Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Date: 12 May 2013
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Hearing God 03 – Written With the Spirit
The Christians in the city of Corinth asked Paul to provide a letter of recommendation – a reference – which would endorse his work among them. However, Paul did not comply even though – at other times – he wrote letters of recommendation himself – Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.” Even in the very correspondence where Paul resisted a letter of recommendation for his own person, he endorsed others – 2 Corinthians 8:22-24: “We are also sending someone else with Titus and the other follower. We approve of this man. In fact, he has already shown us many times that he wants to help. And now he wants to help even more than ever, because he trusts you so much. Titus is my partner, who works with me to serve you. The other two followers are sent by the churches, and they bring honour to Christ. Treat them in such a way that the churches will see your love and will know why we bragged about you.” [Cf. 1 Corinthians 16:3: “Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.”]
Therefore, Paul did not refuse the request of the Christians in Corinth on principle. Written references are not always bad – they are useful – but – in his case – he nevertheless perceived a danger. As I am now reading his words – are you able to pick up what the danger was – (we face the same danger today)?
2 Corinthians 3:1-6: ... do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Instead of relying on a formal letter of recommendation, Paul asked the Christians in Corinth to read the situation: What has Jesus been doing among you? What among you is of God? Open your eyes: Paul was the founder of the church in Corinth. A few years back – he had come to them, preached to them the cross of Jesus Christ, led them to salvation and established their life in God which – surely – was better proof of his right standing before God as a preacher than any written letter of recommendation by a third party. In his words – they themselves were “a letter from Christ, the result of his [original: our] ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God”.
At the moment, we are doing a series on listening to God – hearing him in our prayer time – and, according to Paul in this Bible passage, written down recommendations – written down instructions and manuals – written down anything – are always putting us at risk of no longer hearing the voice of God – shutting down the life of hearing from God and being empowered by him. Paul wrote in the most dramatic fashion – and I come back to this later – 2 Corinthians 3:6: “the letter [meaning the written down laws of God and – amazingly – also – in the context of this passage – a letter of recommendation for Paul] kills [silences the voice of God], but the Spirit gives life.”
[In 1733 Congregational preacher Jonathan Edwards started a Christian revival in Northampton. In the winter of 1734 and the following spring it reached such intensity that it threatened the town’s businesses. In the spring of 1735 the movement began to subside and a reaction set in. But the relapse was brief, and the Northampton revival, which had spread through the Connecticut River Valley and whose fame had reached England and Scotland, was followed in 1739–1740 by the Great Awakening, under the leadership of Edwards.]
Jonathan Edwards: An Account of the Revival of Religion in Northampton 1740-1742: ... And though after that great work nine years ago, there has been a very lamentable decay of religious affections and the engagedness of people’s spirit in religion; yet many societies for prayer and social worship were all along kept up, and there were some few instances of awakening and deep concern about the things of another world, even in the most dead time.
In the year 1740, in the spring before Mr. Whitefield came to this town, there was a visible alteration: there was more seriousness and religious conversation, especially among young people; those things that were of ill tendency among them were forborne; and it was a very frequent thing for persons to consult their minister upon the salvation of their souls; and in some particular persons there appeared a great attention about that time. And thus it continued until Mr. Whitefield came to town, which was about the middle of October following: he preached here four sermons in the meeting-house (besides a private lecture at my house), one on Friday, another on Saturday, and two upon the Sabbath. The congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time ...
The revival at first appeared chiefly among professors and those that had entertained hope that they were in a state of salvation, to whom Mr. Whitefield chiefly addressed himself; but in a very short time there appeared an awakening and deep concern among some young persons, that looked upon themselves in a Christless state; and there were some hopeful appearances of conversion, and some professors were greatly revived. In about a month or six weeks, there was a great attention in the town, both as to the revival of professors and the awakening of others ...
