Brother Beebe: - I some time since received a letter signed S., N.Y., requesting my views on the important enquiry, How far communion with God may be expected to be enjoyed by christians in this day.
Since receiving this letter, I have had much to prevent my earlier attention to it, which must be my excuse for so long neglecting the request of my unknown friend.
From the explanation given in the letter, it appears that the enquiry therein contained, refers more directly to the idea of receiving special and manifest answers to prayer for intimations of the Divine will, to be given us as a guide in cases of difficulty, that is, whether we may look for such answers in this day.
In reference to the general enquiry, I will here briefly remark, that communion with God in this, as in every other age, depends entirely on the pleasure of God. "For the preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue is from the Lord." Prov.16:1. To the same effect says the Psalmist; "Lord thou hast heard the desire of the humble; thou wilt prepare their heart; thou wilt cause thine ear to hear." Ps.10:17. It is the desire of the humble that God heareth; it is grace alone that can humble the heart, even of a believer, truly before God. - Again, John informs us that - If we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us. I John 5:14. "But the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God." I Cor. 2:11. Hence if we ask anything according to the will of God, it must be alone by the influence and guidance of the Spirit of God, as says the Apostle again: "For we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God." Rom.8:26, 27. Just so far therefore as the Spirit indites our petitions for us, so far will God answer our prayers. But to come to the special enquiry proposed; if my own experience in the case might be considered proper authority, I should unhesitatingly say that, in some instances, when God's children, in cases of difficulty, feeling their utter incapability to decide for themselves as to what is duty, are led to entreat of Him for some special intimation of His will as their guide in the case, He does in answer to their prayer, give them such intimations. In the early part of my life as a believer, I received in several instances, what I then considered to be, and still believe to have been special intimations as to what was duty in particular cases of difficulty; such as related to my engaging in the work of the ministry, and to some other instances of special anxiety of mind.
The method in which to receive an answer, that I was more generally led to ask for, and look to, was that I might open to some passage of Scripture which should be given to me as an answer. The idea was not, that I should take any text which I might chance to open to, as an answer - but that I might be directed to some passage which should convey to my mind a proper answer to my enquiry, and be impressed upon my mind as such. (Christians know the difference between merely reading a text, and having it applied by the Spirit of God.) I was probably first led to seek answers in this way, from having in some instances, when in deep distress concerning my salvation, on taking up the Bible, opened without any previous design, to texts which when they first met my eye, seemed to have something in them specially suited to my case, and were so applied to me as to give me instruction and comfort. I have in some instances on receiving answers as above mentioned, been led to admire the wonderful treasury which the Scriptures contain, and have thought that they contained a text suiting every case either of anxious enquiry, or of distress to which a child of grace may be subjected.
In the several instances to which I have referred of having received answers to my supplications, not only did the texts to which I opened, in their expressions, contain appropriate answers to my enquiries, and were so impressed upon my mind, and so rested upon, that my course was shaped accordingly; but in every such instance, the events thus promised or predicted have been exactly accomplished and that in a way independent of any plans or exertions of mine, manifesting the special providence therein. So that whoever else may doubt the fact of such special intimations of the Divine will being given, I have ground for confidence in them, unless I am altogether deceived in reference to having been called to the ministry. There have been some instances in which I expressed, by other modes than that above described, what I have received and rested upon, as special answers to my supplications for direction. But I would by no means have it supposed that my experience has led me to believe that I can command such special answers, whenever I am pleased to ask for them. On the contrary, many were the instances in my early experience, when under deep anxiety to know whether I was truly a subject of grace or not, and in other instances to know what was duty in particular cases, that I have spent hours together in some solitary place, in prayer and in turning over the Scriptures, to obtain some direct intimation from God to satisfy my doubts, and that, without receiving any answer. In other instances wherein the Lord ultimately granted an answer, it was not until my mind had been long burdened with the subject, and application had often been made for relief, that it was obtained.
I will here make a partial digression, which to some may not be uninteresting, to remark that christians, more especially in their early experience, are apt in seasons of doubts to be anxious to obtain some special intimation from God, to assure them of their interest in Christ, or of their being of the elect. But that which has been the pleasure of God to reveal in the Scriptures, is, Christ as the Saviour and complete salvation of His people under the character of lost, helpless sinners, the same He reveals in them when taught their just condemnation and helplessness. But He has not revealed that they by name or personal distinction are of the election of grace. It is therefore I conceive vain to expect that God will give us any special intimation to assure us particularly of our having been chosen in Christ, or that He died especially for us. It is the will of God that we should walk by faith and not by sight - by faith in Christ as He is revealed in the Scriptures the Saviour of helpless, ruined sinners. To rest our expectations for acceptance with God, on a special revelation made to us of our election, would be to walk by sight. It is true that God is pleased at times so to reveal Christ to His people, in His fullness as suiting their case, and so apply some of the promises which are yea and amen in Christ Jesus, that they then have all the assurance they can ask for, of their interest in Christ, and of course, of their election. But this is a revelation of Christ to them - not as adapted to their election: but to their ruined, helpless case, as sinners, and their knowledge of themselves as such, and of Christ's having undertaken and finished the salvation of such, is to them through faith the evidence of their salvation and ground of their hope.
