The Assembly of God, Its Present State and the Duties that Result: 1-4. The Lord's Design as to the Gathering of the Faithful Here

1. The Lord's Design As To The Gathering Of The Faithful Here Below
It is the desire of our hearts, and, we believe, God's will for this economy, that all the children of God should be gathered together as such, and consequently outside the world. Jesus died, “not for that nation only (the Jews), but that also He should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.” This gathering, then, was the immediate object of Christ's death. The safety of the elect was as certain before as after He came. The Jewish economy which preceded His coming into the world had in view not to gather the assembly on earth, but to display God's government by means of an elect nation. Now the aim of the Lord is to gather as well as save—to realize unity not only in heaven where the counsels of God shall assuredly be fulfilled, but here on earth by one Spirit sent down from heaven. “For by one Spirit were we all baptized into one body.” This could not be denied of the assembly as it is presented in the word. It may be proved that hypocrites and wicked men crept in; but the conclusion cannot be evaded that there was an assembly into which they crept. The gathering of all the children of God into one body is evidently according to God's mind in His word.
2. Position of Nationalism
As to nationalism, its existence cannot be traced higher than the Reformation; such an idea is found nowhere before. The only thing in the least analogous, the Galilean privileges and the voting by nations in certain general councils, differs too much to call for discussion. Nationalism, that is, the division of the assembly into bodies made up of such or such a people, is a novelty which dates little beyond three centuries, though in this system are many dear children of God. The Reformation did not touch directly the question of the true character of God's assembly; it did nothing directly to restore it to its primitive estate; it did what was much more important—it put in evidence the truth of God as to that which saves souls with far more clearness and with a far more powerful effect than the modern revival. But it did not re-establish the assembly in its primitive powers; on the contrary it brought about its subjection generally to the state in order to get free of the pope, because it counted, the papal authority dangerous, and considered all the subjects of a country as Christians.
3. Position of Dissent
We are then agreed that the gathering of all the children of God in one is Recording to the Lord's intention expressed in His word. But I ask in passing, Can we believe that the dissenting “churches,” such as they are in this or any other country, have attained or are at all likely to attain this end?
This truth of the gathering of God's children scripture shows us realized in different localities! and in each central locality the Christians residing there formed but one body. The scriptures are perfectly clear on this. Objections are raised on the possibility of this gathering; but they present no evidence drawn from the word. How could this be in London or Paris? It was practicable in Jerusalem where more than five thousand saints gathered; and if they met in private houses and upper rooms, they were none the less but one body led by one Spirit, with one government in one communion, and they were owned as such. Hence at Corinth or elsewhere a letter addressed to the assembly of God would have reached a known body. I can go farther and say that evidently we ought ardently to desire pastors and teachers to guide and instruct these congregations; and that God did raise them up in the assembly as presented to us in the word.
If these important truths are owned, first, the gathering of all God's children, and, secondly—this in the same district; if it is owned besides, that they are clearly so brought out in the word of God; the question might seem settled. But wait.
It cannot be denied that this fact affirmed by the word (for it is a fact, not a theory) has ceased to exist. The question then to settle is this: How ought a Christian to judge and act when a state of things described in the word has ceased to exist? You say, Restore it. Your answer is a proof of the evil; it supposes power in yourselves. Understand the word, I reply, and obey the word as far as it applies to a like state of ruin. Your answer supposes, first, that it is God's will to restore the economy after its failure; and, secondly, that you are capable of restoring it and sent for the purpose. I doubt each of these pretensions.
Suppose a case: God made man innocent; God gave man His law. Every Christian will confess that sin is an evil, and that one ought not to commit it. Suppose one convinced of this truth should undertake to accomplish the law, or to be innocent, and so to please God. You will say at once that he is self-righteous, he trusts in his own strength, and does not understand the word of God. A return from the evil which exists to what God first established is therefore not always a proof of understanding His word and His will. Nevertheless, to own What He originally set up was good, and that we have departed from it, is evidently at least a sound judgment.
Apply this to the assembly. We all (for it is such alone I address) own that God formed assemblies; we own that Christians, in a word the assembly in general, have sadly departed from what. God set up, and that we are guilty therein. To undertake to restore it all on its original footing is or may be an effect of the same spirit as that which leads a man to restore his own uprightness when lost.
Before I can accede to your pretensions, you must show me, not only that the assembly was originally such, but that it is God's will to restore it to its original glory, now that man's wickedness has spoiled all that and it has gone astray; and, further, to come to facts, that the gathering of two or three, or of two or three and twenty, has the right to call itself God's assembly, for this was the assemblage of all the faithful. You must show us, moreover, that you have received of God the mission and the gift to gather the faithful, so that you can treat those who do not answer to the call as schismatics [heretics] self-condemned, and as strangers to the assembly of God.