In the month of May, 1741, a sermon was preached to a company, at a private house. Near the conclusion of the discourse, one or two persons, that were professors, were so greatly affected with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things, and the infinite importance of the things of eternity, that they were not able to conceal it – the affection of their minds overcoming their strength, and having a very visible effect upon their bodies. When the exercises were over, the young people that were present removed into the other room for religious conference; and particularly that they might have opportunity to inquire of those that were thus affected what apprehensions they had, and what things they were that thus deeply impressed their minds; and there soon appeared a very great effect of their conversation; the affection was quickly propagated throughout the room; many of the young people and children that were professors appeared to be overcome with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things, and with admiration, love, joy, and praise, and compassion to others that looked upon themselves as in a state of nature; and many others at the same time were overcome with distress about their sinful and miserable estate and condition; so that the whole room was full of nothing but outcries, faintings, and the like.
Others soon heard of it in several parts of the town, and came to them; and what they saw and heard there was greatly affecting to them, so that many of them were overpowered in like manner, and it continued thus for some hours; the time being spent in prayer, singing, counselling, and conferring. There seemed to be a consequent happy effect of that meeting to several particular persons, and on the state of religion in the town in general.
After this were meetings from time to time, attended with like appearances. But a little after it, at the conclusion of the public exercises on the sabbath, I appointed the children that were under seventeen years of age, to go from the meeting-house to a neighbouring house, that I might there further enforce what they had heard in public, and might give in some counsels proper for their age. The children were there very generally and greatly affected with the warnings and counsels that were given them, and many exceedingly overcome; and the room was filled with cries; and when they were dismissed, they almost all of them went home crying aloud through the streets, to all parts of the town. The like appearances attended several such meetings of children that were appointed. But their affections appeared by what followed to be of a very different nature: in many, they appeared indeed but childish affections, and in a day or two would leave them as they were before; others were deeply impressed; their convictions took fast hold of them, and abode by them: and there were some that, from one meeting to another, seemed extraordinarily affected for some time, to but little purpose, their affections presently vanishing from time to time; but yet afterwards were seized with abiding convictions, and their affections became durable.
About the middle of the summer, I called together the young people that were communicants, from sixteen to twenty-six years of age, to my house; which proved to be a most happy meeting: many seemed to be very greatly and most agreeably affected with those views, which excited humility, self-condemnation, self-abhorrence, love, and joy: many fainted under these affections. We had several meetings that summer of young people, attended with like appearances. It was about that time that there first began to be cryings out in the meeting-house; which several times occasioned many of the congregation to stay in the house after the public exercises were over, to confer with those who seemed to be overcome with religious convictions and affections, which was found to tend much to the propagation of their impressions, with lasting effect upon many; conference being at these times commonly joined with prayer and singing. In the summer and autumn, the children in various parts of the town had religious meetings by themselves, for prayer, sometimes joined with fasting; wherein many of them seemed to be greatly and properly affected, and I hope some of them savingly wrought upon.
The months of August and September were the most remarkable of any this year for appearances of the conviction and conversion of sinners, and great revivings, quickenings, and comforts of professors, and for extraordinary external effects of these things. It was a very frequent thing to see a house full of out-cries, faintings, convulsions, and such like, both with distress, and also with admiration and joy. It was not the manner here to hold meetings all night, as in some places, nor was it common to continue them till very late in the night; but it was pretty often so, that there were some that were so affected, and their bodies so overcome, that they could not go home, but were obliged to stay all night where they were ...
There was an appearance of a glorious progress of the work of God upon the hearts of sinners, in conviction and conversion, this summer and autumn, and great numbers, I think we have reason to hope, were brought savingly home to Christ. But this was remarkable: the work of God in his influences of this nature, seemed to be almost wholly upon a new generation – those that were not come to years of discretion in that wonderful season, nine years ago; children, or those that were then children: others who had enjoyed that former glorious opportunity, without any appearance of saving benefit, seemed now to be almost wholly passed over and let alone. But now we had the most wonderful work among children that ever was in Northampton. The former outpouring of the Spirit was remarkable for influences upon the minds of children, beyond all that had ever been before; but this far exceeded that. Indeed, as to influences on the minds of professors, this work was by no means confined to a new generation. Many of all ages partook of it; but yet in this respect it was more general on those that were of the young sort.
