“WHOSE fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with lire unquenchable.”
Brother William Mellott, of Hopewell, Pa., laments his isolation from the meetings of the Old School Baptists, as there is no church of our faith and order very near him, and he gets to hear preaching but very seldom indeed. In his letter to us he requests us to write on the above text, and we feel a desire to comply with it, for if the SIGNS has any mission at all to fulfill, we feel it must be to these lone sheep scattered over the country who are exiled from their church privileges, and who rarely, if ever, enjoy the preached gospel. Concerning the above passage of Scripture, brother Mellott says in his letter: “It has been on my mind for a long time, and I have thought several times of trying to write on it myself, but I am such a poor writer and poor speller and feel so poor in spiritual knowledge that I could not make the attempt. Thirty or thirty-five years ago I went to an Arminian Bible class, and they had this subject under consideration, and explained the chaff as representing the unregenerate. I contended in this case that the chaff represented the Adamic body, or old or outer man, and the wheat represented the inner or new man, created after God in true righteousness and holiness, as it is through much tribulation we enter the kingdom, and in the world we shall have tribulation, and only in him, peace. Tribulation means to thresh out or separate this chaff from the wheat. This chaff, it seems to me, is something belonging to the wheat, it is the hull of the wheat, and therefore must be threshed out. We do not thresh wheat to injure it, but to clean it, or separate it, from the chaff (or flesh), for except a man deny himself and take up his cross, he cannot be Jesus’ disciple.” We have thought best to quote this much from our brother’s letter in order to give our readers his viewpoint of the matter before proceeding to give our own views upon it. Such views as we have we are not indebted to any man for, and endeavor to present simply that which is our own mind’s exercise upon the subject. There is something peculiarly attractive about the ministry of John the Baptist, and it arises from the fact that he was the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” He was not the One crying, but the “voice” of One. It was the Lord that cried in that wilderness, but the Baptist was the “voice” of that One, the Lord. He was God’s mouthpiece, and the words that he spoke were “thus saith the Lord.” John the Baptist was not a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah, he was not Elijah come to earth again, but the same Spirit that dwelt in Elijah of old now dwelt in the Baptist, so much so that his ministry and the message he brought bore a striking similarity to the ministry of Elijah, for which reason he is called Elijah or Elias in Matt. xi. 13, 14: “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” Again, in Malachi iv. 5: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Both of the above Scriptures might seem on the face of them to signify that there was to be a reincarnation of the very personality and individuality of Elijah in the person of John the Baptist, but that this is not what was meant is sure from Luke i. 17: “He [the Baptist] shall go before him [Jesus] in the spirit and power of Elias.” Here it is shown in what manner John was to be Elijah: in spirit and power. Now, if you will take the trouble to turn back to the Old Testament history of Elijah, and compare it with the ministry of the Baptist, we think spiritual readers cannot fail to notice the marked resemblance between the ministry and message of the two men, that indeed the same spirit and the same power did dwell in them both. John came preaching “in the wilderness of Judea,” says Matthew. Not so much “wilderness,” in the sense that Judea was a barren country, for we doubt if that be literally true from what is said of the land of Judea in other Scriptures, but, “wilderness” religiously and spiritually. For the four hundred years from Malachi to the birth of Jesus and the ensuing ministry of the Baptist, there was no “open vision,” no prophet in all Israel, so far as we know, but instead there was a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Israel was apostate, sinking lower and ever lower in moral, political and religious corruption. Creeds, sects and divisions flourished apace, and Israel was rent with jealousies and bickerings of every sort. Was not this, then, a “wilderness” indeed into which John came preaching, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”? He was not afraid to preach the word straightforwardly, he did not use innuendos nor evasions, but called things by their right names, making no compromise with error or the hidden evils of darkness and unbelief. He stigmatized certain ones as “vipers,” because he saw in them no fruit of a divinely wrought repentance. When some mused in their hearts and thought to call him the Messiah long expected, he immediately disabused them of that idea, in saying, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” The word never speaks but error is confounded and truth exalted. Every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, whether spoken by prophets of old or by his Son Jesus Christ, every word is a discriminating, a separate word. When God speaks judgment is always in evidence, even when he speaks in love and in mercy. Something is separated from something else. The coming of Jesus changed nothing, it simply manifested what always was. It put things in their right positions, in the places where they belonged: this in the garner, that in the fire; this on the right side, that on the left, and so on. Our text declares that he (Jesus) will thoroughly purge “his” floor, not the floor of some one else, but only his floor. This threshing-floor in this instance we believe to have been national Israel. Israel was under the old dispensation the elect nation of God, separate and distinct from all other nations. But in this nation there was much that was chaff, and therefore no good. The coming of Jesus into the world and among that people was a time for a winnowing to begin there, and for a work of purging to be accomplished among them. The preaching of Jesus made some mad. And others glad, and this attitude of theirs showed whether they were trees bringing forth good or evil fruit; his preaching did not make them either good or bad, but simply made manifest what manner of spirit they were of, whether they were under the devil’s sway or being swayed by that wind, God’s Holy Spirit, that bloweth where it listeth. All through the three years and a half of Jesus’ public ministry he was threshing them: the Israelites. His own sheep he called by their names and they followed him; he brought them