Letters on Bethesda

 •  22 min. read  •  grade level: 8
“The heart welcomes the faith and faithfulness to conscience [wherever] found. Yet brethren, who, for years, have walked outside the religious world, should not, as regards their own position, have need to think of this. For years they have taken a position, and they believe it to be in conformity with true intelligence of the word. While all was quiet, they studied this word; and God showed them, they are convinced, the path which they must follow. There they have found the blessing and approval of God, while experiencing their weakness and all sorts of infirmities which accompanied their little faith; but seeing so much more, in the midst of all this, how God protected the work, and poor as it was, acted by it on the conscience of His own, and for the conversion of sinners.”
“Their path—painful for faith at the beginning, but now staked off with so many blessings, has more charms, more attractions than ever; they have more motives than ever for following it.
“If men stopped there, all would be simple. ‘Stand still' is all that then would remain to be said. ‘Abide in the path where the tokens of a God of goodness recur to you, and where the goodness of a God who directs you, has set you; a path you have found in the word, found in peace, and yet with a heart burthened with grief for the church, in the midst of the contempt of brethren who then boasted in a position which now they deny with equal energy of brethren who find the sole bond of union in that wherein they only saw schism some few days ago. Why busy yourselves with aught else than faithfulness to that which God has taught you?
“But here are some considerations which others present to us.
“The difficulties of the times are great,'
“'True; but faith strengthened in a path that is known, is not afraid before them, like those who, just departing from a system in which they have lived, find everything new to their individual faith, and feel themselves, at the same time, called to found a system.'
“But (say you) the difficulties are great, unity is cried up as the only means of strength against the rising billows. It is a duty. You ought to think of the whole church, and not merely of your own peculiar peace. If you do not, you cannot be blessed. Let us be unitedly one, for the good and strength of all.'
“I answer to this, that, as the only means of strength, unity does not inspire me with unreserved confidence. I fear somewhat that, clothing itself withal with the character of the desire of unity, it is a want of faith with regard to the Head which seeks so strongly the support of the members. The conscience of our brethren has long felt the evil; but the importance in their eyes of those who shared in the same system themselves, but who had no strength from Christ the Head of His house, hindered them from separating from them. This subsists still in their minds, These brethren feared then to separate from the mass, because of the importance which their own want of faith lent those who formed it. They fear them in this same measure still; and that so much the more, as conscience and faith enfeeble themselves by hesitation and delays, and weaken themselves by the accrediting of things which they condemn. We know to what point, influences so deleterious have led some brethren, otherwise respected by all. ‘Say ye not, A confederacy to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear; nor be afraid. Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary' (Isa. 8:12-1412Say ye not, A confederacy, to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. 13Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. (Isaiah 8:12‑14)). Such is what occurs to the spirit of the believer on hearing these cries for union made by those who are departing from under a burden to which they have so long bowed their back.
“But when they tell us, ‘You ought to be concerned about all your brethren, and not confine yourselves to seeking your own peace, and your particular interests,' this has a hold on the conscience and heart, and we are engaged, before God, to weigh, what this appeal demands of us.
“What is the character, what is the force of this movement in the sight of God? What its claims on our spiritual judgment? As regards, man, there is good—there is conscience. As regards, God, His hand has shown itself in the circumstances. To what point may His spirit show Himself in this movement itself?
“Dullness of conscience in these things does not induce me to address the least reproach whatever to our dear brethren who have shared it. One is rejoiced, with all one's heart, that God has delivered them. The heart of the Christian goes cordially to meet them. On their side they will agree that it is a question of our responsibility toward God, of the walk which would glorify Him most. Now, dullness of conscience—this feebleness which has hindered conscience from acting for long years of convictions, during which these dear brethren propped up what they knew to be evil, and even condemned those who separated themselves from that system and walk (and add to that the fact that circumstances have brought about the conclusion at which they are themselves arrived)—this dullness of conscience hinders its activity of to-day from exercising so much power in forming their judgment as to the walk which is to be followed before God by us who already walk outside that which they have just left. Does that hinder our hearts from being open—cordially open—to these brethren, from receiving them, wishing to strengthen them, by prayer, as well as by an interest sincere and manifest to the eyes of all? Far from it. For my part (my voice is very feeble), I see God's hand in what is passing. I see conscience in my brethren. My voice would encourage them, as my heart rejoices in it.
“The fact that ‘the hand of God has acted’ produces evidently, in the heart of him who looks to God, respect for the movement. God is there, that is evident. This action of His providence makes what is passing to be respected. But to a certain point, it deprives the work of the character of a work of God's Spirit. I say to a certain point; for I have no doubt that the Spirit of God acts in the hearts of these brethren, and I hope also in others not yet manifested.”