Many who had been formerly wrought upon, and in the time of our declension had fallen into decays, and had in a great measure left God, and gone after the world now passed under a very remarkable new work of the Spirit of God, as if they had been the subjects of a second conversion. They were first led into the wilderness, and had a work of conviction; having much deeper convictions of the sins of both nature and practice than ever before; though with some new circumstances, and something new in the kind of conviction in some with great distress beyond what they had felt before their first conversion. Under these convictions, they were excited to strive for salvation, and the kingdom of heaven suffered violence from some of them in a far more remarkable manner than before; and after great convictions and humblings, and agonizing with God, they had Christ discovered to them anew as an all-sufficient Saviour, and in the glories of his grace, and in a far more clear manner than before; and with greater humility, self-emptiness, and brokenness of heart, and a purer, a higher joy, and greater desires after holiness of life; but with greater self-diffidence and distrust of their treacherous hearts.
One circumstance wherein this work differed from that which had been in the towns five or six years before was that conversions were frequently wrought more sensibly and visibly; the impressions stronger and more manifest by their external effects; the progress of the Spirit of God in conviction, from step to step, more apparent; and the transition from one state to another, more sensible and plain; so that it might. In many instances, be as it were seen by bystanders. The preceding season had been very remarkable on this account, beyond what had been before; but this more remarkable than that. And in this season, these apparent or visible conversions (if I may so call them), were more frequently in the presence of others, at religious meetings, where the appearances of what was wrought on the heart fell under public observation.
After September, 1741, there seemed to be some abatement of these extraordinary appearances, yet they did not wholly cease, but there was something of them, from time to time, all winter. About the beginning of February, 1742, Mr. Buell came to this town. I was then absent from home, and continued so till about a fortnight after. Mr. Buell preached from day to day, almost every day, in the meeting-house. I had left to him the free use of my pulpit, having heard of his designed visit before I went from home. He spent almost the whole time in religious exercises with the people, either in public or private, the people continually thronging him. When he first came there came with him a number of the zealous people from Suffield, who continued here for some time. There were very extraordinary effects of Mr. Buell’s labours; the people were exceedingly moved, crying out in great numbers in the meeting-house, and a great part of the congregation commonly staying in the house of God for hours after the public service. Many also were exceedingly moved in private meetings where Mr. Buell was: almost the whole town seemed to be in a great and continual commotion, day and night, and there was indeed a very great revival of religion. But it was principally among professors; the appearances of a work of conversion were in no measure as great as they had been the summer before. When I came home, I found the town in very extraordinary circumstances, such as, in some respects, I never saw it in before. Mr. Buell continued here a fortnight or three weeks after I returned: there being still great appearances attending his labours; many in their religious affections being raised far beyond what they had ever been before: and there were some instances of persons lying in a sort of trance, remaining perhaps for a whole twenty-four hours motionless, and with their senses locked up; but in the mean time under strong imaginations, as though they went to heaven and had there a vision of glorious and delightful objects. But when the people were raised to this height, Satan took the advantage, and his interposition, in many instances, soon became very apparent: and a great deal of caution and pains were found necessary to keep the people, many of them, from running wild.
In the month of March, I led the people into a solemn public renewal of their covenant with God. To that end, having made a draft of a covenant, I first proposed it to some of the principal men in the church; then to the people, in their several religious associations in various parts of the town; then to the whole congregation in public; and then I deposited a copy of it in the hands of each of the four deacons, that all who desired it might resort to them, and have opportunity to view and consider it. Then the people in general that were above fourteen years of age first subscribed the covenant with their hands; and then, on a day of fasting and prayer, all together presented themselves before the Lord in his house, and stood up, and solemnly manifested their consent to it, as their vow to God. The covenant was as follows:
Entered into and subscribed by the people of God at Northampton, and owned before God in his house as their vow to the Lord, and made a solemn act of public worship, by the congregation in general that were above fourteen years of age, on a day of fasting and prayer for the continuance and increase of the gracious presence of God in that place.
