THE THEOLOGY OF THE SO-CALLED PLYMOUTH BRETHREN EXAMINED AND REFUTED.
THE PLYMOUTH BRETHREN- (Continued)
A CARDINAL Plymouth tenet is the necessary continuance of the flesh, or the old man, and his abiding, unchanged, with the new man, till death. Regeneration has no effect on the old man by way of improvement or extinction. He is incapable of becoming better, and has a life lease in the believer's soul. The personality, or what says I, may put itself under the leadership of either the new nature or the old for an indefinite period without detriment to the standing, only the communion is obstructed when the old Adam is at the helm. The best illustration of the Christian soul is, that it is a tenement with two rooms. The spiritual apartment faces the sun, and the fleshly room is in the rear, turned from the sun. The believer, once sure of his standing in Christ, may live in the front room and bask in the sunshine, or he may retire into the back room and live in the shade. He is exhorted to live in the front room, and to keep the back room locked, if he would have unbroken happiness through cloudless communion with God. But if he should disregard the exhortation, and, owl-like, should dwell amid the darkness all his days, he is just as sure at last of the inheritance of the saints in light, though he was not partial to the light while dwelling in his double tenement on the earth.
These teachers have a special hostility to the Weslyan doctrine of Christian perfection, against which they oppose perfection in Christ. They are very shy of the term "perfect love," since this, as used by St. John, evidently refers to our love to God: "Herein is our love made perfect." This is not God's love to us, as some say, "for," says Alford, "this is forbidden by the whole context." lnwrought personal holiness is denied, as ministering to pride, while a constant declaration of inward vileness, and of a fictitious purity, by the imputation of Christ's purity, is supposed to conduce to our humility and Christ's exaltation.
The Plymouth idea of entire sanctification is exceedingly complex and contradictory. First, in our standing we are as holy as Christ; secondly, in our flesh we are perfectly vile, the old man being incapable of improvement; thirdly, the new man is perfectly pure, being a new creature by the Spirit, and hence not needing sanctification. This statement is highly suggestive of the celebrated kettle plea: --1. Our client never borrowed the kettle;
2. It was cracked when he borrowed it;
3. It was whole when he returned it.
But, nevertheless, there is an exhortation to practical holiness in most of the writings of the Brethren, on this wise: "Be holy down here because ye are holy up there" (in Christ). "Strive to make your state correspond with your standing." Yet this motive to Christian purity is neutralized by the assurance that the believer's standing in Christ is eternal anyhow, just as the exhortation to sinners to repentance by a Universalist is a motive of no force, since ultimate salvation is certain. Says M'Intosh: "God will never reverse His decision as to what His people are as to standing." "Israel's blessedness and security are made to depend, not on themselves, but on the faithfulness of Jehovah." "We must never measure the standing by the state, but always the state by the standing. To lower the standing because of the state, is to give the death-blow to all progress in practical Christianity." That is to say, the fruit must always be judged by the tree; to judge the tree by the fruit, is to give the death-blow to practical pomology.
The opening verse of 2 Cor. xii., speaks of visions and revelations of the Lord; the closing verse condemns uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness not repented of. "In the former," says M'Intosh, "we have the positive standing of the Christian; in the latter, the possible state into which he may fall if not watchful." Yet he keeps his Christly standing amid all his swinish wallowings! This is Plymouth Brethrenism in a nut-shell. Here is an other: "In John xiii. the Lord Jesus looks at His disciples and pronounces them 'clean every whit'; although in a few hours one of them was to curse and swear that he did not know Him. So vast is the difference between what we are in ourselves and what we are in Christ--between our positive standing and our possible state." (Notes on Leviticus.)
These theologians make a nice distinction between conscience of sin and consciousness of sins, where neither the Bible nor moral science affords the least ground for this distinction. "The former," say they, "is guilt; the latter is the normal experience of all believers. They ever feel the motions of sin within their hearts." Whereas conscience is nothing more than consciousness when the question of right or wrong is before the mind.
Here is another distinction vital to the Plymouth system: "It is of the utmost importance that we accurately distinguish between sin in the flesh and sin on the conscience. If we confound these two, our souls must, necessarily, be unhinged, and our worship marred." Then follows the Scriptural distinction in I John i. 8-10: "' If we say that we have no sin (in us), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.' In the next verse we find the sin on us--'the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.'" What becomes of the sin in us when all sin is cleansed, the writer does not deign to say; but he does say that, "Here the distinction between sin in us and sin on, is fully brought out and established."