“It is always good to listen to God. Only it behooves that I seriously weigh what He tells me, and that in the means He employs, if the means be not directly His word, I separate what is of man from what is of God; the precious from the vile (Jer. 15:1919Therefore thus saith the Lord, If thou return, then will I bring thee again, and thou shalt stand before me: and if thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth: let them return unto thee; but return not thou unto them. (Jeremiah 15:19)). My brethren, I am sure, will agree to this. Without it I should go astray in a path, which, while presenting something good, would not answer to the impulse communicated by God Himself; and I should lose perhaps much of the testimony He had formerly confided to me”.... “Our business is to keep the testimony pure. God will accompany it with His power”... “Our task is then to keep His word, not to deny His name, all that His name implies (for the name of Jesus means what He is), to keep the word of His patience.”
“Now to look really and unfeignedly for a common supplication, if unity in judgment of the remedy be not demanded, at least, the sense of the evil which we have to present to God must be the same, or we shall not be presenting the same spiritual groan to God at all. The common act would be hypocrisy, though each might be unfeignedly sincere for himself.... If there were the recognition of certain things, and state of things—of this of course I cannot speak—then I could not in good conscience before the Lord have anything at all to say to it. It would be both hypocrisy and a positive disobedience and departure from God. My judgment is definite and assured, I believe; and I dare not, nor would I, of course, depart from it. Any charge of want of charity to which I may render myself liable, would not turn me away, because there is a day coming when every one will receive praise of God. I am content to wait for that, though indeed I have not had to wait for it, through abounding and undeserved grace which thinks of our weakness.”
“You must be fully aware that the things you would confess, and others with whom you think it right to associate, would be entirely contrary to what I could judge right before God: the things that I may judge evil and the root of all this, you probably (indeed, there can be little doubt) would not confess at all; nor can I think there is in the actual state of things, any confession of what I judge to be evil before God, but quite the contrary. Thence I judge that to pretend to join in any common confession.... would be hypocrisy, and really awfully mocking God. I decline it therefore altogether “I should not admit the cross to be the principle of union, because I cannot admit the work of Christ to be the bond, exclusive of His Person. The cross may gather all, both Jew and Gentile, but they are gathered to Christ, not to the cross; and the difference is a most important and essential one, because it is of all importance that the Person of the Son of God have His place. Christ Himself, not the cross of Christ, is the center of union. The two or three are gathered to His name, not the cross. The scripture is uniform in its testimony as to this.” But further, where saints are gathered in unity, without any questionings, they have the truth and holiness to guard. It never was, and I trust never will be, the notion of brethren, that the truth of Christ's Person or godliness of walk was to be sacrificed to outward unity. It is making brethren of more importance than Christ; and even so, love to the brethren is false, for if true, it is, John assures as, love in the truth and for the truth's sake. Supposing a person denied the divinity of Christ, or the resurrection of His body, still declaring His belief in the cross-supposing he declared his belief in the cross and resurrection, but declared it was only a testimony of God's love, and no substitution or expiatory value in it, as many clergymen of high reputation in the Establishment now do [1860]—is all this to be immaterial?—I shall be told that no true believer could do this. In the first place, a true believer may be seduced into error; and further, the test offered becomes then the opinion formed that a man is a true believer, and not the plain fundamental truth of God and His holiness.... What I insist on” [is] “that I must have a true Christ, and that I am bound to maintain the truth of Christ in my communion.
“I am aware that the letter states we can deal with conduct (with morality) but not with these questions! But this is just what appears to me so excessively evil. Decency of conduct is necessary for communion; but a man may blaspheme Christ—that is no matter! it is a matter, not of conduct, but of conscience! It is hinted that perhaps if it be a teacher, he may be dealt with. In truth, the apostle desires even a woman not to let such a person into her house. It is not therefore so difficult to deal with. Just think of a system which makes blasphemous views of the Person of Christ—what may amount to a denial of Him—to be a matter of private conscience, having nothing to do with communion! And here is the very root of the question. I raise one before all their reasoning. I affirm that that is not a communion of believers at all, which is not founded on the acknowledgment of a true Christ. Where the truth as to this is commonly held and taught, I may have no need for particular inquiry. But that is not the case here. If I find a person even in such a case, denying the truth as to Christ, communion is impossible, because we have not a common Christ to have communion in. But here all faithfulness is thrown overboard. No call to confess a true Christ is admitted: it is a new test or term of communion Mr. N. himself, and others holding his doctrines, have been invited or admitted. It is said we are to meet as Christians. But a man is not a Christian who professes a false Christ. The letter would have me judge the state of a person's heart. I cannot, while his profession is false: I may hope he is only misled, but cannot accept his profession.
