The spirit of obedience is the great secret of all godliness. The spring of all evil from the beginning has been independence of will. Obedience is the only rightful state of the creature, or God would cease to be supreme - would cease to be God. Wherever there is independence, there there is always sin.
This rule, if remembered, would wonderfully help us in guiding our conduct.
There is no case whatever in which we ought to do our own will; for then we have not the capacity, either of judging rightly about our conduct or of bringing it before God. I may be called upon to act independently of the highest authority in the world, but it ought never to be on the principle that I am doing my own will.
The liberty of the saint is not licence to do his own will.* If anything could have taken away the liberty of the Lord Jesus, it would have been the hindering Him in being always obedient to the will of God. All that moves in the sphere of man's will is sin. Christianity pronounces the assertion of its exercise to be the principle of sin. We are sanctified unto obedience. (1 Peter 1:2.) The essence of sanctification is the having no will of our own. If I were as wise (so to speak) as Lucifer, and it ministered to my own will, all my wisdom would come to be folly. True slavery is the being enslaved by our own will; and true liberty consists in our having our own wills entirely set aside. When we are doing our own wills, self is our centre.
The Lord Jesus "took upon Himself the form of a servant," and, "being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." (Phil. 2: 6-8.) When man became a sinner, he ceased to be a servant, though he is, in sin and rebellion, the slave of a mightier rebel than himself. When we are sanctified, we are brought into the place of servants, as well as that of sons. The spirit of Sonship just manifested itself in Jesus, in coming to do the Father's will. Satan sought to make His Sonship at variance with unqualified obedience to God; but the Lord Jesus would never do any thing, from the beginning to the end of His life, but the Father's will.
*An entire self-renunciation (and that goes very far when we know the subtlety of the heart) is the only means of walking with the full blessing that belongs to our happy position of service to God, our brethren, and mankind.
In this chapter, the spirit of obedience is enforced towards those who rule in the church - "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves." (v. 17.) It is for our profit, in everything, to seek after this spirit. "They watch for your souls," says the Apostle, "as they that must give account." Those whom the Lord puts into service, He makes responsible to Himself. That is the real secret of all true service. It should not be right* that guides, either those who rule, or those who obey. They are servants, and that is their responsibility. Woe unto them if they do not guide, direct, rebuke, etc.; if they do not do it, "the Lord" will require it of them. On the other hand, those counseled become directly responsible to "the Lord" for obedience.
*"Right," in the human sense of it, is some title to exercise his own will in man, unimpeded by the interference of another. Now Christianity entirely sets this aside. It may be very speciously maintained, by dwelling only on the latter half of the definition, because grace does give a title against the interference of another; but that title is in, and by virtue of, responsibility to God. But the light which Christianity sheds on this, is not my meddling with the will of that other, but my obligation to do the will of God at all cost.
The great guardian principle of all conduct in the Church of God is personal responsibility to "the Lord."
No guidance of another can ever come in between an individual's conscience and God. In popery, this individual responsibility to God is taken away.** Those who are spoken of in this chapter, as having the rule in the Church, had to "give account" of their own conduct, and not of souls which were committed to them. There is no such thing as giving an account of other peoples' souls; "every one of us shall give account of himself to God." (Rom. 14: 12.) Individual responsibility always secures the maintenance of God's authority. If those who watched for their souls had been faithful in their service, they would not have to give account "with grief," so far as they were concerned; but still, it might be very "unprofitable" for the others, if they acted disobediently.
**The authority of the Church is confessedly antecedent to the authority of the word in Romanism, and the saints are not, all of them, allowed to be the immediate objects of God's own word, nor act upon it, that is, be subject to it. They are to be subject to the Church. Let the Church allow it or not, that makes no difference. Man who allows, can hinder; that is, hinder God's addressing the saints. For this is the true question of Protestantism, not man's title to the Bible merely, but God's title to address man directly by His word; more particularly, to address each of His own servants, or those professedly such.
Wherever the principle of obedience is not in our hearts, all is wrong, there is nothing but sin. The principle which actuates us in our conduct should never be, "I must do what I think right;" but, "I ought to obey God." (Acts 5:29.)*
*Peter's answer seems to meet both of two great classes by whom the true principle of obedience is lost sight of and abused - those who plead obedience, and those who plead liberty. The one plead liberty - rights - the title to do, as regards men, what they please. The other claim obedience, and plead frequently the principle; but it is still to men, and not to God. "We ought to obey God," is the Christian's answer to both. "We ought to obey," I say to the man who claims rights; "We ought to obey God," to the man who pleads the principle of obedience in defence of that which rests merely on the authority of man and his ways - "We ought to obey God, rather than man." How perfect is Scripture in setting in order the ways of men, the narrow path which no other power detects, as revealing the principles of the human mind, and judging them. Self-will is never right. Obedience to man is often wrong - disobedience to God.
