all true Christians because it proved that the same Jesus who was seen, heard, and touched by John and the others – this very same Christ had arisen from the dead and appeared to his followers. He it is who sent the Spirit and through his word is with his own (Rom.10:8). How wonderful it is that we can love a Savior who is close to us, that we may speak with him and entrust everything to him, even those things we are unable to put into words.
A third factor was decisive for Paul: this sacrificial death and the resurrection came about completely according to Scripture.
This is no new Christ. No! This is the Christ whom Scripture proclaims, and this living proclamation, when firmly held to, shapes the life of a church. Our love for the Lord Jesus is no abstract love. Just as surely as this love finds its most genuine expression in prayer, so this prayer life of love needs a firm foundation, namely the Word that has been given to us. Therefore the importance of God's Word and the pre-eminence of prayer in our life are the most powerful proofs that we really love the Lord Jesus.
The Decisive Power of Prayer Life
Love is overflowing fullness of life. One who is barely holding himself above water has no strength left to think of others. But one who is saved from death and has regained his full strength (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14) will dedicate all this strength and love, all his life, to his rescuer. For this reason love for Jesus, warm personal love for the Lord, is and will always be the first and chief proof of life. This love finds its expression not only in the testimony and living proclamation of the Lord, but even more and in the first place, in the intimate communion of prayer with Jesus himself.
It is not enough to say that "prayer is the breathing of the soul." It is more. It is the blood circulation of the inner life itself. When prayer life stagnates, life is in the greatest danger of dying out. And through every genuine, living increase in prayer, the life of the soul becomes warm, fiery, and vibrant. In Jesus is life (John 1:4). Yes, he alone is life. We can only possess life personally and put it into action to the extent that we embrace Jesus and hold firmly to him in love. Only insofar as we truly turn to him and seek him in prayer can we have life (John 5:40). Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of man, brought so clearly and uniquely to us in the Lord's Supper, takes place not only in this meal but, in truth, in every genuine prayer in which we are so deeply and personally in touch with the Lord that he is in us and we are in him (John 6:53; 14:23; 15:4).
It is certainly quite right to stress the objective fact that it is Christ who is my life (Phil.1:21); my behavior or my prayer is not my life. And the Christianity of Jesus and his apostles is not a theology, not a philosophy, but life, real, practical life. He who possesses the Son of God has life (1 John 5:12). This "possessing the Son of God" is not anything otherworldly but signifies a this-worldly reality, something we actually experience. It is through faith that we have life (John 20:31). The life of faith has its signs, its evidences of life, which always and without fail appear as soon as life is present. Prayer, more than anything else, is part of this immediate evidence of life, as the Lord himself declares in John 15:7: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you." This abiding in the Lord must find constant expression in prayer and supplication. The Spirit of the Lord, which we possess through faith in him, is the Spirit of prayer (Zech.12:10). Therefore a true prayer is a matter of the Spirit, not of outer form. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor.3:17). This should be taken to heart by the various prayer circles. Oh, how often these take such a rigid form that a simple person hardly dares to pray unless he is prepared to accept the distinctive practices of that particular gathering. A vigorous prayer life will thrive only in the free atmosphere of inner independence, never in the heavy atmosphere of traditional forms and laws. All of us will feel that the "Our Father" as used in the church often has a paralyzing effect. It is also clear from its context in the Gospels that this prayer of the Lord was meant primarily for the believers in Israel. Yet this same context also shows that the Lord has a purpose in mind spanning all ages, a purpose whose fulfillment we need just as much as the people of Israel. Here Jesus attacks praying in a pretentious manner, wanting to be admired, and wordy prayer that gives the greatest satisfaction by its length (Matt.6:5-7). A truly spiritual prayer corresponds in content to this prayer of the Lord's. It encompasses the needs of our soul and our earthly existence just as perfectly as the honor of God in his holy will.
Prayer is to such a high degree a personal and intimate relationship with God that the bread we need, the forgiveness of personal guilt, protection against temptation, and the forgiveness of others will keep recurring in living prayer. Here, at the same time, the necessary foundation of all sound prayer life is given. The mystic Eckhart, nowadays again frequently read, said quite rightly, "True prayer comes from a pure heart." There is so much impure prayer, in contrast to Job, who could say, "My prayer is pure" (Job 16:17). Only the prayer of the righteous will achieve much (James 5:15).
"If a man turns a deaf ear to the law, his prayers are an abomination" (Prov.28:9). A pure prayer life is only possible where there is full and absolute confession of personal guilt and where ever-renewed deliverance from evil is experienced. Therefore prayer is directed against temptation (Matt.26:41). And sin, especially sensual sin, is a hindrance to prayer (1 Peter 3:7), for which reason we are admonished to "lead an ordered and sober life, given to prayer" (1 Peter 4:7).
Further, when we do not forgive and reconcile, we sin against love, and this is a major obstacle to true prayer. Unless we truly forgive those who have sinned against us, God will not forgive us our own sins that cry out to heaven. Whoever experiences mercy in a living way can never be hard against the guilt of others.
