J N Darby – French Letter No. 141 – The Present State of the Church

J N Darby
John Nelson Darby

141[1]

London – 22nd November 1870

To Mr B

Dear Brother

You ask me for some words on the apostasy. I do not hold to the word apostasy. It expresses rather the public denial of Christianity, which abandons the principles by those who make profession of it. But fundamentally, the matter itself is of all importance for the heart and for the conscience. As long as this word is not applied to Romish sectarians, there would be no trouble in using it, but when it is realised that, if this decline of Christendom has come about, the consequence of it would be universal, one begins taking exception to the use of the word. The open apostasy has not yet come, but rather the abandonment of faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit, the substitution of the clergy’s authority over the immediate rights of the Lord over the conscience; the degeneration of justification by faith, the efficacy of sacraments in place of the work of the Holy Spirit. In a word, the full development of the mystery of lawlessness is preceded by an abandonment of the first estate of the church and the principles on which it is founded, which is a moral apostasy. John says, “ye have heard that antichrist comes, even now there have come many antichrists, whence we know that it is the last hour”[2]. Thus, the apostasy has not come in the sense of a public renunciation of Christianity, [but rather] of the Word, and of Christ Himself, which characterises the majority of the population of Western Europe. It is rationalism properly speaking, and the spirit of rebellion that accompanies it. Men’s minds have no place for the word of God, the authority of which is no longer accepted; the will of man no longer desires the authority of Christ. If the antichrist is not already there, antichrists have existed for a long time; if the apostasy is not there, the spirit of the apostasy has already taken over the minds of men a long time.

I say that the thing is serious. If the assembly – for the word church confounds us a lot, since it begs the question what the church is – if the assembly of God does not keep its first estate, if it has said: “My Lord delays to come”[3], and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and to drink and to be drunken; there has been a long time, centuries, when it has done this, and it will be cut in two and have its part with the hypocrites. It is said that Christ built His assembly on the rock, and that the gates of hades will not prevail against it. I believe it, thanks be to God, with all my heart. But that has nothing to do with our question. Certainly, what Christ built will not be overthrown by the enemy; but it is a matter of what man has built. It is not the same there. Paul says, “as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation, but another builds upon it. But let each see how he builds upon it”[4]. Here the responsibility of man comes in for something – in a certain sense for all – into the question of the building. It is indeed God’s building, as the apostle says, but put up under man’s responsibility; a present thing on the earth. It is not about the salvation of individuals, but of the state of the system in which these individuals are found. When the end of Judaism under the first covenant had come about, pious souls, believers, were transferred into the church – God had finished for ever with the first system. At the end of the Christian system, the faithful will be transported to heaven, and judgment will come finally on the system from which they have previously come; nothing is simpler. The old world has perished: Noah and his own were saved. The judgment of a system does not affect God’s faithfulness; it is only to put it into evidence in showing that He keeps His own, even if all that encircles them collapses under the weight of His judgment. But can there be anything more serious than the judgment of what God established on the earth, for it is a hard thing to His heart; if Jesus could weep over Jerusalem, how much should His own not be moved at the sight of the approaching judgment of what was even more precious than Jerusalem. It is thus that Jeremiah, instrument of the groaning of the Spirit of God under the old economy, shows in words of a touching beauty, his deep sorrow at the ruin of what belonged to God. “And he hath violently cast down his enclosure as a garden; he hath destroyed his place of assembly … The Lord hath cast off his altar, he hath rejected his sanctuary” (Lam 2: 6, 7). See the spirit in which the faithful had to think of the ruin of what is called by the Name of Christ. But it will be said to me: ‘Yes, that is understood, when it was a matter of Judaism, but this cannot happen to Christianity.’ This is exactly what the unbelieving Jews said in Jeremiah’s time: “for law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor word from the prophet” (Jer 18: 18): false confidence which brought ruin on the people and on the holy city. But there is more than this. It is precisely against this false confidence that Paul, in Romans 11, solemnly warns Christians among the Gentiles, that is to say ourselves, in establishing the parallel between the Jews and Christianity. “Behold then the goodness and severity of God: upon them who have fallen, severity; upon thee goodness of God, if thou shalt abide in goodness, since otherwise thou also wilt be cut away”, that is to say that the Christian system in the midst of the Gentiles is subject to the same judgment as the Jewish system. If the Gentiles who are only standing by faith alone, do not persevere in the goodness of God, they will fall away in the same way as the Jews. Is Romanism perseverance in the goodness of God? Are the “difficult times” the fruit of perseverance in the goodness of God, or indeed this form of piety which denies the power of it, and from which the Christian must separate? (2 Tim 3). If the apostle can say that all seek their own things, not the things of Jesus Christ[5], is that persevering in the goodness of God? If Paul foresaw that after his departure evil would come in straightaway[6], the powerful hand of the apostle not being there to hold the door shut against the adversary; if Jude had to say that already those who were the objects of judgment had slipped into the church; if John has said that they had forsaken the Christians, being gone out from among them[7], a step further than what Jude spoke of; if he has said again that there were many antichrists and that it was recognised from this that it was the last times; if Peter announces to us that the times were come for judgment to begin at the house of God[8]; does all this lead us to believe that the Gentiles have continued in God’s goodness, or rather that the Christian system, established among the Gentiles, will be terminated by judgment, the terrible judgment of God? – that, as outward profession, it will drink the cup of His wrath unmixed, or will be spewed out of His mouth like something nauseously lukewarm[9]? This is solemn for our consciences. Do we go as a system before the judgments of God? Assuredly, the faithful will enjoy a more excellent part; a heavenly glory, but the Christian system, as a system on the earth, will be cut off for ever.

