The Truth of the Assembly
Notes of an address
The great truth that we seek to hold as distinct from much that pertains in Christendom is the truth of the assembly functioning here for the glory of Christ and for the honour of God. That does not mean that we are not interested in salvation of precious souls, far from it, the preaching of the gospel is very near to our hearts, but what God has given to us in His great favour and mercy is the truth of the assembly as distinct from anything that belongs to man's organisation. It seems to me that, without understanding what leads up to this great position, we will never be able to function in it properly.
The epistle to the Romans shows how the great subject of salvation leads us to this great point, that Paul does not enlarge upon but mentions, that there is such a thing as the one body which is not presented here so much as to present the greatness of Christ, or the expression of Christ, but to show our interdependence upon each other, that we are one body in Christ, the understanding of which helps us to function together with the complete removal of all that formerly marked us.
The Problem of Sin - Chapters 1:1-3:20
The epistle to the Romans is the great treatise of the salvation of God, and what a wonderful unfolding it is. Chapter 1 pictures each one of us, you, me and every other person in the Christian testimony, all can identify ourselves in some way or other, and what a sad picture it is. The point that I want to emphasise is how they debased their bodies. We cannot mistake what the Bible says about the misuse of the body when man is under Satan's power, when he gives up God and gives full rein to his lusts and evil ways. We see this all around us now. If we read the first three chapters of Romans we see continual giving up, man giving up God and then God, in His government, giving up man. It comes to such a position that if this kind of thing were to go on there would be no hope for man. Three times in this first chapter it says that God gave them up (verses 24, 26 and 28). If God had given them up finally and completely not one of us would have been here this evening with the enjoyment of salvation in our hearts and in our minds. Praise the Lord for His goodness and mercy that He did not give us up, but He said, 'I will do something better than that, I will change them, they have been giving me up and in My government I have had to give them up, now I will change the man that has caused all the trouble and I will bring him into a new standing before me in such a way that he will not break down'. That is a wonderful thing, and that is what the epistle to the Romans expounds to us.
God's Answer to Man's Sin - Chapters 3:21-5:11
From chapter 3:21 onwards to chapter 5:11 we have described the marvellous unfolding of God's provision in Christ to establish us in righteousness before Him. These envious, wicked, adulterous, hateful and evil people are completely changed; yes, that is the wonder of God's salvation, He justifies the ungodly. I remember when I was a young Christian in Port Seton we had a Bible reading on the chapter where it mentions that God "justifies the ungodly" (4:5), and in my youthful zeal and ignorance I said that it was persons who believed whom God justified, and a brother said, 'Yes, that is perfectly true, but that is not what Romans teaches, it teaches that God justifies the ungodly, and that is the triumph of His salvation'.
That does not mean, of course, that every ungodly person in Winchester is justified, not at all, those ungodly persons have to believe in order to be justified, but the moment they believe they are, by their act of faith (although still the same ungodly people) justified by God, then follows the work of reformation, where having believed and been justified and made righteous before God, the process of transformation takes place, and those instruments that were given over to unrighteousness are changed completely and they perform righteousness for God's pleasure and glory. What a wonderful change, what a wonderful salvation, and Paul delights to unfold it in this remarkable epistle that God's glorious Son, by entering into death upon the cross, has enabled God to justify sinners who trust in Jesus.
That covers each one of us here this evening, and what a wonderful thing it is to realise that all the past has gone, all the evil things that were associated with us are gone forever and we stand before God not in our own righteousness (which would be absolutely hopeless), but in the righteousness that Christ has secured for us. I have said (and I trust I have said it reverently) that if God were to find any fault in a person who has trusted in Jesus, He would need to find fault in His own righteousness because that is how we stand before God in His own righteousness. We are free from all imputation of evil, free from all condemnation, free in the presence of God because of the work of His glorious Son, and so in these early chapters Paul deals with the great question of sin. One has often been struck by the expression in the Old Testament, "the beauty of holiness" (Ps.29:2, 96:9), that is a delightful expression, there is beauty in holiness, but there is ugliness in sin, and oh how offensive sin is to God! So in these early chapters of Romans Paul describes to us how God was glorified in respect of the work of Christ who put away sin and all its wickedness and evil forever and destroyed its power in man through His own death and resurrection.