The Apostle then says, "Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly." (v. 18.) It is always the snare of those who are occupied with the things of God continually, not to have a "good conscience." No person is so liable to a fall, as one who is continually ministering the truth of God, if he be not careful to maintain a "good conscience." The continually talking about truth, and the being occupied about other people, has a tendency to harden the conscience. The Apostle does not say, 'Pray for us, for we are labouring hard and the like;' but that which gives him confidence in asking their prayers is, that he has a "good conscience." We see the same principle spoken of in 1 Tim. 1:19 "Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck." Where there is not diligence in seeking to maintain a "good conscience," Satan comes in and destroys confidence between the soul and God, or we get into false confidence. Where there is the sense of the presence of God, there is the spirit of lowly obedience. The moment that a person is very active in service, or has much knowledge and is put forward in any way in the Church, there is the danger of not having a good conscience.*
*The sense of the presence of God will keep every thing in its place. The same Lord has said, "All ye are brethren;" and, "strengthen thy brethren." In order truly to strengthen them, some painful experience of self will always be necessary, as in the case of Peter. It is not thus that man would have appointed; but God has so ordered.
It is blessed to see the way in which, in verses 20, 21, the Apostle returns, after all his exercise and trial of spirit, to the thought of God's being "the God of peace." He was taken from them, and was in bondage and trial himself; he enters, moreover, into all the troubles of these saints, and is extremely anxious, evidently, about them; and yet he is able to turn quietly to God, as "the God of peace."
We are called unto peace. Paul closes his second epistle to the Thessalonians with, "Now the Lord of peace Himself give you peace always by all means." There is nothing that the soul of the believer is more brought to feel than that he has "need of patience" (Heb. 10:36); but if he is hindered by any thing from finding God to be "the God of peace," if sorrow and trial hinder this, there is the will of the flesh at work. There cannot be the quiet doing of God's will, if the mind be troubled and fluttered. It is completely our privilege, to walk and to be settled in peace; to have no uneasiness with God, but to be quietly seeking His will. It is impossible to have holy clearness of mind, unless God be known as "the God of peace." When every thing was removed out of God's sight but Christ, God was "the God of peace." Suppose then that I find out that I am an utterly worthless sinner, but see the Lord Jesus standing in the presence of God, I have perfect peace. This sense of peace becomes distracted when we are looking at the difficulties by the way; for, when the charge and care of any thing rests on our minds, God ceases, practically, to be "the God of peace."
There are three steps.
1 The knowledge that God has "made peace through the blood of the cross." (Col. 1: 20.) This gives us "peace with God." (Rom. 5:1.)
2 As it regards all our cares and troubles, the promise is, that, if we cast them on God, "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (See Phil. 4:6, 7.) God burdens Himself about everything for us, yet He is never disturbed or troubled, and, it is said, that His peace shall "keep our hearts and minds." If Jesus walked on the troubled sea, He was just as much at peace, as ever; He was far above the waves and billows.
3 There is a further step, viz., He, who is "the God of peace," being with us, and working in us to will and to do of His own good pleasure. (See vv. 20, 21.) The holy power of God is here described as keeping the soul in those things which are well pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ.
There was war - war with Satan, and in our own consciences. That met its crisis on the cross of the Lord Jesus. The moment that He was raised from the dead, God was made known, fully, as "the God of peace." He could not leave His Son in the grave; the whole power of, the enemy was exercised to its fullest extent; and God brought the Lord Jesus into the place of peace, and us, also, who believe on Him, and became nothing less than "the God of peace."
He is "the God of peace," both as regards our sins, and as regards our circumstances. But it is only in His presence that there is settled peace. The moment we get into human thoughts and reasonings about circumstances, we get troubled. Not only has peace been made for us by the atonement, but it rests upon the power of Him who raised up Jesus again from the dead; and therefore we know Him as "the God of peace."
The blessing of the saint does not depend upon the old covenant, to which man was a party, and which might, therefore, fail; but upon that God, who, through all the trouble and the power of Satan, "brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus," and thus secured "eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12.) All that God Himself had pronounced as to judgment against sin, and all the wicked power of Satan, rested on Jesus, on the cross; and God Himself has raised Him from the dead. Here, then, we have full comfort and confidence of soul. "Nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord," argues faith (see Rom. 8:31-39), "for, when all our sins had been laid upon Jesus, God in mighty power, brought again from the dead that Great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant." The blood was as much the proof and witness of the love of God to the sinner, as it was, of the justice and majesty of God against sin. This covenant is founded on the truth and holiness of the eternal God having been fully met, and answered, in the cross of the Lord Jesus. His precious blood has met every claim of God. If God be not "the God of peace," He must be asserting the insufficiency of the blood of His dear Son. And this, we know, is impossible. God rests in it as a sweet savour.
Then, as to the effect of all this on the life of the saint, the knowledge of it produces fellowship with God, and delight in doing His will. He "works in us," as it is said here, "that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ."
The only thing that ought to make any hesitation in the saint's mind about departing to be with Christ, is the doing God's will here. We may suppose such an one thinking of the joy of being with Christ, and then being arrested by the desire of doing God's will here. (See Phil. 1:20-25.) That assumes confidence in God, as "the God of peace," and confidence in His sustaining power whilst here. If the soul is labouring in the turmoil of its own mind, it cannot have the blessing of knowing God as "the God of peace."
The flesh is so easily aroused, that there is often the need of the word of exhortation - "I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation," (v. 22.) The spirit of obedience is the only spirit of holiness.
The Lord give us grace to walk in His ways.