It is so "fully brought out" that it took 1800 years for Bible readers to discover it, and then only through Plymouth eye-glasses! From Augustine to Darby this has been a standing proof-text against entire sanctification, which is as plainly taught in the passage as the sun in the heavens. Let any candid mind read the context, and he will see that the clause, "If we say we have no sin," means, if any unregenerate man denies that he has any sin which needs the atonement, or that he has ever sinned, as it is in verse ten, he deceives himself. No writer would so stultify himself as to say that he who is cleansed from all sin in the seventh verse, is a dupe and a liar in the eighth verse, if he testifies to the all-cleansing blood. John must be written down as utterly self-contradictory to say that he that is born of God sinneth not, and then brand with deception and falsehood the man who should profess that by grace he was kept from sin. Yet this passage, wrenched from its context, is the proof constantly reiterated, that there is no salvation from sin in this life. The absurdity of this text as a proof of indwelling sin, as the highest attainable state of the Christian, and of self-deception on the part of the person who professes entire inward cleansing, is akin to that of advertising a complete cure of cancers, and then branding as false every testimony to such a cure.
Another text constantly urged by them, in utter disregard of the context, is Gal. v. 17, which, by that fallacy in logic called "begging the question," they assume to be descriptive of the most perfect specimen of the Spirit's work in a human soul, whereas St. Paul is writing to a backsliding church. "I marvel," says he, as translated by Dean Alford, "that ye are so soon removing from Him that called you in the grace of Christ, unto a different Gospel." Again: "Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now being made perfect in the flesh?"
In believers, in this mixed moral state, a struggle is going on between the flesh and the Spirit. The fallacy lies in the assumption, that the best Christians are in this state, against the positive testimony of St. Paul: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ that liveth in me."
The doctrine of assurance is strongly emphasized by these Christians as the privilege of all who are in Christ. They are very earnest in their condemnation of the "hope-so" experience, and they insist on a clear and undoubted knowledge of the forgiveness of sins and adoption into the family of God. But this truth, when joined with the pernicious doctrine of eternal incorporation into the glorified body of Christ, removes the safeguard against sin, which old-fashioned Calvinism set up, in the uncertainty which every Christian was taught that he must feel respecting his acceptance with God.
Both Calvinism and Arminianism have checks which deter believers from sin. The Arminian is told that the holiest saint on earth may fall from grace and drop into hell. The Calvinist is restrained from abusing the doctrine of unconditional election by the consideration, that no man may, beyond a doubt, know that his own name is on the secret register of God's chosen ones. This ignorance inspires a healthful solicitude promotive of watchfulness and persevering fidelity in the Calvinist, just as the possibility of total and final apostasy tends to conserve the purity of the Arminian. The Plymouth Brethren drop both of these safe guards by uniting, with eternal incorporation into Christ, a present and absolute assurance of that fact. There may be a few souls who would not be put in imminent peril by the revelation, that their eternal salvation is secured beyond a peradventure; but the mass of believers would become dizzy, if suddenly lifted to such a height, and many would fall into sin. Human nature at its best estate can never be safely released from the salutary restraint of fear. Hence we predict that great moral disasters will follow the general prevalence of the teachings of Mr. Darby and his school.
In this matter of assurance, how much more guarded are the utterances of John Wesley, who teaches the certain knowledge of justification by faith, with appropriate safeguards. "Let none ever presume to rest in any supposed testimony of the Spirit which is separate from the fruit of it." This, translated into the Plymouth idiom, would read thus: "Let none ever presume to rest in any supposed standing in Christ while his actual state of character is not radiant with all the excellences of Christ." "Let no one who is in a state of willful sin, imagine that he has a standing in Christ pure and clear before the throne of God, for his standing in heaven is the same as his state on earth."