If our prayer life has become weak and lukewarm, let us examine the basis of our personal Christianity. Every personal transgression must be made known to God to ensure forgiveness. Only after an honest and complete break with all sin can we communicate in prayer with the Lord. How much then do we need to pray in solitude, in peace. The Lord, who was without sin, lived this out before us as a basic element in his own life (Matt.14:23; Mark 1:35, 6:46; Luke 9:18). It is only when private prayer is foremost in our daily lives that the meaning and power of prayer life will become evident in the church as well.
In every time of awakening, when the inner life of individuals grows deeper, the prayer life of the church immediately becomes more intense. But if the inner life is weak and personal prayer life at home slackens, the consequence will be that prayer meetings are poorly attended or degenerate into rigid and lifeless forms.
The Acts of the Apostles makes plain to us over and over again this vital, decisive power of church life (Acts 1:14, 2:42). The aliveness of a church can be clearly seen in the vitality and power of its prayers.
The pre-eminence of prayer in our lives is shown when we are alive with the life of God (1 Peter 4:6), when we live for the One who for our sake died and arose to life (2 Cor.5:15; Rom.14:8), and when the Spirit directs our life (Gal.5:25).
III. The Living Strength of the Word of God
Jesus alone is life. We have escaped from death only when we have inmost union with him and know his love in reality. This heart to heart relationship finds its most direct and personal expression in living, intimate sharing in prayer.
It is impossible to live in him unless prayer, a relationship with him, is the element in which we live. That is why John R. Mott rightly says: "The resolve to lead a life at peace with the Lord is the most important event in a man's life."
But how does Jesus fill these hours of solitude; how can we be kept from going astray in our prayers? On what ground can we meet our God with certainty? First and foremost: it can only be on the firm rock of grace, the grace of the Crucified that has come into our lives. Our prayers will take a false direction, we will become uncertain and lose the way or run into exaggerated emotionalism if the Word of God does not give us the living foundation for our prayer life. So many prayers seem bound to be disappointed because they spring more from our own thoughts and wishes than from the clear source of the pure Word. We need God's promises to be able to pray with certainty. We will never learn to pray in the name of Jesus unless the all-embracing Word of God reveals to us the nature of Jesus. The presence of our living Master is the only source and protection for our inner life. His promise to be with his own every day was the living power of the early church.
How do we learn to know the presence of our beloved Master? Can we bring him down from the place to which he ascended to be with the Father? Righteousness that comes of faith does not say so; life renewed in the fellowship of faith does not speak like this. Those who have found life in Jesus, who have been set free from death through unity of life with him, know that it was the Word that wakened them to life. "He begot us of his own will through the Word of truth" (James 1:18). "You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23).
Nothing other than the Word of God can rescue souls (James 1:21). That is why Paul testifies to the Corinthians that he had brought life to them, not through lofty human wisdom, but solely through the proclamation of the Crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-5). In Jesus Christ the Crucified, the Word has its beginning and goal, its center, depth, and height. For the Word of the Cross is the power of God to us who are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18). Not only at the first moment of our salvation did it mean the power of God to us--no, to us who are being saved it means the power of God, the power of life again and again. If the Word of God unfolds its boundless life energy within us and among us, this is proof that life is there. Our inward attitude determines the effect the Word has on us. The same Word is either foolishness (a stumbling block) or the power of God to us, according to our inner condition.
Those who have life in its fullness continually experience the living strength of the Word. It lies in the mysterious unity with the personal presence of the Lord Jesus. This presence, the mainspring of our life, is to be found simply and solely in the Word. The life of faith does not need to bring Jesus down from heaven, far less to bring him up from the dead. Rather, it testifies out of thousandfold experience, "The word is near you: it is upon your lips and in your heart" (Rom. 10:6,8). Intimate faith of heart in Jesus, joyful witness to his Name because we know him near--these live in the presence of the Word as in a living seed. To be near to the Word means to be near the Lord. When the Word, which is known and felt, dwells in our hearts, it is the Lord himself who is with us, for Jesus himself is the Word. Without him not a line of the Bible would have been written. Every sentence of the Holy Scriptures is born out of his Spirit. It is he who inspired the writers of the Bible.
Jesus is the Word of the Father from the beginning. The creative Word of God, Jehovah's revelation to the forefathers and people of Israel, every proclamation of God through the Word, is Jesus. He alone is the revelation of the Father (John 1:1). He, as the Word, comprising the whole nature of the Father, became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). This full revelation of God is just as much an incomprehensible grace as the fact that he is daily and hourly beside us and within us through the Word of God. Whoever loves him will keep his Word (John 14:23). For he is the Word, he is in the Word, and lives only in the Word. And so it must be as he himself says to any man who loves him and keeps his Word: "We will come to him and dwell with him" (John 14:23).