But to return to the subject, before us; I have been led to the conclusion, whether correctly or not, that it is mostly in their early experience that God grants to His children communion with Him, in this special way of their seeking and receiving these sensible indications of His will concerning them, in particular cases. This conclusion is founded, 1st. On their then lamblike state, and the peculiar tenderness which our kind Shepherd is wont to exercise towards such, as we are informed by Isa.40:11 - "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." - Again, upon the consideration that the repeated trials of a believer's faith which he passes through, worketh patience, and patience, experience; and experience, hope, &c., that is, his repeated experience of the faithfulness of God inspires him with hope, that God will grant him the guidance which he needs, if he but commit his way unto Him. And as Paul says in reference to salvation, "If we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it;" so in this case the believer is led to a patient waiting for the openings of providence as his guide, without seeking these special intimations from God. But then I would not infer from this, that there are no instances in which an experienced believer may be led to seek and receive such special intimations of God's will concerning him. Neither would I have it inferred that it is not the privilege and the only safe course of every believer to commit all their ways unto the Lord, to seek direction from Him in all their changes and to submit to His guidance, in whatever way He may manifest it.
As I have dwelt thus long on my own experience in this case, I will further add that I have experienced the evil of engaging in enterprises merely from the impulse or inclination of my own mind, without specially seeking direction from God therein. Such for instance was the case in my removal to the West in 1815. The disappointments I met with in my expectations, and the reflection of having left the church I had been connected with in New Jersey, in an entire destitute situation, soon made me sensible of the error I had committed in undertaking this removal without especially seeking counsel from God in the case. The reflection thus occasioned, prevented my ever feeling settled or satisfied with that removal, and therefore when an opening in providence appeared to be made for my removal back, I readily embraced it; and returned after six years absence, to the church I had left. There was however much in the dispensations of providence toward me, during those six years, calculated as I thought to keep alive the recollection of my error. This may enable some satisfactorily to account for what has perhaps appeared to them a strange move. But my unknown friend will wish some higher authority than my own experience for the answer I have given to his enquiry.
1st. Then; We are abundantly authorized from Scripture, to ask for those things which are according to God's revealed will, in such texts as these: "Ask and it shall be given you." Mt.7:7. "But in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God." Phil.4:6. "And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it." John 14:13,14. But then this asking, to receive, must not only be in faith in Christ, as the Mediator, but also in faith to believe that God will for Christ's sake grant the thing asked, as shown by Mt.21:22 - "And all things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive" - also James 1:6; and I John 5:14,15.
2nd. The case of Gideon is one instance to the point left on record for our instruction; God condescended to grant special repeated signs to Gideon as an assurance of his being called to the work pointed out to him, and of his duty to engage therein. The Lord had shown Gideon one sign of his call of God to the work assigned him, in the consuming by fire from the rock, the flesh, of his offered kid, &c. Judges 6:18-21. Yet Gideon's doubts still prevailed of the Lord's designing him for such a work, and he entreats for further confirmation, and specifies the sign once and again. The Lord grants it in the fleeces first being wet with dew, and then dry, verses 26 -40, same chapter.
Other instances might be pointed out in the Old Testament; but I will come to the case of Thomas in the New Testament. John 20:25-29. Thomas would not believe that his Lord had actually risen from the dead, without receiving a particular sign as confirmation, notwithstanding the testimony of his brethren. The sign is granted, he is permitted to put his hand into the wounded side of his Lord, and his fingers into the print of the nails in his hands. It is true that these doubts of Thomas was made the occasion for giving to him and the other disciples, a clearer testimony than they otherwise could have had of Christ's having actually risen in the same body in which He had entered the tomb; and that without having seen corruption. But it also stands on record as a testimony of the condescension of Christ to the doubts and weakness of His children; and is an encouragement to us - not to indulge in unbelief; but to seek Him in giving to us that evidence which is necessary to enable us to believe in any case; and of course, also to understand what is duty. This subject would open a still extended field were I to undertake to draw the mark of distinction between these instances of special communion with God, which we have noticed, and those impressions which are frequently made upon our minds, often, no doubt, by Satan, and which we are apt to mistake for intimations of the Divine will; and also to notice objections which might be raised to the position I have taken. But as I have already been so lengthy on the subject, I will pass these by for this time.