March 16th, 1742. Acknowledging God’s great goodness to us, a sinful, unworthy people, in the blessed manifestations and fruits of his gracious presence in this town, both formerly and lately, and particularly in the very late spiritual revival; and adoring the glorious majesty, power, and grace of God, manifested in the present wonderful outpouring of his Spirit, in many parts of this land, in this place; and lamenting our past backslidings and ungrateful departings from God, and humbly begging of God that he would not mark our iniquities, but, for Christ’s sake, come over the mountains of our sins, and visit us with his salvation, and continue the tokens of his presence with us, and yet more gloriously pour out his blessed Spirit upon us, and make us all partakers of the divine blessings he is, at this day. bestowing here, and in many parts of this land; we do this day present ourselves before the Lord, to renounce our evil ways, we put away our abominations from before God’s eyes, and with one accord, to renew our engagements to seek and serve God: and particularly do now solemnly promise and vow to the Lord as follows:
In all our conversation, concerns, and dealings with our neighbour, we will have a strict regard to rules of honesty, justice, and uprightness, that we don’t overreach or defraud our neighbour in any matter, and either wilfully, or through want of care, injure him in any of his honest possessions or rights, and in all our communication will have a tender respect, not only to our own interest, but also to the interest of our neighbour; and will care-fully endeavour, in everything, to do to others as we should expect, or think reasonable, that they should do to us, if we were in their case, and they in ours.
And particularly we will endeavour to render everyone his due, and will take heed to ourselves, that we don’t injure our neighbour, and give him just cause of offense, by wilfully or negligently forbearing to pay our honest debts.
And wherein any of us, upon strict examination of our past behaviour, may be conscious to ourselves, that we have by any means wronged any of our neighbours in their outward estate, we will not rest, till we have made that restitution, or given that satisfaction, which the rules of moral equity require; or if we are, on a strict and impartial search, conscious to ourselves that we have in any other respect considerably injured our neighbour, we will truly endeavour to do that which we in our consciences suppose Christian rules require, in order to a reparation of the injury and removing the offense given thereby.
And furthermore we promise that we will not allow ourselves in backbiting; and that we will take great heed to ourselves to avoid all violations of those Christian rules, Titus 3:2. “Speak evil of no man”; James 4:2 “Speak not evil one of another, brethren”; and 2 Corinthians 12:20. “Let there be no strifes, backbitings, whisperings”; and that we will not only not slander our neighbour but also will not feed a spirit of bitterness, ill will, or secret grudge against our neighbour, insist on his real faults needlessly and when not called to it, or from such a spirit, speak of his failings and blemishes with ridicule, or all air of contempt.
And we promise that we will be very careful to avoid doing anything to our neighbour from a spirit of revenge. And that we will take great care that we do not for private interest or our own honour, or to maintain ourselves against those of a contrary parry, or to get our wills, or to promote any design in opposition to others, do those things which we on the most impartial consideration are capable of, can think in our consciences will tend to wound religion, and the interests of Christ’s kingdom.
And particularly, that so far as any of us, by Divine Providence, have any special influence upon others, to lead them in the management of public affair, we will not rake our own worldly gain, or honour, or interest in the affections of others, or getting the better of any of a contrary party, that are in any respect our competitors, or the bringing or keeping them down, our governing aim, to the prejudice of the interest of religion, and the honour of Christ.
And in the management of any public affair, wherever there is a difference of opinions, concerning any outward possessions, privileges, rights, or properties, we will not willingly violate justice for private interest: and with the greatest strictness and watchfulness will avoid all unchristian bitterness, vehemence, and heat of spirit; yea, though we should think ourselves injured by a contrary party; and in the time of the management of such affairs will especially watch over ourselves, our spirits, and our tongues, to avoid all unchristian inveighings, reproachings, bitter reflectings, judging and ridiculing others, either in public meetings or in private conversation, either to men’s faces’ or behind their backs; but will greatly endeavour, so far as we are concerned, that all should be managed with Christian humility, gentleness, quietness, and love.
And furthermore we promise that we will not tolerate the exercise of enmity and ill will, or revenge in our hearts against any of our neighbours; and we will often be strictly searching and examining our own hearts with respect to that matter.
And if any of us find that we have an old secret grudge against any of our neighbours, we will not gratify it but cross it, and endeavour to our utmost to root it out, crying to God for his help; and that we will make it our true and faithful endeavour, in our places, that a party spirit may not be kept up amongst us, but that it may utterly cease; that for the future, we may all be one united in undisturbed peace and unfeigned love.
And those of us that are in youth do promise never to allow ourselves in any diversions or pastimes, in meetings, or companies of young people, that we, in our consciences, upon sober consideration, judge not well to consist with, or would sinfully tend to hinder, the devoutest and most engaged spirit in religion, or indispose the mind for that devout and profitable attendance on the duties of the closet, which is most agreeable to God’s will, or that we, in our most impartial judgment, can think tends to rob God of that honour which he expects, by our orderly serious attendance on family worship.