“I am quite aware that it will be said, But these individuals do hot bold these views. If wholly and not willfully ignorant, it is another matter: but we have to do with another case, where the views being held, they are declared to be a matter of private conscience; that a false Christ is as good as a true one, if a person's conduct is good—we can judge only of the last! Now this principle is worse than the false doctrine, because it knows the falseness and blasphemy of it, and then says it is no matter! I do not own [such] meetings as meetings of believers, for fundamental error as to Christ is immaterial for communion—a matter, the letter tells me, not of conduct but of conscience. ‘If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God has raised him from the dead '. Be it so. Suppose a person held He was a mere man, and quoted the passage to prove that God raised Him, and made Him Lord and Christ; would he be received? If not, you do try whether a man has the faith of God's elect. If not, a Socinian is admissible as a believer; or you make your opinion of his being a believer the test, entirely independent of the faith of Christ. I go further. It is said, you can only require a person to say he receives all in scripture as true. The supposed Socinian would accept such a test at once. They do so. Why should you ask even that? A man may be a believer and a rationalist in theory (sad as such a thought is) and not accept all as the word of God, and say, I am a believer in the cross—you have no right to make a difficulty. If after this you object to any doctrine, or insist on any truth, you have not even scripture to lean on against his denial of it. Scripture says, ‘Whom I love in the truth and for the truth's sake '; the other says, it is no matter. You think the person a ‘spiritual believer'; the truth of Christ is no matter, a false one is just as good.
I add no human doctrine to a divine one. I make no term of communion besides Christ. I require that those who have blasphemed Him should not be admitted. I am told that it is a matter of conscience, &c. and that people cannot read doctrines to know whether He is blasphemed or not. These blasphemers have been received deliberately, received avowedly, received upon the ground that no inquiry is to be made; and therefore the plea of additional bonds or terms of communion is all dust thrown in the eyes. Is it a new term of communion to affirm that faith in a true Christ, not a false one, is called for for communion, and that blasphemers of Christ are not to be received? That is the true question. If a person thinks they are not safe in reading the publications, how are they safe in fellowship and intimacy with those who have written or refused to disown them? Ι confess I do not admire this argument. Simple believers do not hesitate much, reasoning minds do. Ask a simple believer if Christ had the experience of an unconverted man! He would soon say, I will have nothing to say to any one who says so. A reasoning mind might make it a mere matter of personal conscience. Is the truth of Christ's Person and His relationship to God, a variety of judgment on a particular doctrine? Here is the whole question—value for Christ and the truth as to Himself.
I do not require definitions; what I require is, that when blasphemous definitions have been made, the blasphemers should be rejected. I do not see anything so very deep in saying that Christ had the experience of an unconverted man! and that He was relatively further from God than even when they had made the golden calf! and [that He] heard with an attentive heart the gospel of John the Baptist, and so passed as from law under grace! Is it the shibboleth of a party to reject with horror such doctrines? Or is it faithfulness to Christ to attenuate them by saying that in such deep doctrines we shall not express ourselves alike: only disquisitions on the force of the Greek word αἴρεσις.... Heresy in scripture language is not a division—but that is no matter.
“... The reference to the Galatian church is an unhappy one. That Epistle was not written about discipline, nor could it be, but to bring back the whole body of the saints in many churches to sound doctrine. But it shows that false doctrine was more terrible in the apostle's mind than the worst false conduct; not a wish of kindness, not a salutation, not a gracious word—he breaks in at once with rebuke and reproach, and closes with resentful coldness; while in Corinthians, where the most horrible wickedness was committed, and gloried in by all, he says all the good of them he can.
It is not practical love, to love them, not for the truth's sake, but to comfort them in blaspheming Christ—saying it is a matter of conscience. It is not real love to the members, nor love for Christ's sake, to despise Christ so as to bear blasphemers against Him.... It is all nonsense talking about anything in a tract being a test. The truth of the Person and glory of Christ, in a tract or out of a tract, is a test for those who are faithful to Him. I cannot talk of liberty of conscience to blaspheme Christ, if by liberty of conscience is meant, as it is here, communion.”