Sins Operating in the Bodies of the Saints - Chapters 6-8
In these chapters Paul deals with the question of sins operating in our bodies, sin being the root and sins being the fruit. Paul asks the question, 'Now that we are blessed, are we to continue in sin, that grace may abound? The thought is unthinkable, far be the thought.' (6:1). Ten times in this epistle Paul uses that expression. 'No,' says Paul, 'we do not want to go on sinning because grace is operating, we want those hands, those feet, those ears, those eyes, those tongues and all that we are, all that was under the power of sin and Satan to be set free and to be used for the glory of God'. That is real salvation, that is what salvation is all about, it is not only freedom from the penalty of our sins or from the guilt and burden of them (thank God for that), but salvation, as the epistle to the Romans presents it, is relief from the power of sin in our lives, so that we are free here on earth to live lives that are pleasurable for God. What a triumph it is for God when the gospel goes out in all its freedom and men and women, and boys and girls, are brought to Him through Christ, and instead of living sinful lives characterised by what we read of in chapter 1, their lives are suddenly changed, their tongues, instead of telling lies and slandering, become an instrument for the glory of God and for the spread of His righteousness. Hands that once did wicked things, assaulting and stealing, are now used to do acts of kindness, and feet that were ready to follow paths of sin and wickedness follow paths of righteousness, thoughts are controlled, the members of the body become members of righteousness under bondage to God when formerly they were under bondage to Satan.
The Collective Truth of the Assembly - Chapter 12:1-12:16
All this is the preliminary work that is accomplished in the lives of believers before they are introduced to the great burden of New Testament teaching that there is a company here upon earth interdependent upon each other where the glory of Christ and of God is maintained, and where the Spirit of God has free operation.
Is not this a wonderful thing to contemplate? We look abroad in the world and what a mess we see. Is it not sad that in the Christian testimony there is so much division and strife and distance and suspicion that these things are not operating as they ought to? I think we have to face the fact that until the Lord comes it is very unlikely that things will get better, but we must not despair, we must keep going on, we must attempt, in whatever opportunity we have, to work out these things with those who are prepared to walk in the way that God has directed. The truths presented in chapter 12 are perhaps where there is most failure and I say this guardedly because I am not able to take in all the failure in the complexity of it that has attacked the Christian church, but I do feel that if this full wholehearted committal was operating in the lives of all Christians what a change there would be! It is not a question of my idea or anyone else's idea, but rather a full committal to the word of God which shuts out man and all his pretension, his ideas, his will, and means that God's will is permeating this company. Paul was speaking to real Christians, he had already unfolded God's great plan of salvation, he had already told them all the wondrous truths about their having the indwelling Spirit (8:9), their being children of God (8:16) and heirs of God (8:17), He had already spoken about the wondrous future that was ahead (8:18-25). Many, many wondrous things Paul unfolded to those believers and yet it would appear from chapter 12 that they had not yet taken the step of presenting their bodies a living, holy and acceptable sacrifice to God otherwise what was the point of Paul exhorting them to do so? Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to go on a little further because all the wondrous blessings that God had showered upon them now demanded something of them and unless this was done there would be no full realisation or full functioning of the wonderful truth of the assembly that Paul so delighted in unfolding. If we were all committed to God in this way the functioning of the company of believers, called the body of Christ, would be simpler, more powerful and more of a testimony for Christ and for God. Where this submission to the will of God is lacking there must of necessity come in the will of man and the functioning is then according to what I think, it is my plan and endeavour instead of the will of God and of Christ, and so I would desire for myself, as well as for you and for all believers, that we take heed especially to this twelfth chapter of Romans and its appeal to us to wholeheartedly commit ourselves to God in order to arrive at this wondrous position that he mentions, without enlarging upon it, that there is one body in Christ. So we now want to look briefly at this chapter in detail.
"I beseech you therefore, brethren..." (v.1a)
Paul does not say, 'I beseech you, poor, failing Christians, that you adjust your lives', he does not say that, Paul is very dignified in his language when he addresses the believers, he takes account of them as belonging to a family of which he himself is a part, he addresses them as his brethren and he addresses them in such a way that indicates that he loves them, he has concern about them and he is desiring their richest and deepest blessing.