And furthermore we promise that we will strictly avoid all freedoms and familiarities in company, so tending either to stir up or gratify a lust of lasciviousness that we cannot in our consciences think will be approved by the infinitely pure and holy eye of God, or that we can think, on serious and impartial consideration, we should be afraid to practice, if we expected in a few hours to appear before that holy God, to give an account of ourselves to him, as fearing they would be condemned by him as unlawful and impure.
We also promise with great watchfulness to perform relative duties required by Christian rules, in the families we belong to, as we stand related respectively, towards parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, masters or mistresses, and servants.
And we now appear before God, depending on Divine grace and assistance, solemnly to devote our whole lives, to be laboriously spent in the business of religion; ever making it our greatest business, without backsliding from such a way of living, not hearkening to the solicitations of our sloth, and other corrupt inclinations, or the temptations of the world, that tend to draw us off from it; and particularly that we will not abuse a hope or opinion that any of us may have, of our being interested in Christ, to indulge ourselves in sloth, or the more easily to yield to the solicitations of any sinful inclinations; but will run with perseverance the race that is set before us, and work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
And because we are sensible that the keeping these solemn vows may hereafter, in many cases, be very contrary to our corrupt inclinations and carnal interest., we do now therefore appear before God to make a surrender of all to him, and to make a sacrifice of every carnal inclination and interest, to the great business of religion and the interest of our souls.
And being sensible of our weakness and the deceitfulness of our own hearts, and our proneness to forget our most solemn vows and lose our resolutions, we promise to be often strictly examining ourselves by these promises, especially before the sacrament of the Lord’s supper; and beg of God that he would, for Christ’s sake, keep us from wickedly dissembling in these our solemn vows; and that he who searches our hearts, and ponders the path of our feet, would, from time to time, help us in trying ourselves by this covenant, and help us to keep covenant with him, and not leave us to our own foolish, wicked, and treacherous hearts.
In the beginning of the summer of 1742, there seemed to be an abatement of the liveliness of people’s affections in religion; but yet many were often in a great height of them. And in the fall and winter following, there were at times extraordinary appearances. But in the general, people’s engagedness in religion, and the liveliness of their affections have been on the decline; and some of the young people especially have shamefully lost their liveliness and vigour in religion, and much of the seriousness and solemnity of their spirits. But there are many that walk as becometh saints; and to this day there are a considerable number in town that seem to be near to God, and maintain much of the life of religion, and enjoy many of the sensible tokens and fruits of his gracious presence ...
In the year 1742, it was otherwise: the work continued more pure till we were infected from abroad: our people hearing of, and some of them seeing the work in other places, where there was a greater visible commotion than here, and the outward appearances were more extraordinary were ready to think that the work in those places far excelled what was amongst us, and their eyes were dazzled with the high profession and great show that some made who came hither from other places.
That those people went so far beyond them in raptures and violent emotions of the affections, and a vehement zeal, and what they call boldness for Christ our people were ready to think was owing to far greater attainments in grace, and intimacy with heaven: they looked little in their own eyes in comparison with them, and were ready to submit themselves to them, and yield themselves up to their conduct, taking it for granted that everything was right that they said and did. These things had a strange influence on the people and gave many of them a deep and unhappy tincture, from which it was a hard and long labour to deliver them, and from which some of them are not fully delivered to this day.
The effects and consequences of things among us plainly show the following things, viz. That the degree of grace is by no means to be judged of by the degree of joy, or the degree of zeal; and that indeed we cannot at all determine by these things who are gracious and who are not; and that it is not the degree of religious affections but the nature of them that is chiefly to be looked at. Some that have had very great raptures of joy, and have been extraordinarily filled (as the vulgar phrase is), and have had their bodies overcome, and that very often, have manifested far less of the temper of Christians in their conduct since than some others that have been still and have made no great outward show. But then again, there are many others that have had extraordinary joys and emotions of mind, with frequent great effects upon their bodies, that behave themselves steadfastly, as humble, amiable, eminent Christians.
