In 1878 the editor of ‘Le Français’, a catholic newspaper wrote to J N Darby asking him about what he and the brethren held. Although he did not like writing articles for newspapers, believing that they were not compatible with the Christian’s heavenly calling, Darby said, ‘I have given him in all simplicity what he asked for. He avowed himself a Catholic and devoted to Catholicism. His letter was simple and honest: I replied to him as Christian.’
A summary of his reply:
Darby and the brethren held to all the fundamentals of the Christian faith:
- There is one God, eternally blessed – Father, Son and Holy Spirit,.
- The Lord Jesus was and is human and divine. He was born of a virgin and was raised from the dead and is now glorified at the right hand of God.
- The Holy Spirit, having descended on the day of Pentecost, dwells in believers who are waiting for the promised return of the Lord Jesus.
- The Father in His love has sent the Son to accomplish the work of redemption and grace towards men. Jesus, the Son, finished the work on earth which the Father gave Him to do. He made propitiation for our sins, and ascended into heaven. Now He is the great High Priest, seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
As to the brethren, nobody would be received into fellowship who denied any of these fundamental truths, and any who undermined them would be excommunicated. They are essential to living faith and salvation, and to the life which all Christians live as born of God.
Darby’s early Christian Days
After John Darby was converted he spent six or seven years under the rod of the law, feeling that although Christ was his Saviour he did not possess Him, or that he was fully saved by Him. He fasted, prayed and gave alms, but did not have peace. He felt that if the Son of God had Himself forgiven him, he owed Him his body, soul and means.
At length God gave him to understand that he was in Christ, united to Him by the Holy Spirit. Though he had always accepted that the word of God was the absolute authority as to faith and practice, God had now implanted in his heart the conviction of it. Scriptures which bore on that were:
- ‘At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you’ (John 14:20)
- ‘He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit’ (1 Cor 6:17)
- ‘Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost who is in you’ (1 Cor 6:19)
- ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1)
- ‘I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also’ (John 14:3)
- ‘Having believed, ye have been sealed for the day of redemption’ (Eph 1:13)
- ‘For by one Spirit are we all baptised into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13)
- ‘Even when we were dead in sins, [he] hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)’ ( 2:5)
- ‘Our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory’ (Phil 3:20-21)
From the above scriptures he deduced that the Holy Spirit has given us as believers the full assurance of salvation. We have been set apart from this world, sealed to do God’s will here. We are citizens of another world, awaiting the return of our Lord and Saviour.
The body of Christ is composed of those who are united by the Holy Spirit to the Head – Christ in heaven. We are seated in the heavenly places in Christ, and are already there in spirit, just waiting to be actually place us up there, our bodies changed.
The Public Church
This brings us to the thought of the church and of its unity.
Let us look around we see how far we as Christians have got from what God had set up on the earth. Where is the church? Darby said that he gave up Anglicanism as not being it. In his early days he had been attracted to Rome. But then he realised that the idea of a sacrificing priesthood down here was inconsistent with Heb 10:14-18 ‘For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. . . . Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin’. As a result of the work of Christ, we have direct access to God in all confidence. ‘Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.’ (Heb. 10:19). Rome pretended to be the whole, but that excluded half or more of Christendom. Protestant sects were divided amongst themselves – unity was not possible. In fact, most of those who call themselves Christians are of the world, just as much as a pagan might be.
The Fall of the early Church
The church was formed on the earth at the descent of the Holy Spirit. It ought always to have been clearly identifiable, as something distinct, separate from the world. Alas this has not been the case. The Lord foresaw this: ‘The wolf catcheth them and scattereth the sheep’ (John 10:12) but, thank God the same faithful Shepherd also said, ‘No one shall catch them out of my hand’ (v.28).
The apostle Paul, bidding farewell to the faithful of Asia, said, ‘I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock, and of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:29-30). Moreover, Jude noted that deceitful men had crept in among the Christians, ‘Certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men’ (Jude v.4). This would lead to apostasy, those inside the public confession entirely abandoning the Christian faith. ‘There are there many antichrists: whereby we know that it is the last time. hey went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us’ (1 John 2:18-19).