“First I must tell you that I believe that if one meeting receives the members of another, and the members of the former go there in their turn, there is a bond between the two... This is how it is then as to Bethesda. Doctrine is not in question, but faithfulness to Christ with respect to doctrine or holiness. I would not receive a person who knowingly formed part of a meeting which admits heretics, or persons whose conduct is bad, because the principle of indifference to good and evil, to error and truth, is as bad as the wrong action, and even worse. Let me be clearly understood. I believe that the church is bound to be jealous with respect to the glory of the Person of Christ. If Christ is despised, I have no principle of union. I believe that B has acted with profound contempt for the Lord, to say nothing of brethren. Here there is nothing equivocal. Mr. N. was maintaining a doctrine of which Mr. M. himself said that if it were true, Christ would have needed to be saved as much as we did. This doctrine placed Christ under the effect of Adam's sin by His birth, in saying that He had to gain life by keeping the law. We had driven away this doctrine and those who upheld it, and the struggle was ended. The persons who had supported Mr. N. had published confessions with respect to the doctrine, and had made confessions before the brethren publicly of the falsehoods and wickedness by which they had tried to make good their views and to justify themselves; it was a truly extraordinary work of Satan.
“Well, a lady wished to introduce Mr. N to teach in a meeting near Bethesda; this meeting refused; she left the meeting accordingly. She was introduced at B—, Mr. M knowing that she was maintaining and propagating this doctrine, Mr. C., the other pastor having had to do with her. She went there because they admitted such persons into that meeting. At the same time, two gentlemen, who made part of the meeting which Mr. N. had formed when he was obliged to leave on account of this doctrine (those who had supported him having left him and made confession), these two communicants of Mr. N.'s I say, were also admitted to B. It is proved true that these three disseminated Mr. N.'s tracts in the B. assembly. The lady induced a young lady to go who was the most active and intelligent agent that Mr. N. had, in order to spread his doctrines. In consequence of these circumstances, several godly brothers of B asked that all these should be examined; they said that they did not ask even that the judgment of the brethren should be taken thereupon, but that they should examine the matter and the doctrine themselves. This was decidedly refused. I received a letter from Mr. C., blaming me as sectarian for making these difficulties, even when he was not prepared to receive everything that Mr. N. was teaching. They had many meetings of the flock, and the ten laboring brothers (of whom two were really disciples of Mr. N.), Messrs. M. and C. at their head, presented a written paper to the assembly at B—, declaring that this was a new test of communion, which they would not admit; that many excellent brethren did not give so decided an opinion upon Mr. N.'s doctrine; that they were not bound to read fifty pages to know what Mr. N. taught, the members of his flock being—mark this!—already admitted at B. A brother asked permission to communicate some information about Mr. N.'s doctrine, in order that the assembly might understand why they held to it that the doctrine should be judged; and this was peremptorily refused, and the paper which said that many had not a bad opinion of the doctrine, rejecting as a new condition of fellowship the examination into the doctrine, was laid down as the absolute condition of the pastorate of Messrs. M. and C, without which they would withdraw from their ministry in the midst of the assembly. Those who justified them on the ground of this paper were to rise, which was done by the assembly, thirty or forty forthwith leaving B—. So that with knowledge of the matter, they laid down as the basis of the B assembly, indifference to the truth as to the Person of Christ; and they preferred to see about forty godly brethren leave, rather than, to examine into the question, having in fact in their midst the members of the N meeting....”
Now the principle of indifference as to the Person of Christ being laid down at Bethesda, and the assembly having publicly accepted it, I refuse to admit this principle. They have admitted persons put outside amongst us on account of blasphemy. Messrs. M. and C. are the pastors of the assembly in virtue of this principle. This letter has never been withdrawn; they claim to have done right. Many things will doubtless be told you in excuse, and to Make it appear that they have done things which nullify this: I know how it is with them. For me their condition before God has become much, much worse. I should be ready to say why. I believe that they are themselves more or less infected with false doctrine, but I cannot enter into the story in detail. Mr. M. said to me (after having acknowledged that Christ would have needed to be saved as much as we, if this doctrine was admitted) that they maintained the letter of the ten to the full, and that they had done well in all that they had done. Well, indifference to Christ is a grave sin: an assembly which bases itself publicly on this principle I cannot accept as a Christian assembly. Assemblies which are connected with B—, which go there and receive from thence, are one with B—, save the case of persons who are ignorant of the matter, an exceptional case of which it is not necessary to speak. For my part this is what I do; having distinctly taken my position I judge each case individually according to its merits, but I will not receive a person who keeps up his connection with B— with knowledge of the matter. Faithfulness to Christ before everything; I know not why I labor and suffer if this is not the principle of my conduct.” [1851.]