As to the quotation made by Mr B, it is entirely false. The Scriptures speak of the assembly as being God’s habitation down here: the whole question lies here. In a house, it is not a matter of union, but of dwelling.

As to the body of Christ, there could be no dead members. One can deceive men, but he who is in fact united to the Lord is one Spirit with Him. The body is formed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12). Then Christ builds a house which will only be realised when the last stone is put there; it increases to be a holy temple in the Lord. But we have seen down here the building being confided to men, it may be that the building is ill-built and attract the judgment of God on what has been done. As the church has been established as the pillar and base of the truth, it will always be responsible to maintain this position; it is another thing to say that it has maintained it.

The first epistle to Timothy depicts for us the order of the house of God, and how man must conduct himself in this house. Does he conduct himself so? That is the question. If yes, whence comes Popery? The second epistle to Timothy regulates the conduct of the faithful when disorder has been introduced. Already, things in Christianity were no longer in the state in which they were found beforehand. At the beginning, the Lord added each day to the church those who were to be saved. They were manifested and added under the eyes of the world, a body well known. But when the apostle wrote to Timothy his second epistle, all was already changed. What he can say is that the Lord knows those who are His; it could well be that they remained hidden to man, as the 7,000 faithful to Elijah. But with this there is a rule for the faithful, that is, whosoever names the name of the Lord withdraws from iniquity[10]. Then comes the thought of the great house. One must expect to find in a great house vessels to dishonour as well as vessels to honour. But here again is a rule for the faithful: it is necessary to purify oneself from vessels to dishonour, and not only that, but one must pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. In this state of disorder, I cannot know as at the beginning all those who are God’s; but as to my personal walk, I must associate myself with those who have a pure heart. Moreover, in chapter 3, the apostle teaches us that, in the last days, difficult times will be there, where there will be a form of piety while the power of it is denied. Not avowed apostasy, for there is the form of piety, but real, moral apostasy since the power of it is denied. Mr B says that I must stay there and content myself. The apostle tells me: “From such turn away”. Who must I obey? When Mr B tells me that it is impossible to distinguish the true faithful from those who make profession of Christianity, while the apostle says that he who invokes the name of the Lord should withdraw from iniquity, that I must purify myself from vessels to dishonour, to seek the Christian graces with those who invoke the name of the Lord, out of a pure heart; how can I listen to him who tells me that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other? If he tells me that there may be many souls that the Lord knows that we do not recognise, I answer, ‘Without doubt, the Lord knows those that are His, but I have directions for my conduct in this state of things, which contradict yours’. I must recognise those who invoke the name of the Lord out of a pure heart and associate myself with them, and thus to distinguish them; to purify myself from vessels to dishonour, and thus to distinguish them, and to avoid those who have the form of piety while denying the power of it. It is therefore very necessary to distinguish them. However, it is a frightful principle to say that one cannot distinguish between the children of God and the people of the world. It is not true that it cannot be done. I have said, ‘a frightful principle’ for it is said: “By this shall all know that ye are disciples of mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves”[11]. For if I cannot discern them, I can no more love them, and the testimony that God wants is lost; then, it is not true in practice that one cannot discern them, for one enjoys brotherly fellowship, and every faithful Christian makes the distinction between a child of God and those who are not so. That there are others that are not discerned, but whom God knows, is not denied; but the passages that I have cited in 2 Timothy direct us as to this … What would become of a family’s affections if a father said to his children: You cannot know who are your brothers and who are not; you must associate yourselves with everybody without any distinction whatsoever? I do not look in the dictionaries, as we are told to do, but into the consciences and hearts of those who love the Lord, in taking the word of God to see what the state of the church is at the beginning, and what it is now. What does this Word say to us to make us know what the church has become in the last times? The word could not be clearer on the decadence of the church, on the character of these last times, and on the setting aside of the Christian system. The word is clear enough on the unity which must subsist as testimony rendered to the world that He lives (John 17). If a letter was addressed by the apostle to the church of God which is in Turin, who would collect the letter from the post, unless those of the Romish system? The church as it was at the beginning no longer exists. Call it what name you want, provided that the heart feels it and provided that they take to heart the glory of the Lord trodden underfoot by men. If the church, in its present state, is not yet the harlot sat on the beast, of which the Revelation speaks, the indifference of conscience which can make a squabble about the use of a word is the most sensitive proof of lukewarmness which results, at the end, in Christ spewing the church out of his mouth.