into his fold, gathered them into his garner. Those who hated him and despitefully used him he left where they were: in their godless state, without hope and without God in the world, under the wrath of God, under the power of the law, in the unquenchable fire. We understand the unquenchable fire here to mean, not a literal fire, but the eternal judgments of God, which are never revoked nor amended, hence are unquenchable. Under these eternal judgments of God against sin, in this fire which cannot be put out, were all those who had not faith to believe in Jesus, and who did not therefore rejoice at his coming, which only maddened instead of gladdened them. Some of these who at that time detested him and his truth, and who were thus in the fire, might afterwards, by the grace of God, have their positions changed, and they thus be on the side of truth and righteousness. In that case, the fire of God’s wrath against sin would not be put out, but they should be through Jesus’ salvation brands plucked from the burning. This winnowing or purging of the threshing-floor of national Israel culminated in the year seventy, at which time Jerusalem was destroyed by the Gentile power of imperial Rome and the Jews dispersed among the Gentiles, whither they remain unto this day as chaff thrown into the fire. But before that dispersion came, some upwards of thirty years before, the day of Pentecost had fully come, the church of Jesus Christ in its visible gospel organization had been set up as described in the Acts, and the wheat (those who gladly received the word having been ordained unto eternal life) had been gathered into this garner of the gospel kingdom. Now, such is our view of the primary meaning of the threshing or winnowing as spoken of by John in our text. The “fan,” or ptuon, as it is in the Greek original manuscript, literally means “winnowing-shovel,” and this “fan,” or winnower, is the word of God, sharper than any two-edged sword, alive and full of power, which is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit. This living word is the “fan “ with which he winnowed them. This “fan” was in his hand, subject to his power, entirely in his control, just as are the winds that he holds in his fists and which he directs to blow whither he will. However, it would not be doing violence to the primary meaning of the text to say that there is an experimental side to it, a viewpoint that touches in a living way every subject of God’s grace everywhere. Every quickened sinner is a duplex being, he has two lives: the life of Adam and the life of Christ. From this arises a conflict, a warfare that knows no discharge so long as we are in this earthly tabernacle. The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. During the old dispensation the expectation of Israel was that the Messiah would one day come to them and exalt them literally and visibly among the nations of the earth. They looked for this Messiah to come in great pomp and splendor, such magnificence as would be visible and tangible to them. They expected him to come sitting on a great white throne, in the clouds of heaven, robed in royal purple, accompanied by myriads of angels. The prophets had used such highly wrought figurative language in foretelling his coming that the Jews took it literally, since they had not at all any spiritual conception of what it all meant. All this belief on their part was no more than so much chaff, it was wholly imaginary and illusive. But even the disciples of Jesus who followed him and who loved him for the very truth’s sake because he alone had the words of eternal life, even they had much of this chaff wrapped about them, from which they needed to be thrashed. They, too, looked for a literal kingdom, visible and tangible, to be established by this Jesus whom they loved. They had no conception of why he should die, and were discouraged and disappointed when he did die. Not until he arose from the dead and ascended to the Father and sent them the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, did the scales fall from their eyes and they see clearly. Not until then was the chaff purged away, and Peter and the rest able to interpret the Old Testament correctly. Thus, they were begotten “again,” this time to a “lively hope,” by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Now, as never before, they knew what Jesus had meant when he had said to them, The kingdom of heaven cometh not with observation; Know ye not that the kingdom of heaven is within you? and what he meant when he told Pilate, My kingdom is not of this world. This is where arises the benefit of clear, fearless, God-fearing, gospel preaching. The gospel never gave life to any sinner, nor ever will, the Spirit alone quickens, but the gospel does, take off the graveclothes, it looses the believer and lets him go. Around every child of God when he first comes to a knowledge of God and godliness, and more or less all through his subsequent life here in the flesh, there cluster many traditional notions and ideas borrowed from the Egyptians, of which he is prone to make a golden calf to which to bow the knees. From these fleshly idolatries, which have no scriptural sanction whatever, he needs to be fanned, or winnowed, for the everlasting disapproval (fire) of God is upon these gods of ours. Through this purging the believer comes to stand upon sure ground, and to be established more and more in the solid truth. The church of God in its visible organization has been plagued with this chaff ever since Christ’s day, and we suppose will always. be until Christ appears for our ultimate deliverance. The Corinthians were worried with contention regarding baptism which threatened to break them into sects following this man or that, also with reference to the Lord’s supper, and all this chaff had to be fanned out. The Galatians, some of them, had that chaffy idea that though our salvation begins in and by the Spirit, we must do something somehow to carry it on. This had to be purged out. Arminius many years later preached his chaffy free-willism, and this had to be fanned out of the church. Coming down within the recollection of some now living, the chaff of Sunday- schools, of Missionaries, of Theological Seminaries, all had to be fanned out, and it was done in the stormy years around 1832. While the church of God is perfect, it is only perfect in Christ, it never is perfect in the flesh. There never has been on this earth such a thing as a perfect church in the flesh. We are all struggling toward an unrealizable ideal, only so far as it is attained in and by the spiritual apprehension of faith. Never from chaff will any of us be wholly free until we are wholly spiritual, and that will never be on this side of eternity. L.
Elder H. H. Lefferts
Signs of the Times
Volume 84, No. 14.
July 15, 1916.