Keeping the Word in the true spiritual sense is therefore no outward obedience such as a soldier owes to military regulations; it is love to Jesus, receiving Jesus in our heart; it is the actual unity of life with the crucified and exalted Lord.
Therefore the working of the Word, which means that Jesus is near, is the infallible criterion of the life of a church. The question here is not how often and how much the Word of God is read and heard, but rather, in what Spirit and with what power it becomes effective. The Word of God is approached by people in three quite different ways. For many, the element of instruction, which is of intellectual interest, is in the foreground. They like best to concern themselves with the dogmatic approach to Christianity, or they turn their whole energy to explaining minute differences and to arriving at exact conclusions about the end of the world. The often fruitless theology of each trend shows how dangerous is this preference for intellectual treatment of God's Word.
The second group sees in the Scriptures a collection of moral and religious precepts, which must be followed in strict obedience. Among these Bible followers are many noble, morally upright characters, who would rather die than consent to a serious sin.
The Gospel, however, stands in opposition to these purely legalistic interpretations. Paul especially was given the task to show how destructive all legalistic Christianity must be. We know that his letters, especially those to the Romans and Galatians, fulfilled this task in the power of the Spirit of Christ.
There is a third way of approaching Scripture, in which the elements of truth in both the scholastic and the moral approaches are brought together and made part of a higher unity. Christ is Life! Christ is the fulfillment of the law! "Search the Scriptures...they bear witness to me (John 5:39). On this way of life, by receiving Christ within us we grow in the perception of how powerfully alive he is in the whole of Scripture. This recognition is a continuous act of will to become one in heart with Jesus himself, the living Word. "This is eternal life: to know thee who alone art truly God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3, NEB). That is more than theological teachings about Scripture. Certainly it includes the whole of Biblical teaching, but it is life, the living Christ in the living Word.
In this light the Bible is not a collection of dead precepts or theological dogmas--we let the Word of God work in us as it is: living and active (Heb.4:12). In the living strength of Christ there is a moral impact, which surpasses all ethical precepts as the sun outshines a candle in the night. "For the Word of God is...sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb.4:12, RSV). That goes right to the deepest nerve center of each individual life. That brings everything emotional, everything untrue, everything impure into the light. And what follows proves that this living action of the Word means living unity with the Christ. For the next verse continues: "And no creature is hidden from him, but all are exposed and laid bare to the eyes of him toward whom the Word, given for us, points" (Heb.4:13). He is the heart of it. The Word points to him. Those with a living understanding of the Word perceive in all things Christ, the Word become flesh. The Word of God reveals Jesus to them and so becomes their source of life. So true love to Jesus leads to a real bond with him, an absolutely necessary personal unity of life with the Word.
"He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me" (John 14:21,RSV). That is more than outward obedience; it is the living embodiment of the Word: "You are our letter, known and read by all men; it has become clear that you are a letter of Christ" (2 Cor.3: 2, 3). When the Word is lived out to the full, our life is the proof of living community with the Lord.
In a living church, the Holy Scripture is not only proclaimed in a living way but experienced and lived to the full by each individual in his personal conduct. Here is the obedience of faith, deeds flowing from life, to which Paul wanted to bring people of all nations through his proclamation (Rom.1: 5;16:26).
When the Word in Christ is the life-giving power to which our whole love clings, then everything based on purely human standards must go from our community life. The esteem given in many circles of believers to old traditions, to new human leaders, and to prominent organizations of every kind, is proof that the living power of the Word can make only small progress among us. We must have such a hunger for the Word of the Lord (Amos 8:11) that we reject all other nourishment. Our love to the Word shall fill our hearts with such joy (Jer.15:16) that nothing remains for other pleasures. When we treasure the Word, so that it remains in us, we shall remain in the Father and the Son (1 John 2:24;4:7). We shall overcome evil, (1 John 2:14) and we shall know and feel that what Paul says applies to the Word of the Lord (itself) is meant when Paul says: "The kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power" (1 Cor. 4:20).
IV. Overcoming Sin
Death is the wages and fruit of sin (Rom 6:20,23). A man who loves sin lets the cold arms of death take him in their grasp. Truly, sin is the sting, the deadly poisonous weapon of death (1 Cor.15:56). Love of sin means suicide of the soul. Inner awakening brings the tremendous conflict between this sinister, almost insurmountable inclination of fallen man, and the new love welling up for him whose love brought our redemption. Only love to Jesus, and nothing else, can overcome the love of sin. If we open our hearts to his love and give our whole hearts to him, then we experience that Jesus drives out devils. The more our hearts are filled with his image, the less room there is for sinful imagination. But when the Lord's presence fades from our souls, these sinful images, which we have believed dead, rise up and come to life in us again. When we feel the power of evil growing up in us like this, there is only one way of shaking it off and overcoming it: "Let us put away the sin that clings to us and makes us slothful, and look to Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who endured the Cross" (Heb.12:1,2).