This word 'beseeching' is often used by Paul (12 times in all) and this shows the depth of the feeling that was in his heart. If I understand the term, it means, 'Come over to my side, join me', and so Paul is saying, in effect, 'Come where I am and do the things that I am doing'. I dare not say that, because if you come over to my side you might find yourself doing things you might not want to do. I would humbly desire to be doing the will of God, but Paul could say it in all the fullness of what the term meant because there was no question at all that he was fully committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot read the life of Paul without being impressed by the single-mindedness that marked him. He had no thought for his life, he had only one desire, and that was to glorify God and to glorify Christ (e.g. Phil.3, Gal.2:20, 2 Cor.4:15), and it was not just lip service or a war-cry with him, it was something that was real and living and vital in his life at all times. This marked this beloved man of God, and so when he said, 'Come over to my side' it was said in reality and truth. I think we would all say with sincerity that if we are desiring to do the will of God we could say this to each other, beseeching each other to walk together according to the truth of God in order to glorify Christ and to glorify God.
".. by the mercies of God ..." (v.1b)
When we read those awful chapters 1 to 3 and then consider the grace, the mercy and the love of God and His truth and His righteousness and all the things that He did for wicked, sinful man (and that means you and me) no wonder Paul could say this. Where would we have been this evening apart from the mercy of God? We might have been living respectable lives, working hard in business and in other matters which are perfectly legitimate in life, but we would have been doing it without God, we would have been going on to a Christless eternity, but instead of that God in His mercy arrested us, and tonight, thank God, we are moving on to the glory, we are moving on to be with Christ, and in the meantime we enjoy many blessings from His loving hand. We enjoy much in the way of encouragement and help day by day, week by week and year by year, His mercies are innumerable, and they are constant, they are in no way stinted, and so we, like Paul, can say how great His mercies are.
"... that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable (or 'intelligent') service ." (v.1c)
A great deal of damage has been done in the past by using a scripture like this and exhorting young converts to do this kind of thing - now do not mistake me, this is always a good thing to exhort anyone to do, whether young or old, but I think when Paul makes this statement to these believers he is taking into account all the teaching that has gone before. In chapter 6 Paul reaches the point where he says, 'Your bodies are no longer under the power of sin, your bodies are now under the control of God's righteousness and you are living lives that are pleasing to God', now it that kind of body that you can present to God. What I mean about a young believer is that he has just started out and may have many bad habits to correct, he may have many things to learn, it would still be a good thing for him to give himself up to God wholeheartedly but he is not presenting a controlled body to God. Bodies under the control of the Spirit of God, under the control of righteousness are the kinds of bodies that Paul wants the believers to offer to God as an intelligent sacrifice.
In the book of Malachi the children of Israel were offering sacrifices that were far beneath the divine standard, torn and blemished sacrifices, sacrifices that were quite unworthy of God (1:18). Now how can we possibly offer our bodies to God if we are still under the control of some evil habit, some evil thing that is in our lives, that kind of body is not going to be an intelligent sacrifice, it is something that is going to fail in some way in the performance of God's will, but a body that has come under the control of the teaching in Romans 5 to 8 is a body that will be appreciated by God and will bring great glory to Him.
Now Paul says, it is a living, holy and acceptable sacrifice. In the Old Testament when they brought sacrifices to God it was a living animal, the animal had first been examined by the priest, there were no blemishes in the animal, there was nothing that the priest could take account of to disqualify that animal from being used, but once it had been offered up to God it was dead, there was no life in it, but, says Paul, 'Your bodies' - that in chapter 1 had been given over to evil things - 'through divine teaching and obedience are now bodies that are expressing God's righteousness, now offer them to God and He will accept them'. These bodies are holy, living and acceptable. What a wonderful transformation. We have had nothing to do with it except in the exercise of being obedient to God's word. This matter of simple obedience is where we all fail in some way or other.
"And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God " (v.2)
This presenting of our bodies to God is a deliberate act, we yield them to Him once and for all, and God will ever hold us to this act, there is a conduct of life that is becoming on such a person, we are not to be marked by worldly features. Satan is the "god of this world" (2 Cor.4:4) and he can very easily make people conform to his standards instead of God's standards. 'So,' says Paul, 'Do not be marked by the features that belong to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind'. "Transforming" is best explained for us by something that we all know about, how the hairy caterpillar that appears so objectionable at times is suddenly transformed into a beautiful butterfly. Two totally 'different' animals, if you like, totally different appearances, it is transformed completely from one state to another. Now this is done in us by the renewing of our minds. What trouble our minds get us into, oh how far away we can wander in our minds, outwardly everything may look fine, but inwardly our minds are leading us astray, but oh when the mind is under control, submitting itself to the will of God, controlled by this great act of having given oneself to God, what a transformation takes place in our lives.