… Besides, there is nothing in this ruin of the assembly which is not in accordance with the history of man since the beginning. As soon as man has been left to himself, he has fallen; unfaithful in his ways; he has cast off his primitive state and never returned to it. God does not re-establish it, but He gives salvation by redemption, and brings man into an infinitely more glorious state, in the second Man, Jesus Christ. When Noah had been saved in the ruin of the whole world, the first thing that we read after his sacrifice is that he got drunk; when the law was given, before Moses had descended from the mountain, Israel had made the golden calf; the first day after the consecration of Aaron, his sons offered strange fire, and entry into the holiest of all was forbidden to Aaron, save on the day of atonement; he never wore his garments of glory and beauty. The first son of David, Solomon, type of the Lord, fell into idolatry, and the kingdom was immediately divided. In all these cases, the patience of God has been gloriously manifested, but the system that God had set up as a system in relation with Himself has been set aside. This is least evident in the case of Noah because a formal relationship did not exist in the same sense. The confusion of Babel having terminated the order of the world, the tyranny and wars came about, but for what concerns man, Israel, the priesthood, the kingdom, whatever had been God’s patience, man has fallen immediately, and the system has never been re-established on its old footing. It is not surprising that this is found again in the history of the church, as being placed under man’s responsibility. It has said: My Lord delays His coming, and has begun to beat the servants and unite itself with the world. It will be cut off. The great principle of Romanism and other systems which are like it more or less, and which makes them essentially false, is that they attribute to Christianity, to the assembly organised by means of ordinances, the stability and the immutable privileges which only belong to what Christ builds, and what is wrought by the Holy Spirit. All sorts of false doctrines are the result of this error. One is born of God, member of the body of Christ, this is what an article says in The Christian Look-out[12]; this is what the passage cited by Mr B says. He forgets one of two principal characters of the church according to the Word, precisely that where man’s responsibility comes in, that of being the habitation of God on the earth. He presents us the state in which the church is presently found, and certainly it is not composed of true members of Christ, without giving us an account, without giving us any particulars whatever on this subject, so that we may know if this state is good or bad, where it comes from or where it will end, and how the Word judges it. The expressions which he makes us of are equivalent to those of the unbelieving Jews in the times of Jeremiah. We are free of all these abominations. Nobody can say that the state of the church, of Christendom, resembles in any way what characterised it at the beginning according to the Word; there was not in any way either Romanism, or the National church, or dissidents. There was the church of God and nothing else. It corrupted itself very quickly, one will say; very well, but was this a good thing? There was then a church to corrupt, an assembly where certain men had slipped in. Was this corruption a good thing, or does it lead to judgment? Has there not been frightful progress since then? Is the church of God re-established on the earth? Must I suffer its state? Must I not seek in the Word how this will end, and take care with it? We have cited the Word, may each judge before God what it says. If we find ourselves in difficult times, does not the Word give us some rules so that we can trace the way in which we must walk?

If someone has the conviction that we are in these times, let him read 2 Timothy 2 and 3, and place himself before God who has given these instructions, with an entire confidence in Christ. The result as to these instructions is not doubtful. May he know to walk with God. Let us remember that, in every position in which the first Adam has failed, man is gloriously re-established in the second. But that is a subject, very interesting though it be, into which I cannot enter here.

Make use, dear brother, as you see fit of these pages; I have written them in haste. From 7 o’clock in the morning to midnight, I have always to work; I have meetings every day, then other work of every kind, I have still the correction of the new edition of the English New Testament, and often the French also at the same time.

The brethren are well.

I did not know who had sent me the Look-out until the arrival of your letter. My response came a bit late, but that has not mattered much; the subject remains important. Only present the gospel more than the controversy.

I have written on the epistle to the Romans, you will find something there perhaps; this is not yet prepared.

Yours very affectionately

[1] a different version of this letter also appears in JND’s published Letters – vol 3 p94

[2] 1 John 2: 18

[3] Luke 12: 45

[4] 1 Cor 3: 10

[5] Phil 2: 21

[6] See Acts 20: 29; Jude 4

[7] 1 John 2: 19

[8] 1 Peter 4: 17

[9] See Rev 14: 10; 3: 16

[10] See 2 Tim 2: 19 et seq

[11] John 13: 35

[12] JND gives the Italian title – la Vedetta Cristiana – a Christian publication commenced in 1870 by Teodorico Pietrocola Rossetti, a preacher and a patriot of the Italian Risorgimento – a 19th-century movement for Italian unification that culminated in the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861

 

Letter originally written in French, translated by Sosthenes, 2013
Click here for original – If you have any comments on the translation, feel free to let me know.

Author: Sosthenes

Once the ruler of the synagogue at Corinth Then a co-writer of a letter by Paul - just a brother - no longer an official Now a blogger seeking to serve the Lord by posting some words that the Lord has given His Church.

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