The strife we have just been describing was unlawful strife after unlawful objects. In that the things aimed at and sought after were as contrary to the rules of the word of God as the mode of striving to obtain them. In the strife that we are about to consider now, the objects aimed at are lawful and good, but they are sought after in an unlawful, wrong way.
I repeat again, that lawful and unlawful here do not mean, and have nothing to do with the law properly so called, but signify a compliance or a noncompliance on the part of the striver with certain rules, which God has laid down in his word. What those rules are we shall see before long.
There are then certain lawful objects, set forth in the word of God, as the things to be aimed at by everyone who runs the race set before him by the Holy Spirit. These lawful objects are the blessings which God blessed his church with in Christ Jesus. Who sits at the end of the race to award the prize? What says Paul? “Let us run with patience the race set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” Heb 12:1,2 Now to whom can the runners in a race look, but to him who sits at the goal? They leave the spectators behind, and without stretched necks look forward to the Judge of the prize. He is “the Author of their faith,” giving them power to run, and “the Finisher,” by crowning it with his approbation.
To “win Christ” then is the object set before the soul that runs the heavenly race. “That I may win Christ,” says Paul. Php 3:8 But what is it to win Christ? Why, to have him in our hearts as the hope of glory, to embrace him in our arms of faith and affection, and to be able to say feelingly, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” Again, pardon of sin, manifestations of mercy, visitations of God the Father’s presence and love, the Spirit of adoption enabling the soul to cry, “Abba, Father,” applications of Christ’s atoning blood, and gracious discoveries of his glorious righteousness, these are lawful objects for the living family to strive after. Lawful, not because the law, strictly so called, speaks of them, for the law never did testify of them either outwardly or inwardly, but because the believer’s rule, the glorious gospel of the grace of God, sets forth these blessings as the portion of the people of God in the New Testament.
Now none but a living soul ever panted and longed after these spiritual blessings. Hypocrites and reprobates may desire heaven to escape hell, as Balaam desired to die the death of the righteous. But I never can believe that any but a living soul desired an eternal heaven. Pardon of sin a reprobate may desire, to escape the gnawing of the never dying worm, and the fire that is not quenched; but I feel fully persuaded, that no one dead in sin longed and panted with intense breathings and burning desires after the manifestations of the pure love of an all pure God.
No natural man, no, not the highest doctrinal professor, ever poured out his soul after the blessed overshadowings of the Holy Spirit. It was never his daily longing, nor midnight cry. Such a blessing he has neither a heart to ask, nor a heart to receive.
But in his gracious dealings with his own children, the Lord usually sets before them certain blessings, of which he makes them feel their deep need, and after which he kindles in their soul intense desires. I well remember how ardently not quite fourteen years ago my soul longed after the knowledge of God. It came upon me in the depths of affliction, unsought, and abode with me for weeks at times night and day. O what a spirit of grace and supplication I then had after the internal knowledge of God in Christ!
But there is an unlawful striving in quickened souls after these lawful objects. Now God has laid down in his word of truth three solemn rules, laws you may call them if you like, which constitute lawful striving.
1. The Holy Spirit must begin, carry on, and finish the inward work of grace.
2. The soul must be brought under his divine teaching to be thoroughly stripped and emptied of all creature wisdom, strength, help, hope, and righteousness.
3. The glory of a Triune God must be the end and motive of all.
Any departure from these three rules of striving makes a man strive unlawfully.
Now in early days with us we are often striving after lawful objects, but our manner of striving after them is not in compliance with these three rules, and therefore we strive unlawfully. We are not stripped and laid low in a day. It is often the work of time. I can speak well from experience here. I was not stripped, nor brought down for several years after, as I trust, the Lord quickened my soul, though from the first I was led to strive more or less after lawful objects, and could not do without an internal religion. But thorough soul poverty had not laid hold of me, shame and confusion of face had not covered me. I had not then felt what a vile monster of iniquity I was, nor loathed and abhorred myself in dust and ashes. Man’s utter helplessness was to me more a doctrine than a truth; I was not acquainted with the mighty overwhelming power of sin, nor had the ploughshare of temptation turned up the deep corruptions of my heart. I therefore strove unlawfully. When I fell as I fell continually, I had some secret reserve in SELF, some prayers, or repentance, or hopes, or resolutions to help me out of the ditch.
Have we not all been more or loss here? We had a ‘legal spirit’ influencing us, and there was a kind of dead hope that if we lived holy lives, believed the promises, looked, as we thought looking then was, to Christ, and kept perseveringly on, we would get the object of our desires. And though we never got a step forward in the matter, there was a dim struggling after progressive sanctification, and seeking the blessings of the gospel by the works of the law. Now what was the result of all this unlawful striving? Did God ever crown it with his gracious smiles and heavenly approbation? We know that he never did. When is the crown put on? “In the day of the espousals, and in the day of the gladness of the heart.” So 3:11 And there can be no espousals, no manifested betrothing of the soul unto Christ in loving kindness, in mercies, in faithfulness, until we are dead to the law, our first husband. Then the crown is put upon the heart. God is a jealous God, and will not give his glory to another. Our own strivings shall never procure us the looks of his love. Now this denial of the crown to all their ardent desires and earnest strivings sadly puzzles and bewilders the seeking soul. No he is almost ready to quarrel with God, and accuse him of unfaithfulness, because he will not smile, and speak peace and pardon. Jeremiah was here, when with intemperate complaint, he cried aloud, “Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuses to be healed? Will you be altogether unto me as a liar, and as waters that fail?” Jer 15:18
But we cannot learn spiritual religion, as we learn arithmetic; we cannot take the slate, and copy out the rule, and work the sum. God’s teachings are of a very different nature, intended to baffle and confound all the pride and wisdom of the creature. Nor can we hasten God’s work. His teachings are not hasty teachings for the most part, but line upon line, line upon line, here a little and there a little. I cannot stand in your experience; you cannot stand in mine. Neither of us know one jot more nor one jot less than the Holy Spirit has written upon our heart. We do not learn religion in a day. The way from Egypt to Canaan was but a few days journey, but the Lord choose to lead his people about in the wilderness, amid fiery flying serpents, drought, and famine, for forty years. And why?–but “to humble them, and test them, and know what was in their heart?” This was one part of the lesson; and the other was that “he might make them know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” De 8:2,3 And thus we have to learn by painful experience the uselessness of all creature strivings, and to be brought down into that state where all exertions fail.