1. There is an unlawful striving after unlawful objects. By Philpot
But as what is right is often more clearly shown by holding up what is wrong, I shall attempt to describe first what it is to strive unlawfully after unlawful objects.
1. To strive then after the pre-eminence, to be a Diotrephes in a church, 3John 9 is an unlawful striving after an unlawful object. There is to be no superiority, or pre-eminence among the followers of Christ. “You are all brethren,” said Jesus to his disciples; Mt 23:8 “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is he who is most like a child.” Mt 18:4 “The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and those who are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” Mt 20:25-27 Pre-eminence among brethren is an unlawful object, and must therefore be always unlawfully striven after.
2. All strife about vain and idle questions is unlawful strife. “Of these things,” says Paul, “put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers.” 2Ti 2:14 So he speaks of those who “dote about questions and strifes of words, whereof comes envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds.” 1Ti 6:4,5 When men of this caviling, contentious spirit arise in churches, woe to their peace.
3. To seek after a form of godliness, while secretly denying the power thereof, or to have a name to live when dead in sin, is an unlawful striving after an unlawful object. To strive to be a whited sepulcher, a painted hypocrite, a deceiver of the churches, is dreadful striving indeed.
4. To strive after fleshly holiness and creature perfection is an unlawful strife. God never designed that the flesh should be holy. In his discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus laid it down at the very entrance in the divine life, that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” thus establishing an eternal and unalterable distinction between them. “I know that in me,” says Paul, “that is, in my flesh, there dwells no good thing.” “The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other.” Ga 5:17 All attempts therefore to improve or sanctify the flesh, are bidding “the leopard change his spots, and washing the Ethiopian white.”
5. Again, all attempts to please God by anything that we ourselves can do, is an unlawful striving after an unlawful object. He cannot be so pleased. The corrupt fountain of our heart is continually pouring forth its polluted streams, and therefore all that comes out of it is polluted. Nothing short of perfect purity can please a perfectly pure God; and as no thought, word, or deed has passed from us by nature which is not defiled, it cannot please God. But how many think that their prayers or their tears or their good actions are acceptable to Him.
6. All attempt to keep the law in its strict requirements is an unlawful striving. That is, it is not done as God would have it done. Jesus, and He alone of all the sons of men, kept the law; and he who would go about to establish his own righteousness, to the neglect or contempt of Christ’s righteousness, strives unlawfully.
7. To strive to convert the world, and to turn goats into sheep, to seek to overthrow the eternal lines of distinction between the elect and the reprobate, and frustrate Jehovah’s sovereign decrees of judgment and mercy, is an unlawful strife after an unlawful object. To break down the barriers of the church and the world, and reduce to mere nullities the distinguishing doctrines of grace, is indeed to strive contrary to every rule in the word of God.
8. To seek to find an easier and smoother path than the strait gate and the narrow way; to come into the fold, but not through the door of regeneration, as the Porter opens it; to be aiming at any other salvation than an experimental acquaintance with Christ and the power of his resurrection; to set up human talents, and creature religion as sufficient with, or without the Holy Spirit’s heavenly teachings; to strive after natural faith, hope, repentance, and love–all are so many branches of unlawful striving after unlawful objects.
By unlawful is meant as I said before, not that which is contrary to the letter of the law, not that which is not in strict accordance with the moral law, or the ten commandments, or any branch of the Mosaic law. The words “lawful” and “unlawful” in the text have no reference whatever to the law properly so called. The words “lawfully” and “unlawfully” mean a complying, or a not complying with certain rules and conditions, laid down in God’s word. The laws and rules are not legal, old covenant rules, but gospel, law covenant conditions. Mistake me not. I do not here mean conditions to be performed by the creature, but certain rules, according to which the Holy Spirit works. “We are the clay, and He the Potter;” but the heavenly Potter works according to certain rules; and could it be possible for a vessel to be made contrary to these rules, it would not be a vessel of honor fit for the master’s use. I wish to explain myself clearly, for directly a man begins to talk about rules and conditions, there are plenty of people so ignorant or so prejudiced, that they will be sure to make him an offender for a word. Remember this then, that by the word rules, laws, or conditions, I mean certain modes laid down in God’s word, according to which the Holy Spirit acts, when he works in us to will and to do of his good pleasure.