Jesus is life; therefore victory over death and over death's weapon, sin, can be won in him alone. "You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins" (1 John 3:5,6, RSV). Dwelling in Jesus means the victory of life over death. If we do not remain in him we are thrown aside like a branch, and we wither (John 15:6). Separation from him is death. Death can cause this separation only by using the poisoned weapon of sin. "No one who sins has either seen him or known him" (1 John 3:6, RSV). The intensity of our relationship with sin is inevitably in inverse proportion to the intensity of our relationship with the Lord. Only when the sun has set can darkness spread. Only light can drive away the darkness. No one doubts that black night will be overcome as soon as the sun sends its first rays streaming over hill and valley. Where Jesus is, sin must yield.
This evidence of life is the simplest because it is a natural law. It is not a controversial question but a living reality: if we remain in Jesus, we do not continue to sin. Anyone who loves sin and holds on to it is outside fellowship with the Lord. There are two contrary conditions: either we remain in the love of Jesus, or we persist in uniting our wills with sin. These two conditions are opposed to each other. Of course these two chronic conditions can be interrupted by short, sharp changes in the same way as steady good health can be interrupted by sudden pain, or a chronic disease by a momentary gathering of strength. This, however, does not alter the contrary nature of the two conditions if the pain does not persist, or if the increased strength soon gives way again to sickness. So when sin has gained the upper hand, the all-important question is whether we enter into a permanent relationship with sin and want to fall back into a state of death, or whether we immediately turn our backs on sin and remove ourselves completely beyond its range of control.
God leaves this decision to our will. "Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death" (James 1:15, RSV). The moribund condition of the soul is just as much a continually renewed act of will as life is. Life has to be constantly reaffirmed in Jesus himself with all the decisiveness of a serious but joyful "Yes, I will!" But it is God who is continually active in us, giving us the will to work out our salvation (Phil.2:12,13). And we know his motive is rousing and stimulating our will: He draws our will into the domain of his Son's love (John 6:44). The Lord himself reassures anyone who doubts this: "`And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from the Father comes to me" (John 6:45, RSV).
If we have sinned and, instead of choosing death, choose life, we seek the personal presence of Jesus; we tell him that we love him with our whole will and that we are determined to hate sin (John 21:15-17). We have trust that he knows everything and that he is greater than our own hearts, which condemn us (1 John 3:19,20). We confess to him without glossing over our sin (1 John 1:7-9), and we run to him, certain that his atonement will intercede for us (1 John 2:1,2). It is essential that we confess our sins and have the faith that continually seeks forgiveness through Jesus' atonement; without this there is no honest and therefore no living prayer life. "If we say [or behave as though] we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10,RSV).
If in our prayer life we stop relying on forgiveness at the Cross for sins simply and honestly confessed, then the crucified Lord is no longer a living experience and we give way to a false piety, which leads to one or another type of self-glorification. The all-encompassing glory of the ascended Lord can be revealed to each one of us personally only when there are no veils over our hearts and faces (2 Cor.3:16-18). In the Lord and in his Spirit this veil is put aside for all those who by means of grace can look to him sincerely.
It is a dangerous error to believe that once we are converted sins will no longer hinder us, that they will be taken right away so that we do not even think about them but concern ourselves "only" with the Lord. The Scriptures have a different message for believers. If we honestly concern ourselves with the Lord--this means a really personal encounter with him through his Word--it will enable the Lord himself to have a powerful effect on our practical life and, therefore, not least on our sins. "For the Word of God discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from him, but all are disclosed and laid bare to the eyes of him toward whom the Word, given for us, points" (Heb. 4:12,13). The natural result of Jesus' working through his Word is above all the revealing, punishing, and overcoming of sin. The One who shows the world how evil its deeds really (John 7:7) are also carried the sins of the world, and those whom he makes free are truly free, however much they were servants of sin before (John 8:34,36).
That is why in every living church, when sin is revealed and overcome again and again, it is evidence that Jesus is at work. Here we must recognize the proclamation of full and free forgiveness through the Cross for each one who, in genuine faith, puts away sin. This is just as important as the personal testimony to the power of the Risen One and his Spirit to keep us free from the lasting condemnation of sin (Rom. 6 and 8). The death of the One who has died to sin testifies to full redemption, even for the most evil of men. His life, revealing God himself, is proclaimed especially for those who are most bound, as the real power for a life of victory (Rom.5:20-21; Rom 6:8-13; Rom. 8:1,2).
But even the most living church can know the unspeakable sorrow of a case where someone allows himself to be called a brother but remains without true conversion: unchaste, money-loving, idolatrous, blasphemous, or a drunkard or a thief (1 Cor. 5:11). When there are wrongdoers who persist in open sin in spite of devoted help, the Lord expects that a faithful church will not bear with them but will put them out. But he expects still more that the power of love will overmaster the vast majority of sins by bringing the sinning brothers back to the right course, as shown in the Bible (Matt. 18:15-20; James 5:19,20). Love to the brothers, one of the tenderest, deepest impulses of life, is an essential building stone of the church. Unless we have deep and genuine brotherly love we cannot help anyone, least of all one who has failed. Jesus is life. All proofs of true inward life have this one origin: the nature of him who has overcome sin through his love (1 John 3:14-16; 1 John 4:7-12; 19-21).