What the Faithful should understand
Paul tells us, ‘Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of the Lord depart from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work’ (2 Tim 2:19-21).
The public church is a great house with vessels of all kinds: a call comes to the faithful man to purify himself from the vessels to dishonour. In the next chapter he speaks of perilous times. Men will be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud etc., but also ‘Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof’ (2 Tim 3:5). They were evidently in the professing church, not pagans as in Romans 1. And it goes on, ‘All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse’ (2 Tim. 3:12, 13); but true believers have assurance through the scriptures, given by inspiration of God, making them wise to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
At the beginning, ‘the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved’ (Acts 2:47) Soon false brethren crept in, tares were sown, the house was filled with unholy vessels, from which the faithful were to purge themselves, persons with a form of godliness without power, from which the faithful were to turn away.
Evil in the church continued. ‘The mystery of iniquity doth already work’ (2 Thess 2:7). The wicked would be destroyed by the brightness of His coming. Elsewhere the Lord speaks of the good grain and the tares growing together until the harvest (See Matt 13:24-30). We must distinguish between the work of Christ, and what is done by men – heresies and schisms.
However, the gates of hell are not to prevail against that which Christ has built. The enemy will never destroy what Christ has built (the church of God). That is the house made of living stones, and the holy temple in the Lord (See 1 Peter 2:5 and Eph 2:21. Alongside all that, the Word declares that where two or three are gathered to the name of Jesus, He would be in their midst. (See Matt 18:20).
The early Brethren
This is what Darby recognised. Initially only four met together, not in a spirit of pride or presumption, but deeply grieved at seeing the state of that which surrounded them, and praying earnestly about it. Darby said they were not thinking of forming a new sect. Indeed, they did not believe that the thing would have gone any further. They were just satisfying the need of their souls according to the word of God and found the promised presence of the Lord.
Independently following the same road, the work extended in a way they did not expect – in the British Isles, France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and on through the rest of Europe, the British Colonies, the United States, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. As the gospel was preached, the Spirit of God acted, and produced soul yearnings that the established religious systems could not meet.
Those brethren rested on the authority of the word of God. They saw our Saviour:
- first as accomplishing redemption on the cross,
- then as seated at the Father’s right hand, the Holy Ghost being down here,
- and finally, as coming back to take His own to be with Himself.
These Christians had the full assurance of their salvation They had faith in the efficacy of Christ’s redemption, and being sealed with the Holy Spirit, they were waiting for the Son of God to come from heaven without knowing when it would happen. Bought with a great price, they felt bound to regard themselves as no longer belonging to themselves, but to please the Lord Jesus in everything, and to live only for Him.
The Brethren’s Walk
Whilst Darby had to admit that not all the brethren walked at the full height of the heavenly calling, they acknowledged the obligation to do so. Brethren walked in a morally right way, excluding any who held heresy or engaged in immorality. They abstained from the pleasures and amusements of the world. Evening parties would be occasions of encouraging one another and discussing the word. Brethren did not vote or get involved in politics. They submitted to the established authorities, whatever they may be, so long as they were not called upon to act contrary to the will of Christ. They took the Lord’s supper every Sunday, and those who had gift, taught from the scriptures and preached the gospel of salvation to sinners. Everyone felt bound to seek the salvation or good of his or her neighbour, as they were able. Feeling that Christendom was corrupt, they were not of the church-world.
Asked as to how many such believers followed this course, Darby had no idea. Brethren did not number themselves, wishing to remain in the littleness which becomes Christians. In any case, they reckoned as a brother or sister in Christ every person who had the Spirit of Christ.
What is the advantage of this course? We acknowledge Christ as the Son of God and know that we have been saved by Him. In obeying Him, in spite of our weakness, faults and failures, we have as an indescribable source of joy. Looking ahead, we have an earnest or advance of eternal happiness, with no failures, where our Lord will be fully glorified in all believers.