All the striving then of carnal unregenerate professors is an unlawful striving after one or more unlawful objects. Being destitute of heavenly teaching, lawful objects, that is, such objects as are set before the eyes of the elect, are never striven after by them. God has never enlightened them into the depths of the fall, nor brought his holy law into their conscience in its depth and spirituality. The fountains of the great deep in their heart were never broken up, nor their secret corruptions laid bare. Sin is a burden under which they never groaned, unbelief never grieved and plagued them, the utter alienation of their heart from God was never so discovered to them as to convince them of their helplessness and hopelessness. Isaiah’s experience was never theirs, when he cried out, “Woe is me, for I am undone; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Their loveliness was never turned into corruption like Daniel’s; nor did they ever abhor themselves in dust and ashes, like Job. Had this work been wrought with divine power on their consciences, had the law been inwardly applied, it would effectually have cut them off from all unlawful striving.
Nor on the other hand did the Holy Spirit ever set before the eyes of their mind the gospel of the grace of God. No carnal professor, whether Calvinist or Arminian, ever had a spiritual knowledge of law or gospel. Had he experimentally known the law, it would have cut him off from unlawful striving. Had he known experimentally the gospel, it would have cut him off from unlawful objects. Thus they never had any inward taste of the sweetness of the gospel. The outward scheme and theory they might perfectly understand, and discuss it most exactly and learnedly; but the inward power, the heavenly sweetness, the divine application of it they had never the least acquaintance with. Their heads may be at Mount Zion, but their hearts are at Mount Sinai.
These unlawful strivers after unlawful objects are never crowned. They may indeed seem to arrive first at the goal; and we well know how an unburdened professor outstrips in zeal, activity, and outward religion, the poor heavy laden, panting child of God. But he is not crowned. He has carried no weight. He has run the wrong side of the post. He has won the race and lost the prize. We hear the great Judge at the last day, in reply to all his declarations of his having prophesied in his name, cast out devils, and done many mighty works, refuse the crown of eternal life with this dreadful sentence; “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
I shall have occasion to show as I proceed with my subject, that the Judge of the living and the dead gives the lawful victor two crowns, a crown here and a crown hereafter–the crown of his love and approbation in the conscience on earth, and the crown of eternal glory in heaven. The unlawful striver after unlawful objects has neither of these crowns bestowed upon him, for the one is but the foretaste and sure forerunner of the other. He has therefore no secret crown of divine approbation set on his heart. God never smiled into his soul, nor sanctioned with a divine manifestation in his conscience his words and works. Professors of every degree may have praised him; but the sealing of the Spirit, the heavenly diadem of God’s own putting on, was never felt nor known.
God’s children themselves are often entangled in this freewill strife, especially younger days, before the Lord has purged away their filth by the Spirit of Judgment, and the Spirit of burning. We find this much in the case of the disciples, while their Lord was with them, before they were baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Though quickened into spiritual life, they were continually striving after pre-eminence, each wishing to be greatest. Thus the sons of Zebedee, fearful of their own persuasive powers, must needs employ the persuasive tongue of a woman–that powerful weapon which so few men can withstand, to induce their master to seat them on his left hand and his right hand in his kingdom. So, on another occasion, the same two disciples would have had fire come down from heaven to consume the Samaritans, when they would not receive Christ Lu 9:54.
Thus we in our youthful religious day were striving after many unlawful objects. Holiness in the flesh, to please God by our own exertions, to make ourselves religious, and understand the doctrines of grace by reading all sorts of religious books, to please professors, conciliate the world, avoid the cross, shun the imputation of uncharitableness, soften down carnal relations, and keep up old acquaintances–who of us has never thus striven after these unlawful objects? But we could never get the Searcher of hearts, to put on our consciences the crown of his approbation. We strove for the mastery but were never crowned because we strove unlawfully.