[This represents pp. 37-39 of EA 13/1, Lebensbeweise lebendiger Gemeinden, Kassel 1913 or 1914; it was not included in the reworked version EA 29/3.]
V. Love to the Brothers
Only one thing can bring a division between believers, only one thing can end the fellowship of their love, and that is sin. Sin, because it is the weapon of death, is the sole obstacle to life and to love. Whether the sin is on our side because we judge and backbite, or whether it is on someone else's side because he has given great offense, or whether (as often happens) the guilt is on both sides, the result is the same: it ends in death.
We see in Jesus himself how he overcame sin through love and so robbed Satan of his devilish weapon (Col.2:15). The triumph of his love on the Cross was his triumph over sin. In the same way his living church can overcome sin only through love. The sting of death yields to the overwhelming power of life in the love of the Crucified One. The Lord has shown us clearly the way this love should take (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 John 5:16). As soon as we know a brother has sinned, love by its very nature urges us to pray and to talk to this brother alone before God. It is also only for love's sake that we draw in no more than one or two brothers richest in the blessings of the Lord when we cannot overcome the sin on our own. Love tells each one of us that we must at all times refrain from speaking about or judging another's sins until we have taken the way shown in the Bible and followed it in power and truth to the very end. It is in no way a contradiction of love when life in the church demands the removal of all dead bodies. If anyone holds fast to sin in spite of repeated and loving admonition, he must be put outside the church as a dead body. Sin is an obstacle that completely destroys all community. Strict discipline carried out with the warmest love is a life-and-death question for every church. Nothing can or may separate brothers except the touch of death, which is sin.
The sin of all sins is not believing in Jesus. Loss of faith in the crucified and risen Son of God is therefore the main obstacle to community. If we have understood the serious nature of this division between life and death, then it is all the more distressing to see the imaginary divisions between life and life; yet because of differing viewpoints we find such divisions on all sides among the children of God.
The Blankenburg Conference has been a great blessing to countless children of God because it has awakened them and made them more deeply conscious of their fellowship with all members of the faith. Although many are discouraged by groups splitting off in opposition while others lightly disregard the whole matter, yet in our time there are many signs that the Lord is still keeping alive the longing for unity with all believers. The Lord's promises and his prayers give us, despite the apparent opposite, the joyful certainty that the unity of Christ's Body, inviolable in Christ, will be expressed in such living unity of heart that when the world sees the love of the church members it must recognize the life-giving power of the Son of God (John 17:21; Phil. 2:1-4).
VI. Full Use of All Talents
It is a wonderful mystery that all believers who have come to know Christ form the unity of the Body of Christ. This fact is generally accepted in religious movements today. But it is remarkable that the truths most generally accepted are often the least put into practice.
The unity of a living body consists in unity of life. The living members are linked by the one life common to them all. It is true, then, that since Jesus' death there is no other separation than that between life and death. The unity of the Body of Christ is not theory, but living fact. Christ is the life shared by the whole Body. Those who have come to know Christ as their life are united through this in one Body with all his followers. This unity of life cannot be taken away by lack of unity in the ways of thinking among its members. But the Spirit of the Lord certainly shows us the privileges and duties that follow from this glorious truth. Ephesians 4:1-3 is an appeal to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace by bearing with one another in love: this is based on the fact that there is one Body (verse 4). Again, in the twelfth chapter of Romans, we find that the picture of the one body and the functions of its members (verses 4-8) is included in the practical encouragement to humility and love among the members (Rom. 12:3, 9-16; Col. 3:12-15). Just as with every truth of the Scriptures, this great truth of the Body of Christ is meant to be not only known and felt, but still more lived out in practice.
We cannot in any way destroy the perfection of God's plan or of Christ's work through our deficiency. Yet we forfeit blessings for our own lives if we do not direct our whole life to the glory of the Lord. We lose something for ourselves personally if we fail in any respect to carry out the perfect work of Christ.
This fact becomes very plain to us when we consider the unity of the church in Christ. The whole power and glory of Christ can never be fully expressed through one individual. Paul himself said in Philippians 3:12 (RSV), "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect"; and John testifies that we shall not become as Jesus is until we see him in his glory (1 John 3:2). Otherwise we would arrive at the false doctrine of the Theosophists that individuals can become new Christs through some kind of sanctification. That however is the way of the Antichrist. According to the Scriptures the whole Christ is revealed in his whole Body. Therefore Paul speaks of the one Body of all believers as the Body of Christ (1 Cor.12:12) and calls this Body of Christ the fullness of him who fulfills all in all (Eph.1:23).