In perfect accord with this absolute assurance of final salvation, is the denial of the general judgment as taught in all orthodox creeds. If the saints have a through ticket for heaven, why should they stand before the judgment seat of Christ? The favorite proof-text, ever on the lips of the Brethren, is John v. 24, with the comment that "condemnation" should be translated "judgment." To show how far this fails to prove the doctrine for which it is quoted, I will adduce Alford's note Anglicizing the Greek: "The believing and the having eternal life are commensurate; where the faith is, the possession of eternal life is; and when the one remits, the other is forfeited. But here the faith is set before us as an enduring faith, and its effects are described in their completion (See Eph. i. 19, 20)." "He who believeth" (perseveringly) "comes not into, has no concern with, the separation (krisis), the damnatory part of the judgment." All the texts which teach the simultaneous judgment of all the human family are ingeniously explained away by partial judgments strung along through the future, after the doctrine of Swedenborg, in order to make way for this new doctrine, that the saints will not be before Christ's judgment tribunal the last day. We shall show the fallacy of these explanations when we come to the discussion of the Plymouth scheme of eschatology, or last things.
THE SINS OF BELIEVERS ARE NOT REAL SINS
This is a necessary inference from the assured exemption of believers from condemnation, however deep their fall into gross sins. For this exemption implies the absence of guilt. Those acts which entail no guilt cannot be real sins. If they appear to be sins, their appearance is deceptive. Hence, a distinguished English doctor of divinity could say in the pulpit, "A believer may be assured of pardon as soon as he commits any sin, even adultery and murder. Sins are but scarecrows and bug bears, to frighten ignorant children, but men of understanding see they are counterfeit things."
The author has heard Dr. Brooks, of St. Louis, assert that the sins of believers materially differ from the sins of unbelievers, hinting that they are not real sins in God's eyes, because He sees the believer and all his acts only in Jesus Christ. This is the logical conclusion from the premises that character is transferable, that Jesus Christ on the cross became a sinner, and was punished, while we, by a single act of faith, assume His righteousness by an inalienable incorporation into His glorified person in Heaven, and are ever afterward viewed by God as possessing all His moral excellencies, among which is sinlessness.
What an opiate to the accusing conscience! what a weakening of the divine safeguards against sin, set up in man's moral constitution, are manifest on the very face of such a theological tenet! The chief barrier against sin is removed, and sinning is made easy. With ordinary human beings, even after regeneration, facility for sinning with impunity becomes a tremendous temptation, and to most men an irresistible incentive to sin. If God has solemnly pronounced "woe to them that call (moral) evil good, and (moral) good evil," what must be His sentence against those who entirely rub out the broad boundary line between them by teaching that the willful violation of the known law of God is only a seeming, but not a real sin? Yet this is the inevitable outcome of the doctrine that there never can be condemnation to them who are in Christ. The case is aggravated by the denial of the possibility of entire sanctification in this life, and by the assertion that the flesh, the sinward bent of the soul, must remain until it is eradicated by physical death. Broadcast these twin doctrines throughout christendom, that believers are incapable of real sin, and that the sin principle is a necessity in every human heart during this life, defying the blood of Christ to purge it away, and the Christian Church will need myriads of patient toilers to grub up these seeds of immoralities, more baneful than the Canada thistle is to the farmers of this western world.
This whole question of the believer's relation to God's law has been discussed by the theological giants of past generations. I quote from Baxter's Aphorisms on Justification, an epitome made by J. Wesley: "As there are two covenants, with their distinct conditions, so there is a twofold righteousness, and both of them absolutely necessary for salvation. Our righteousness of the first covenant (under the remediless, Christless, Adamic law) is not personal, or consisteth not in any actions preferred by us; for we never personally satisfied the law (of innocence), but it is wholly without us, in Christ. In this sense every Christian disclaimeth his own righteousness, or his own works. Those only shall be in Christ legally righteous who believe and OBEY the Gospel, and so are in themselves evangelicalIy righteous. Though Christ performed the conditions of the law (of Paradisaical innocence), and made satisfaction for our non-performance, YET WE OURSELVES MUST PERFORM THE CONDITIONS OF THE GOSPEL. These (last) two propositions seem to me so clear, that I wonder that any able divines should deny them. Me thinks they should be articles of our creed, and a part of children's catechisms. To affirm that our evangelical or new-covenant righteousness is in Christ, and not in ourselves, or performed by Christ, and not by ourselves, is such a monstrous piece of Antinomian doctrine as no man, who knows the nature and difference of the covenants, can possibly entertain." (Bax. Aphor. Prop. 14-17.) Thus speaks this pious, practical, well-balanced dissenter against the fatal errors arising from confounding the Adamic law with the law of Christ, the first demanding of a perfect man a faultless life, the other requiring an imperfect man, inheriting damaged intellectual and moral powers, to render perfect, that is, pure love, to God his Heavenly Father, through Christ his adorable Saviour, with the assistance of regenerating and sanctifying grace.