And here let me insist on a most important point overlooked by those bent on making “churches.” They have been so preoccupied with their churches that they have lost sight of the church or assembly. In scripture all the gathered saints compose the assembly; and the church or assembly in a given place was just the regular association of what formed part of the entire body, that is, of all the body of Christ—here below. He who was not of the assembly—where he lived was not at all of God's assembly; and he who says that I am not of God's assembly where I reside has no right to allow that I am of God's assembly at all. There was no such separation of ideas between the little assemblies of God in a given district and all the assembly. Each member of Christ was in the assembly where he lived. Nobody imagined himself to be in God's assembly if outside—where he lived. Making “churches” has separated the two and almost destroyed the idea of God's assembly.
Returning to the case already before us, let us now suppose the man's conscience touched, and life received by the Spirit of God: what will be the effect? In the first place it will make him acknowledge his state of ruin by sin and the utter lack of uprightness; in the next place he will feel an entire dependence on God and submission of heart to His judgment on such a state.
Apply this to the assembly and all the economy. Whilst men slept, the enemy sowed tares. The assembly is ruined, plunged into the world and lost there, invisible if you will, whilst it ought to present as from a lampstand the light of God. If it is not in this state of ruin, I ask of our dissenting brethren, why have you left it? If it is, confess this ruin, this departure from its primitive state. Alas! it is too evident. Abram may receive men-servants and maidservants, oxen, camels, and asses; but his spouse is in Pharoah's house.
What then is the effect of the Spirit's operation? what the fruit of faith? To own the ruin-state, to have the conscience exercised by faith, and to be humbled in consequence. And shall we who are guilty pretend to restore all that? No: it would but prove that we are not humbled. Let us rather search with humility what God in His word says of such a state of things; let us not, like a child who has broken a precious vase, attempt to put together the broken bits in the hope of hiding the damage from the eyes of others.
4. Can Man Restore The Fallen Economy?
I press this on such as pretend to organize assemblies. If they exist, they are not called to make them. If, as they say, they existed at the beginning and then ceased to exist, in this case the economy is ruined and gone from its original standing. Their pretension then is to restore it; and this is what they must justify: else they have no foundation for their attempt.
It is objected that the assembly cannot fail, Christ having promised that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I agree, if it be understood thereby that the glory of the risen assembly will triumph over Satan, God securing the maintenance of the confession of Jesus on the earth till He comes. This however is not the question, nor the safety of the elect, which was sure before there was an assembly gathered. But if people mean to assert that the present economy cannot fail, it is a great and pernicious error; and if so, why have you separated from the state around? If His economy in the gathering of the assembly subsists without failure, why are you making new “churches?” Popery alone is consistent here.
But what says the word? That the apostasy is to come before the judgment (2 Thess. 2); that in the last days perilous times shall come (2 Tim. 3), when there should be a form of godliness without the power. It adds, “From such turn away.” And the idea that the economy cannot fall away is treated in Rom. 11 as a fatal presumption which leads the Gentiles to their ruin. The Holy Spirit condemns those who so think as wise in their own eyes, and teaches us on the contrary that God would act toward the present economy exactly as He did toward the past that if it continue in His goodness, His goodness would continue toward it; if not, the economy must be cut off. Thus the word reveals, not restoration, but cutting off in case of unfaithfulness. To set about re-making the assembly and the assemblies on the footing they had at first is to own the ruin, without submitting to the witness of God as to His mind in reference to such a state of ruin. It is to act according to our own thoughts and to rely on our own strength for realizing them; and what has been the result?
The question is not, whether such assemblies existed at the epoch when the word was written, but after that by man's iniquity they ceased to exist and the faithful were scattered (and such are the acknowledged facts), whether those who have undertaken the apostolic work of restoring them on the original footing, and thereby re-establishing the entire economy, have understood God's mind and are endowed with power to accomplish what they have taken on themselves—questions widely distinct. I do not believe that even the most zealous of those who, with a desire ever so sincere (and David was sincere in his desire to build the temple, though this was not God's will for him), have sought to restore the fallen economy, are in a condition to do so, or that they have the right to impose on my faith as God's assembly the little edifices they have reared. Nevertheless I am far from believing that there have not been assemblies when God sent His apostles for the purpose of establishing them; and it appears to me that he who cannot distinguish these two states of things, what it was of old, and its present condition, has not a very clear judgment in the things of God.