We must understand this glory in faith and live according to it. One single believer can never possess every gift; one generation can never dispense with the blessings of previous centuries. We make ourselves immeasurably poorer than we really are if we want to be served by the gifts of only one brother or only one small group of brothers. It must be our holy endeavor to find a really living way of sharing all our powers with those other believers who do not belong to our church, but who, together with us, form the unity of the Body of Christ. Unhappily, many people seem to find it an insuperable difficulty that different members of the faith hold very divergent convictions on important Biblical points; but we should have brotherly trust to one who differs from us objectively, if he has given himself to the Lord to the best of his knowledge and in all conscience.
The Blankenburg Conference and many other (albeit imperfect) attempts to reach agreement between all believers show what great blessings God has in store for us in the wealth of his gifts to all his children. In fact we need the service of all brothers and sisters and cannot do without a single one of them. This is soon seen to be vitally necessary, even in the smallest church. The more living a church is the more certain it is that the most varied gifts and powers within it will find a serviceable place. If one person, perhaps one who mainly proclaims the Word, is extremely gifted, then it is above all his task to put his own personality in the background and do all he possibly can to stimulate powers and gifts in others. The variety of service and help is exactly what makes the life of a church fresh and many-sided. In the life of creation no two created things are ever exactly alike, and in the same way, the works of those created anew are full of life simply through their variety.
Of course the picture given of the church in Corinth proves that much damage can be done even where there is a rich and effective use of gifts. The unfolding of spiritual gifts is only one sign of life among other important signs that are equally or even more necessary. And we must not forget that Paul expressly thanks God at all times for the grace of God in Christ Jesus, that in every way they have been enriched in him so that they are not lacking in any gift of grace (1 Cor.1:4-8).
Unfortunately, often the brother with the most money, or seniority, or gift in speaking does not allow other gifts to find their true place in the church. This may happen involuntarily, though often, unhappily, it is consciously done. It was by this path that the living Christianity of the beginning years, with its free employment of all gifts, turned into the dead church controlled by officialdom.
Order and discipline give evidence of the life of a living church, for the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of discipline, and it is important that the older brothers (for that is the meaning in Greek of "elders"), by their mature judgment and experience, protect the communal life from false directions. But it is at least equally important that the older brothers, whose gifts are already proved, try their utmost to encourage the younger, newly awakened people to use their gifts for the church.
As we all come from an organized church life that goes back a thousand years, it is unfortunately inbred in us to let the positions of "preacher" and "elder" imperceptibly deteriorate into the kind of priesthood against which Jesus protested so strongly because it is bound to stifle every free expression of life.
Of course it is not always easy to draw into this work people and gifts that still need to mature, and it is a tremendous responsibility. Paul's words to Timothy, (1 Tim. 5:22) "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands," is of the gravest importance for all of us. It is in the nature of things that those who are not considered important, who would rather be in the background and do nothing but serve, reap great ingratitude. In a living church, however, a way will always be found to reach an inner balance. The well-weighed advice that comes from deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and deeper experience will always turn the scale, yet all newer gifts will be allowed to find their true place; it will be acknowledged that even the humblest members of the church have the right and duty to take part.
It is a wonderful service to help each person in such a way that his hidden gifts unfold and mature. In a living, active church it will be possible to make good use of every form of help; it is an encouragement to many that Paul in 1 Cor. 12:28 speaking of the great gifts of the Spirit, mentions simply the ability to help others, and love enables every young man and every young girl to discover ways of doing this. It must also increase our confidence to see that all the wonderful spiritual armor that Paul speaks of, especially in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, is given us through spiritual possibilities that are in every believer. Inward faith, heartfelt love, and spiritual resolution are the necessary foundation for all higher gifts. But the Holy Spirit uses our natural abilities and works through them, and we are answerable for all our gifts and talents to the One who put them in us as natural aptitudes. The parable of the pounds or talents given in trust (Luke 19:12-25) demands the full use of all talents and shows in its gravity and depth the most powerful and joyful affirmation of life. The Spirit of the Lord searches everywhere for brothers and churches that will give themselves unconditionally into his hands; then he can work in them and through them effectively, using his immensely rich powers in manifold ways to the glory of the Lord Jesus.
VII. The Open Door and Mission
The gifts of the Spirit are given to build up the Body of Christ so that through them the church of the believers (Eph. 4:11-16) will be led towards fulfillment. Through the lively interplay of these gifts, the Body is made ready for the coming of Jesus. Every living body is made up of living cells. It is built up from microscopic cells obtained from the world around it. No life can be maintained in a body without the continuous growth of new, living cells.
In the same way, to the growth of the Body of Christ belongs a constant winning of new and awakened men, who are to be saved from the world outside for the life in Christ. That is why every activity that serves to win living stones from the world is of the greatest importance for the Temple of God, which is the Church of the Lord (Eph. 2:19-22). It is surely clear to all that each single church can continue only through the lively increase of new members.
Nonetheless it is very shortsighted to think that saving souls is, by itself, the whole task believers have in the world.