‘Tis evident that there may be great religious affections in individuals, which may in show and appearance resemble gracious affections, and have the same effects upon their bodies, but are far from having the same effect on the temper of their minds and the course of their lives. And likewise there is nothing more manifest, by what appears amongst us, than that the good estate of individuals is not chiefly to be judged of by any exactness of steps, and method of experiences, in what is supposed to be the first conversion; but that we must judge by the spirit that breathes, the effect wrought upon the temper of the soul in the time of the work and remaining afterwards ...
And notwithstanding all the corrupt mixtures that have been in the late work here, there are not only many blessed fruits of it, in particular persons that yet remain, but some good effects of it upon the town in general. A spirit of party has more extensively subsided. I suppose there has been less appearance these three or four years past of that division of the town into two parties which has long been our bane, than has been at any time during the preceding thirty years; and the people have apparently had much more caution, and a greater guard on their spirit and their tongues, to avoid contention and unchristian hearts in town-meetings, and on other occasions. And ’tis a thing greatly to be rejoiced in that the people very lately came to an agreement and final issue, with respect to their grand controversy relating to their common lands; which has been, above any other particular thing, a source of mutual prejudices, jealousies, and debates, for fifteen or sixteen years past. The people also seem to be much more sensible of the danger of resting in old experiences, or what they were subjects of at their supposed first conversion; and to be more fully convinced of the necessity of forgetting the things that are behind, and pressing forward and maintaining earnest labour, watchfulness, and prayerfulness, as long as they live ...
God – by his Spirit – worked a great awakening among the people of Northampton but then they drew up a solemn oath and covenant before God and – soon after – the work of God seemed to die down. Pastor John Alley from Rockhampton, who came for a visit to Living Grace in March, suggests in one of his books that the making of the oath and covenant is directly related to the fizzling of the revival. Do you think that he could be right? Why?
This is what he wrote:
John Alley: Holy Community, Rockhampton: Peace Publishing 2010, p116-120: ... Edward tells of a most powerful time in the revival, the Spring of 1742 ... He believed that to keep the revival, and to consolidate the work God had done, the people needed to enter into a solemn oath and covenant before God ...
The covenant specified a great deal about the way Christians should live – and the kind of things we believe too. But what it did was to lock up the way Christians should live and respond to God into a legalistic structure ...
Yet, this was contrary to the spirit of what had happened to them in the Awakening. The Spirit of God had come to town in answer to prayer, and had taken hold of all the people ... and brought them all into a tremendous relationship with God where they were full of love and on fire for God ... And then man, well-intentioned though he was, decided to keep the people the way they needed to be by making them take a very extensive, exhaustive, joyless set of vows that were supposedly the answer to them maintaining love and joy. But love and joy never come from vows, and joy is usually the first thing to depart when the law comes in, as does freedom ...
After the recording of the vow in his Account, a double paragraph break occurs to begin a new section. It does not appear that he himself consciously connected what he had just written with what follows, but his next statement, written immediately after the vow, is this:
In the beginning of the summer of 1742, there seemed to be an abatement of the liveliness of people’s affection in religion ...
This was perhaps some 10 weeks afterwards, yet the revival had immediately waned, and come to an end ... The making of that Solemn Oath and Covenant, along with all its vows, was the direct and immediate cause of the ending of the Great Awakening.
As soon as we take our eyes off Jesus and what he is doing by his Spirit – as soon as we try to nail down the awakening of Christian life with resolutions and constitutions – we are on dangerous ground because – (I remind you) – Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth – 2 Corinthians 3:6: “the letter [meaning the written down laws of God] kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Why does the letter kill? Coming back to Paul – he was frustrated that the church in Corinth relied so much on letters of recommendation that they stopped using their own discernment about their guest-preachers. Instead of listening to God themselves, they took the written word of others. Paul admonished them, saying – 2 Corinthians 2:17: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit ...”
However – in Paul’s writings – the immediate application of the “letter” that kills is the law of God. Was the law of God (that was given by God to Moses for all the people) good? Yes – why then does it kill? Was the solemn oath and vow of the people in Northampton about holiness before God? Were these people promising good things to God? Yes – why then did the awakening die down? When Lutherans wrote up the truth of God’s grace in their Confessions, were they right in what they were saying? Yes – why then have so many “Lutherans” (and other Christians) stopped believing in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and eternal life? This danger is in all of us: Sometimes you like to preserve the life with God in a neat package of documents which you can proudly put on a shelf at home and admire in public. It gives you a feeling of having arrived. However, the life with God cannot be bottled up in documents and legislation but must remain fresh every day because our life with God consists of constant communion with our God through his Spirit in us. It is about an actual relationship with God – not just studying the concept and theory of it.