It was the clearly discerned distinction between the two covenants which prompted good Bishop Hopkins to make this paradoxical resolution: "So to BELIEVE, so to rest on the merits of Christ, as if I had never wrought anything; and withal so to WORK, as if I were only to be saved by my own merits." To give each of these its due in practice, is the very height and depth of Christian perfection.
MODERN ANTINOMIANISM EXAMINED
The new Antinomianism does not make Calvinism prominent by any formal statement. It is rather implied than expressed. Nothing is said of sovereign decrees and of unconditional election. For this reason it does not specially offend Arminians, while its doctrine of the final perseverance of all believers is a tenet very pleasing to those who hold Calvinism, with its modern alleviations, the only form still extant in New England. For these reasons this great error is well adapted to become widespread in both these great branches of orthodoxy.
There is a class of people who are specially pleased to see the Gospel set in antagonism with the law, and they breathe more easily when they are assured that God's law, as the rule of life, is abrogated by the Gospel. This repugnance of the Gospel to the moral law is one of the primal errors of all Antinomians. But the form which this antagonism takes, is peculiar to the modern Antinomianism. This is the difference between the believer's standing in Christ, and his actual moral state. These bear no relation to each other. The state may be utterly bad, while the standing be perfectly good. Like the first brick in a row, Jesus only is seen by the eye of God, the defects of the others, covered by Him, are not seen; the perfections of Jesus being seen instead. This standing, attained by the first act of faith, is inalienable and everlasting.
The influence of this doctrine of an eternal and inalienable standing in Christ, and of exemption from the day of judgment, must, in many cases, be disastrous. The removal of the wholesome safeguard found in the fear of being morally shipwrecked and cast away, must tend to looseness of living in not a few cases. It is possible that a few might suffer no detriment from embracing such a theory, but they would be exceptions. Most people live below, not above their creed. How can a man, amid the fierce temptations of life, sing the following verses, and be just as watchful against sin as before? Especially, how can one in whom the old man exists in full strength ?
"Rejoice, rejoice, my soul,
Rejoice in sin forgiven;
The blood of Christ hath made thee whole;
For thee His life was given.
"Rejoice in peace made sure:
No judgment now for thee;
Thy conscience purged, thy life secure,
More safe thou canst not be."
Heaven itself can afford no greater safety! Is there no moral peril in preaching such a doctrine to men in the furnace of temptation? In all my study of human nature, I have found that the removal of barriers against sin is a tremendous incentive to its commission.
At another point, the Plymouth system is open to criticism--its neglect of, or very slight emphasis on, the need of repentance. This is in keeping with its Antinomian tendencies. I quote from Dr. Robert Anderson's book, --"The Gospel and its Ministry," -- a book highly commended by Mr. Moody, to verify this criticism, and to show that this defect is not an oversight, but a part of the system, the justification of which is attempted in this quotation: "The soundest and fullest Gospel preaching need not include any mention of the word (repentance). Neither as verb or noun does it occur in the Epistle to the Romans, God's great doctrinal treatise on redemption and righteousness, -- save in the warnings of the second chapter. And the Gospel-book of all the Bible will be searched in vain for single mention of it. The beloved Disciple wrote His Gospel, that men might believe and live, and His Epistle followed, to confirm believers in the simplicity and certainty of their faith; but yet, from end to end of them, the word 'repent' or 'repentance' never once occurs" This proves nothing. It is manifest to every student, that the synoptic Gospels, which are full of repentance, present a different phase of Christ's teaching from John's Gospel. Again, it would not be natural to look for exhortations to repentance in epistles to believers, whether John's epistles or Paul's. To find these, let us turn to the reports of the Apostle's sermons to the unconverted, in the Acts, and we will find repentance preached in due proportion to other duties. See the concordance, in which these words will be found in the Acts eleven times. It must be carefully remembered that, though the word "believe" occurs about a hundred times in John's Gospel, and "repent" is not found even once, John's "believe" is so large in its meaning that it comprehends conversion, or turning from sin, as well as trusting in Christ. This fullness of meaning must not be neglected, but must be magnified by him who would get John's deep meaning. He can never be quoted to support Antinomianism. The preaching of repentance in no way belittles faith in Jesus, the sole condition of forgiveness, but it is the indispensable prerequisite to its exercise. Hence, repentance must be earnestly preached.
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