When Jesus prayed to his Father for the work of his own in the world, he asked for something inexpressibly wider and deeper, which at the same time includes every actual evangelical task. "As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world." "I glorified thee on earth." "For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth" (John 17:18,4,19 RSV). Through the consecration of his life Jesus glorified the Father. He sends his disciples out that they also may glorify him by the consecration of all their powers. "As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me" (John 6:57,RSV). Accordingly Paul said: "And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor. 5:15,RSV). That is our task for the world as well: to live for him with everything we have and are.
Glorifying Christ in reality needs a whole life with all its activities, and that means the lives of all believers with the rich variety of their gifts. We have no right to bury or to waste any gift, whether spiritual or physical, or any talent for the arts and sciences or for handicraft or for work on the land. We never want to forget that every kind of work glorifies the Lord as long as it does not involve sin but belongs to his living witness. If we despise or belittle faithful work in ordinary occupations or obligations toward the family and the education of children, then the Lord will call us to account as lazy servants. "He called ten of his servants and gave them a pound each, saying, Trade with this while I am away'" (Luke 19:13,NEB).
Certainly most people feel that evangelization, the actual task of saving souls, belongs in the forefront of our witness in public or personal life; indeed the courageous witness to the redeeming power of the Lord belongs to the noblest and most convincing evidence of new life. Only he who confesses the Lord before men has real life (Matt. 10:32, Rom. 10:9).
In all evangelization it is of utmost importance to lead to a personal encounter with Jesus, as the Redeemer, whom we ourselves have found and known. "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor.9:16). "We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). That means the proclamation of Christ crucified, without which there is no salvation (1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 1:19). The sword of this proclamation is the Word of God, which can conquer everything (Eph. 6:17; Rom. 10:15,17). How can men proclaim him unless they are sent? Every living church is conscious of this responsibility. Because it knows that faith comes from hearing the proclamation, it does its utmost to send out evangelists and missionaries and to maintain them in this work. It strengthens and actively supports them in their service without seeking advantage for its own circle from their work (Phil. 4:10-20; 3 John 5-8).
It is a lack of love to people outside if we think we have done enough by proclaiming the Gospel in our own meeting hall. We are mistaken if we say: People can come, they have the chance. How are they to believe when they have never heard (Rom. 10:14)? Love must urge us on to gain the ear of all men; for God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim.2:4). Jesus himself traveled from place to place and challenged us in his parable to fetch everyone from the highways and hedges; so it is a sign of real discipleship and true love from God to seek men wherever they are to be found. This shows that the most necessary element in evangelization is the personal witness to the Lord through the individual contacts made by each believer.
God's love is poured into the heart of each one who has been brought from death to life (Rom. 5:5). We are impelled by the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14); that same love with which God sacrificed his Son for us all, the same love with which Jesus died for the sin of the whole world. God in Christ seeks the hearts of men, and our love must be a saving power, striving to understand everyone, to feel with them and fight side by side. True love calls for deep-going examination of men's difficulties, questions and handicaps, and shows how to solve and overcome them. If we want to save men, we must seek to reach their hearts through a strong and sincere concern for their genuine inner searching and striving, and for their honest convictions.
Certainly these hearts are evil, determined by love of sin, directed by deliberate intention against God. However important and necessary it is, therefore, to understand thoughts arising from lack of faith and to transform them, this is never enough; what is decisive is the appeal to the will, the challenge to break with sin, and to lay hold on the Lord. The more alive a church is, the more fervently and powerfully will this call to salvation go out to all the world. Therefore clear conversions, with a sharp cut between past and present, between death and life, are the sign of sound, effectual work. For human persuasion can never lead to the spiritual decisiveness through which a man's life gives real proofs of rebirth. Only God's influence through his Holy Spirit can achieve this.
This Spirit is the Spirit of the Scriptures and of truth, which is all encompassing. It is a superficial view of evangelization to think the goal has been reached with the decision of the will at conversion. Paul understood it to be his calling to lead the nations to obedience in faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), to portray Christ before their eyes as though he were crucified among them (Gal. 3:1), yes, to proclaim the whole of God's counsel (Acts 20:27). He brought the farewell words of Jesus to living reality: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19,20). Every living witness of the Lord must aim to lead those who are newly won into the Scriptures so that these individual lives, joined together, glorify Christ. Learning to know the Scriptures and becoming members of a church are important steps towards the actual goal: to glorify the Lord himself through a life rich in consecrated work accomplished in his strength.
Working for the world into which the Lord has sent us belongs to the goal of exalting the Lord, "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow...and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10,11,RSV).
VIII. The Coming Kingdom of God
All evidence of new life grows out of love to the Lord himself. Love kindles our hearts to win as many people as possible for our beloved Savior. Love spurs us on to use all gifts to the full so that through them he may be given glory. Love makes us warmly embrace our brothers because we see him at work in them. Love alone makes us strong against sin, because he hated sin and overcame it. In this love we find Jesus in his Word; we have joy in his presence and speak in our hearts with Jesus himself in prayer.