John 5:39-40: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
I did my vicarage (year of work experience) in a congregation in Adelaide (1991). They had a second service on Sunday which was alive and contemporary with band music, drama and different people leading through the service every Sunday. There was a good deal of creative chaos with loose worship running sheets and last minute production of overheads. Every Sunday, something unexpected could happen. It was alive.
Then – after a while – the secretary of the church collated a variety of the worship orders that were being used, printed them in different colours, laminated them and put them in plastic folders which were neat – (no longer dog-eared loose sheets of paper) – and presentable (I was very much in favour of doing this at the time) – but – at the same time – no longer flexible. This attempt of writing down – pinning down – the worship life of the congregation ended up in plastic folders which froze any future creativity. Ten years later – I paid the congregation another visit and the same plastic folders with the same variety of worship orders were still being used and – by then – it looked tired to me. For me, this was another illustration of Paul’s words – 2 Corinthians 3:6: “... the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” There was nothing wrong with these worship orders except that they took away the focus on the Spirit of God and what he wanted to do on any given Sunday.
Paul – in his letter to the Corinthians – explained himself further. I read the verses to you and try to provide a running commentary on Paul’s thought progression:
2 Corinthians 3:3-18: You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts ... God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life ...
[The Christians in Corinth were Paul’s letter of recommendation because their faith happened through his work by the Spirit of God. They were alive in God – “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God”. Then, Paul adds: “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” which picks up old prophecies about a “new covenant” (also mentioned by Paul here) – Jeremiah 31:31-33: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Charles Feinberg, “Jeremiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 6 (1986), p576: “The core of the new covenant is God’s gift of a new heart (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Herein lies the sufficient motivation for obeying God’s law. Basic to obedience is inner knowledge of God’s will coupled with an enablement to perform it ... Since the inward dynamic was absent in the old covenant, it would not be effective. There must be an inner force, a new power.”
The old covenant was made on Mount Sinai with Moses as the mediator of the covenant but this covenant lacked power which is why John the Baptist – the last and greatest leader of God’s people under the old covenant was so ecstatic about Jesus – Luke 3:16: “...I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John – like Moses – preached repentance, the holiness of God and forgiveness but lacked the power to gain permanent victory over sin and remain in God’s holiness. Only with Jesus would there be the power of the Holy Spirit which would transform the human heart toward God.
Since Jesus came, we now have a new covenant in his blood – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
As Jesus died on a cross – where he gave his body and blood for us – he ratified a new covenant – (a binding promise from God). Those that believe in him (and his sacrifice) receive forgiveness for their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit – Galatians 3:22: “” Galatians 2:16: “... a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ ...” Galatians 3:14: “He redeemed us ... so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” As we receive the Spirit and live by the Spirit, we experience freedom because the Spirit makes us want and desire what God wants and desires. Living a holy life is no longer a chore but joy.]
2 Corinthians 3:3-18: ... Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
[Moses received the law from God who himself engraved the various holy commandments in letters on stone. This was glorious – Moses face began to shine supernaturally and the law itself was glorious reflecting God – but the glorious revelation of holiness turned into something that brought condemnation because people could not keep the commandments. Their hearts were not right and the Holy Spirit would only be given to them later.