I however wish to be indulged a little further, to offer a few additional remarks on the general enquiry, how far the churches of Christ are at this day enjoying communion with God.
On this point I shall have to differ from those who talk so much about the present sickly state of the church. That this is a day of rebuke to the churches of Christ I readily admit. When we look at, and judge from outward appearances, the following scriptural complaints would also appear truly applicable to our case, namely: "We have been with child, we have been in pain, we have as it were brought forth wind; we have not wrought any deliverance in the earth, neither have the inhabitants of the world fallen." And we might add, our enemies are deriding us for it. But then the gracious answer of God to this complaint, stands on record for our encouragement, in the same connection. "Thy dead men shall live; together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing ye that dwell in dust, for thy dew is as the dew of herbs; and the earth shall cast out her bread. Come my people enter thou into thy chambers and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself for a little moment until the indignation be overpast." &c. Isa.26:18-21. Thus is showed that notwithstanding the complaints which the church makes of herself, she is at that very time the object of the special recognition and care of her Lord; and that of which she complains is, in His gracious dealings, but the means of separating her from the multitude, against whom He has indignation, and who have shed the blood of the saints; and of preparing her to enter into the chambers He has prepared for hiding her from the storm during this indignation. And indeed I think those saints who complain so of the sickly state of the church take altogether a mistaken view of the subject. They think that truth is much fallen now to what it was thirty or forty years ago, and has much fewer advocates now than then. But the fact is, that truth, then, was at a much lower standard than now: scholastic divinity was then mostly the standard, and the truth as it is in Jesus was obscured by the glosses of men. Now the true churches of Christ are being led to renounce such standards of 'truth', and to take the Scriptures as their only standard; the consequence is, that with many these human glosses are stripped off and the truth and order of the gospel are preached and received by such in that plainness in which they are revealed in the Scriptures; and they are depending more on the teachings of the Holy Spirit, and less on the teachings of men. Hence carnal professors, instead now of professing love to the doctrine of the Scriptures in its plainness, come out in opposition to it, and openly advocate human teaching and human systems, contrary to that, to which the saints are led.
Again the churches, formerly through their general appearance of union, increased in worldly respectability and enjoyed more pleasant feelings. Now they experience much to mar these feelings, but have in exercise a much more conscientious and greater regard for the truth and order of the gospel, as delivered in the Scriptures, and from the glory they now discover in the simplicity of Scripture revealed, compared with the wisdom of men, they cheerfully meet reproach in their strenuous adherence to the former, and rejection of the latter.
Formerly their great increase in numbers and respectability, occasioned a manifest decrease in true spiritual strength; now the true churches of Christ are diminished in numbers, and by the religious world are considered the reverse of prosperous and respectable, but they experience much more of the sweets of spiritual union and fellowship, and rejoice that in the Lord alone is their righteousness and strength. Formerly they were like a person increasing in corpulency, but becoming thereby gross and subject to disease; now under the management of their all skillful Physician, they are having that grossness purged from them, and though losing much of their corpulency, yet are becoming more healthy. So that whilst the churches have abundant reason to mourn their past too great conformity to the world, they have abundant reason for thankfulness, that their kind and all-wise Shepherd's care toward them has not diminished; and that although they are made to experience the pain of divisions, and much opposition and contempt; yet He is thereby separating them from that only, which was hurtful to them.
Upon the whole view therefore of the subject, I am led to the conclusion that the churches of Christ are at this day looking more entirely to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and receiving more of His communications in being led to clearer views of divine truth in its original purity, and to greater love to it, than for a long period before, as manifested by their preferring God's truth, with reproach; to the systems and expositions of men, with worldly applause. But still, whatever just ground some few may have to boast of their deep experience in divine things, and to glory over their brethren on account thereof, the great body of the saints fall, (and feel sensible of it,) far short of the apostolic church, in purity of religion, in being of one heart and one soul, and in that strength of love to Christ and His cause which would lead them to count everything else as loss and pollution compared with Christ, and being found in Him. There is much traditionalism still among us, much of an inclination to consult the flesh, and the world, and to seek that honor which cometh from men; but our great Immanuel is now sitting as a Refiner and purifier of silver, and is skillful and faithful to temper the fire so as to purge away the dross, and that only. Being thus in the crucible it is not a time for great rejoicing and lively frames, but one which calls to taking up the cross, and to the exercise of strong faith in our gracious Leader and Commander. May He increase our faith and love to Him.
Centerville, Fairfax County, Virginia
Nov. 22, 1839
From: SIGNS of the TIMES
Select Works of Elder Samuel Trott