Love to the Lord can reach such heights that he appears to us in person more tangibly than is possible in our hearts. Love to Jesus knows a longing that leads upward through faith to beholding, a longing that can only be compared with the expectation of the bride awaiting her bridegroom.
Certainly we receive great blessing when we search in the Scriptures for details of what will happen in the last days and so distinguish between Israel as the Bride on the one hand and us as the Body of Christ on the other. But for the hearts of believers it is of immeasurably greater significance to be full of glowing love and prepared for his Day. "What we shall be has not yet been disclosed, but we know that when it is disclosed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). This expectation is the greatest joy of hearts made newly alive. "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). "We shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17). Compared with such glory, nothing else can be of any account in a soul that loves Jesus.
Living expectation of the Lord is the tenderest proof of our love to him. It tests whether we are bound more to his works, or even to our own feeble achievements, or to him alone, his very self. "We . . . are citizens of heaven, and from heaven we expect our deliverer to come, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). Of course grace enables us to live a devout life now, at this present time, but always in the sense that we expect the appearing of the glory of the Lord and are ready for his coming (Titus 2:12,13).
"Dwell in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming" (1 John 2:28).
The living expectation of the Lord is the joyful counterpoint to the melody of our life, showing the sustaining power by which we live in him and Give him glory in our time. We know that it is impossible for us to be sinless as long as we are in the body which must still wait for redemption (Rom.8:23). But it is our joyful certainty that when we behold him as he is, our lowly body will be transfigured into the likeness of his glorious body (Phil. 3:21); this quickens our faith that we are already being changed into the same image, from glory to glory, as long as we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Cor.3:18). Through expectation of complete redemption at his coming, we already know a consecration that deepens more and more as we learn to know and recognize him. "And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 John 3:2,3). The only way we can grow more like him is through beholding the glory of the Lord and through the streaming radiance of his presence.
In this intimate relationship with him in prayer, his Spirit will guide us away from ourselves and toward him alone, pointing us to his coming. "The Spirit and the Bride say, `Come'". "He who testifies to these things says, `Surely I am coming soon'. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:17,20).
Living prayer turns our eyes to his coming; we are shown this when we consider the sublime strength of the simple entreaties at the beginning of the Lord's prayer: "Thy Name be hallowed. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:9,10). The Word of God clearly shows us the way to make his Name great and holy in Israel and among all nations, (Mal. 1:11; Ezek. 39:7) bestowing on him the Name which is above every name so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow (Phil. 2:9).
And Jesus himself has most clearly told us that when he appears, the kingdom of God draws near and comes among men (Matt. 4:17; Luke 17:21.
From him who came to fulfill his Father's will (John 5:30) and from him alone, by his coming, can we expect the hallowing of God's Name through the coming of his kingdom. We must expect it so firmly that his whole will is done on this earth. When he appears in glory, when he comes to reign, then and not till then, will these prayers find sure and complete fulfillment. But they will be the source of ever new vitality and fruitfulness for our whole life. The kingdom of God is not yet established on this earth, but through Jesus it lives in the hearts of believers as righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). The kingdom of God is already in power in those who are his (1 Cor. 4:20). When we fix our eyes on the coming reign of Jesus, we are helping to sow the seed for the kingdom because we know that we can expect the grain of mustard seed to reach its full growth only on the day he appears (Mark 4:26-34). Paul pointed out to the Corinthians that it was actually in awaiting the revelation of Jesus Christ that their wealth in all gifts of grace increased (1 Cor. 1:4-8).
When the man of noble birth went on a long journey abroad, to be appointed king and then return, he commanded his servants to make good use of the talents he had entrusted to them and trade with them until he came back (Luke 19:11-27). The man who despises and buries the smallest talent will have to take responsibility for this on the day of the Lord's appearing. True expectation of his coming spurs us to be conscientious in the use of all our gifts and powers. For many people it will be obvious that in the work of saving souls the important thing is to make the most of the time to help the lost. "It is not that the Lord is slow in fulfilling his promise . . . but that he is very patient with you, because it is not his will for any to be lost, but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9; cf. 1 Thess. 2:19).
If, however, we are accustomed to see everything in the light of the One who is to come, we feel in each gift entrusted to us the deep connection with the Biblical warnings that point us again and again to his approaching Day. We know that until the Lord returns, his work is bound to his living Word, which is given into the hands of those who love him: "I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Tim. 6:14). We know that the glorifying of the Lord is most closely bound up with his church, with its unity and its preparation for his Day.
"Let us have regard for one another and not stay away from our meetings, but encourage one another all the more because you see the Day drawing near." (Heb.10:24,25;cp.James 5:8,9)
The strongest evidence of inner life and of true love to Jesus is a heartfelt trust and readiness for his might and splendor to be revealed. On that Day he will come to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed (2 Thess.1:10). The crown of righteousness is prepared for all who love his coming (2 Tim.4:8).