When Paul speaks about the will of God he says, "always beseeching at my prayers, if any way now at least I may be prospered by the will of God" (Rom.1:10 J.N.D.). There is real spiritual prosperity, a joy, a peace, an assurance, and many other things for the believer who seeks to do the will of God, but not to do the will of God brings many disconcerting things into the life. I am sure that those that have done the will of God most can speak about it best, and in that sense I am not entirely qualified to speak to you about it, but I do know in one's humble experience that to do the will of God brings many spiritual blessings, but not to do the will of God brings many regrets, many difficulties, many pitfalls in the Christian experience. Paul proved that, by doing the will of God, he was prospered in his own life, but above all the Lord Jesus Christ did the will of God and what wondrous benefits that has and will yet bring to millions of people, and what glory it brought to God, what glory to Himself; the will of God always pays great dividends.
"For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith." (v.3)
It is important that Paul has used this expression, "not to think highly " because that is the natural tendency of man, he does not say to the brethren, 'Do not think so lowly about yourselves', because the natural tendency is to think more highly than we ought to, man is always wanting to be up and up and up. That is abundantly proved from the Scriptures, from Genesis onwards the desire of man has been to be "as God" (Gen.3:5 J.N.D., see also 11:4), that was Adam's intention as led on by Satan, and if we follow this right through Scripture we come finally to the man of sin who sets himself up in the Temple and desires to be worshipped as God (2 Thess.2:4). This is always the tendency, unfortunately, in the Christian company. Paul warns the Ephesian elders about those who would arise in the Christian testimony to draw disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30). We read of a Diotrephes who wanted to have the pre-eminence in the assembly and would even cast out the apostle and those who were real believers (3 John 9-10). We think of an Alexander the coppersmith who did the apostle much harm (2 Tim.4:14), and so Paul says, 'Those who submit themselves to the will of God are not looking for pre-eminence, they are going to find their true place in the Christian company where each one is dependent upon the other, and I believe that is why all the teaching of the earlier chapters occurs before this point, the point where Paul mentions the one body in Christ.
" For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another ." (vv.4-5)
What a wonderful conception this is, this one body involves every true believer in Christ. It is not one particular Christian company who may be endeavouring to practice this truth, every true believer is a member of the one body and we are dependent upon each member of the body of Christ to work out the truth of it. Because of the breakdown publicly the truth of the body as to its practical expression is seriously impaired, we cannot walk together, work together or worship together as the word of God indicates and so, however true and sincere may be our endeavour, it must seriously be impaired when we do not all walk together as governed by this truth. However, as we seek to endeavour to walk in this way the truth of it will operate amongst us in spite of the confusion that prevails, and so in a small, a moderate, or a large company we have continually to be reminded that we need each other, that no one can have the pre-eminence to the exclusion of others, that no one can ride roughshod over his or her brethren, no one can take a place where he or she can ignore his or her brethren in whatever way, we must all be together, members one of another, needing, helping and supporting each other. There is not a better figure employed than the figure of the one body, a normal healthy body with all the members working together as God intended them and as they should be under God's direction and power, every member working for the benefit of the whole. My hand and every other member is doing its best to please my body as my mind gives it the impulse and each member is interdependent upon the other. If I get a piece of grit in my eye then my hand can very soon come to the aid of my eye and remove it, every member is thus dependent upon others. That is exactly what the Christian company should be, and so Paul goes on from that point.
"Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love, in honour preferring one another; not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality. Bless them who persecute you; bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceit. " (vv.6-16)
We have not time to go down all exhortations, but it makes very good reading. This is spoken to those who form the one body, and so all the teaching that Paul unfolds in the epistle to the Romans is to equip us so that when we come together as a Christian company all those features can be put into operation because our wills are set aside and the will of God is paramount in each of us. I know that it is comparatively easy to say that but it is a different thing when it comes to the operation, but if we have arrived at the point where we honesty and sincerely desire the will of God to be paramount in our lives above all else then I am sure there will be a real endeavour on the part of each one of us to put these things into operation, not for our benefit, but for the glory of God, for the glory of Christ and for the free action of the Holy Spirit. Dear brethren, I believe that right to the end until the Lord comes there will be some expression of this kind of thing. We read in the addresses to the seven churches in the book of Revelation that the Spirit of God is always going to speak to the assemblies and the Lord Jesus is always going to have something to say to the assemblies, that being so it gives me the greatest encouragement that right to the end there will be assembly features. May we be kept in it, intelligently, sincerely and for the glory of God, for His name's sake.