This is going beyond writing down a solemn oath or producing a plastic folder of worship orders which diverts the focus away from the living voice of God and his leading through the Spirit. The written law of God has more devastating functions – Randall: Gleason: Paul’s Covenantal Contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-11, in: Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (January-March 1997), p61-79: Third, viewing the “letter” as a ministry of death (2 Cor. 3:7) and condemnation (v. 9) which “kills” corresponds well with what Paul wrote about the function of the Law in Romans 7:5–10. There he picked up his argument back in 5:20, “The Law came in that the transgression might increase.” He explained how this principle works by saying that the “sinful passions” are brought out “by the Law” and eventually result in “death” within the “members of our body” (7:5). However, to prevent anyone from concluding that the Law is sinful (v. 7) Paul explained three valuable functions of the Law. First, the Law reveals sin; for apart from the Law a person would have no knowledge of sin (v. 7). Second, the Law provokes sin (v. 8). This further explains how the Law reveals sin. The sinful nature or sin principle is lifeless (dead) until the Law provokes it to commit acts of disobedience, thereby becoming “utterly sinful” (v. 13). Only then can sin clearly be recognized for what it is. This is confirmed elsewhere in 4:15, “Where there is no law, neither is there violation” (cf. 5:13). Third, the Law judges sin (7:8-40), resulting in death for the sinner because sin is deceitful (v. 11) and causes death (v. 13). In this way a ministry based on the Law of the Mosaic Covenant is described in 2 Corinthians 3 as “the letter” which “kills” by bringing “death” and “condemnation.” It “kills” because it declares what God demands without giving sufficient power to fulfil it, and then pronounces the death sentence on all those who break it.
While the glory of the old covenant was transitory, the glory of the new covenant is not only far greater but also lasts and is given to us as something permanent.]
2 Corinthians 3:3-18: ... Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
[How can we enter into God’s glory – snap out of the old covenant and the letter that kills? How can we finally discern that the old has no longer any glory? Turn to Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit by which we contemplate the Lord’s glory – the Father’s glory. We do this by looking at “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). “God ... made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The more we look at Jesus through the Spirit, the more we are being transformed from one degree of glory to the next.]
I come to a close and want to end with another quote from John Alley. Paul resisted written letters of recommendation and we – likewise – may resist writing down too much in a human attempt to preserve our life in God.
John Alley: Holy Community, Rockhampton: Peace Publishing 2010, p122-123: When I first made this discovery about the devastating effect of vows and covenants from tales of the Great Awakening, I was very, very surprised. And shocked! I thought impulsively, “It couldn’t be!” All my life, almost 40 years in churches at the time, we had included vows, pledges, covenants, and promises to God in our service to Christ. My first reactive thought was, “Surely we are supposed to make promises and covenants in Christian service.”
I felt that way because I had been raised in The Salvation Army, and our lives were full of that kind of thing. From the Junior Soldier’s Pledge, in which you publically make brief, simple promises, to the Senior Soldier’s “Articles of War,” which is really a long document in fine print, in which you promise everything ‘holy’ imaginable about the way you will live and serve, and pledge to be faithful to the principles of the Salvation Army until you die. Not only that, when we became Salvation Army Officers, as we did at the end of 1975, there was a day called Covenant Day, as there always is for cadets about to be commissioned. This is the day devoted to worship and prayer in which, every one of you, at some point of personal surrender and final commitment, is to go forward and kneel and sign a covenant with God.
Whilst that covenant is only an attempt to help people feel devoted, and therefore more likely to be faithful to the ministry of Jesus Christ, statistically, the majority of people who sign that covenant do not last in the ministry. Certainly the ‘survival rates’ are no better for this than what other religious institutions might do. We were told in the college that, on average, more than half of us would leave the ministry within 10 years – this was in the context of exhorting us, quite properly, to guard our hearts.
But you can see why, with this background, I was incredulous at the thought that these things might be totally alien to spiritual victory in the New Covenant. There was only one thing to do. I immediately went to the Scriptures to search, not the Old Testament but the New, for the place of vows and covenants. And I was surprised again, for I discovered that they are non-existent.
John Alley: Holy Community, Rockhampton: Peace Publishing 2010, p127: ... if you start making vows, like, “I will rise at 3 a.m. every day for the rest of my life for prayer,” or “I will read a minimum of five chapters of the Bible every day,” you are setting yourself up for failure. [Cf. covenant of fasting twice a week like the Methodists or producing a manual for spiritual warfare prayers.]
The letter kills but the Spirit gives life. It is so tempting to pin everything down and write down good Christian doctrines and practices but – no – resist the temptation. Keep turning to Jesus in repentance and faith, and receive – ask for – the Holy Spirit. Not only will you have life but ever-increasing glory (as you are being changed into the likeness of God). Learn to live with him (as we continue our series on hearing from God in prayer). Amen.