The Precepts of the Word of God

by J. C. Philpot


Encouraged by the kind way in which our "Meditations on Various Important Points of our Most Holy Faith" have been thus far received by many of our gracious readers, we feel a willing mind to continue following onward in the same track; and as hitherto we have found, we hope, seasonable help from the only Source of all light and life, so would we now at the opening of another year, and the commencement of a fresh subject, lift up our soul in unison, we trust, with theirs, that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, would give unto us the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, the eyes of our understanding being enlightened," that as the Lord the Spirit may be pleased to bring before our mind and lay upon our heart any portion of his precious word which may seem to us to be of vital importance, or of an edifying nature, we may unfold it with that "demonstration of the spirit and of power" which shall, as "seasoned with salt," not only minister grace unto our readers, (Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:29,) but shall, "by manifestation of the truth, commend itself to every man's conscience in the sight of God." (Eph. 1:17, 18; 1 Cor. 2:4: 2 Cor. 4:2.)

It is indeed a high privilege conferred upon us, a favor from on high for which we cannot feel sufficiently thankful, that the Lord should condescend to make any use of so weak and worthless an instrument to communicate any measure of instruction, comfort, or encouragement to any of those whom he has eternally loved, and whom he is leading through many a painful path of trial and affliction to a knowledge of his love here, that they may enjoy it in its full fruition hereafter. And as the Lord has been pleased, for his own wise purposes, to lay us aside, for a time at least, from the active work of the ministry, we feel doubly bound to avail ourselves of the privilege still granted to us to communicate with his dear people by our pen, and thus be neither idle ourselves, nor wholly unprofitable to the Church of God. We purpose, therefore, with God's help and blessing, to bring before our readers in this and several following papers some thoughts upon the preceptive part of the word of truth, and especially as contained in and enforced by the Scriptures of the New Testament.

Several reasons have concurred to direct our mind to this particular point of heavenly truth—

1. First, it is a branch of divine revelation which, without wishing to speak harshly or censoriously, has in our judgment been sadly perverted by many on the one hand, and we must say almost as sadly neglected, if not altogether ignored and passed by, by many on the other. The probable causes of this neglect, or, to speak more decidedly, of this serious omission, we shall presently consider.

2. But a second reason for our taking up this subject is, if we may speak with all humility of ourselves, that it is one into which of late years we seem to have been more particularly led.

3. And thirdly, the consideration of the preceptive part of the word will, we think, form a not inappropriate sequel to our late papers on its power and authority on the heart.

But let us now, by way of introduction to our subject, for the sake of clearness, first define and explain what we understand by "the precept," or, according to our title, "the Preceptive Part of the Word of God." Great clearness and precision are needed on this point, that we may so run not as uncertainly, so fight not as one that beats the air, but, as a workman that needs not to be ashamed, may rightly divide the word of truth. (1 Cor. 9:26; 2 Tim. 2:15.) To make, then, our meaning as clear and as distinct as we can, we will view the point from two sides—its negative and its positive aspect.

1. First, then, negatively. By the precept we do not mean any part of the old "Do and live" covenant, but we carefully and rigidly exclude every point, fact, or consideration which springs out of, is connected with, or bears upon the law of works, either as a covenant or as a rule, either as justifying or as sanctifying, either as binding upon the conscience or as influencing the heart and life. Here we wish to stand particularly clear and decided, and to give place, no, not for an hour, to any men or measures, doctrine or experience, principle or practice, letter or spirit, word or work, which would bring us into bondage, or put a legal yoke on the neck of Christ's true disciples. No! let us be clear here; let us stand fast in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and not, in our zeal for the precept, put ourselves under the curse of the law, or mingle the smoke and flame of Mount Sinai with the bright and glorious light of Mount Zion.

Let us keep a clear distinction between "Do and live"—and "Live and do;" between the spirit of bondage—and the spirit of adoption; between the forced task of a convict in chains—and the willing obedience of a loving son; between the thief skulking in the pantry—and the child sitting at the table; between the grudging eye-service of a slave under the fear of the lash—and the affectionate offices of a wife whose best reward is a smile and a kiss.

If we cannot keep these things distinct, we had better put our fingers into the fire than handle with them the precepts of the New Testament. O, in considering this weighty subject, for some small measure of the grace and wisdom which so shine forth in the epistles of blessed Paul, in keeping distinct the law and the gospel, in separating between the ministration of condemnation, bondage, and death—and the ministration of righteousness, liberty, and life. Who so fervid as he against binding the legal yoke upon the neck of those whom the truth has made free, and confounding the children of promise with the children of the bond-woman? Hear his thunders, which, as armed with all the authority and power of an apostle of God, he launches against the Galatian teachers who, by their legal doctrines, would trouble the believing disciples of Jesus, and pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:7-9.) And yet mark how the same man of God could, with the grace of the gospel in his heart and the precepts of the gospel in his hand, be as gentle as a mother, and as loving as a father—"but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children." "As you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his children, that you would walk worthy of God, who has called you unto his kingdom and glory." (1 Thess. 2:7, 11, 12.)

2. But, having defined what we do not mean by the precept, in other words, having viewed it negatively, let us now define what we do mean by it, in other words, let us view it positively. We mean, then, by "the precept," or the "preceptive part of the word of God," those exhortations, injunctions, commands, entreaties, admonitions—call them by what name you will, so long as you attach to the word which you use a definite meaning, which the Holy Spirit has revealed in the New Covenant as claiming our attention and our obedience, and as thus addressed to our heart, and intended to be influential upon our life.

The precept is not doctrine, though founded upon it, nor experience, though connected with it, but stands apart from each, as possessing a peculiar, distinctive character of its own. All the three are equally a part of the same gospel, have the same Author, the same sanction, the same authority; and therefore are all three to be received by the same faith, with the same reverence, and in the same love. He who rejects or despises the one rejects or despises the other; and he who by divine power and influence truly believes the doctrine, will spiritually feel the experience, and graciously perform the precept.

Why, then, has the precept been so neglected among the Churches of truth? Friends and brethren, is it so—or is it not so? Guilty or not guilty, servants of the living God, members of Churches founded upon the love of truth in its purity and power? We are not speaking here, mind you, of a man tying at the end of a sermon the precepts together into a bundle of rods and flogging with them Christ's sheep and lambs. That is legality. That is not preaching the precept as Paul preached it, and as the Holy Spirit has revealed it. To handle the precept properly, is to handle it spiritually, in the love and spirit of the gospel, with a broken heart and a melted soul—broken by a sense of sin, and melted by a sense of mercy. This, not to anticipate future explanation, this is what we mean by preaching the precept. But are there no reasons for this omission? Surely there are, or the omission would not be so wide-spread. Have we not ourselves been guilty here? We freely confess our fault this day, and perhaps we have but to look into our own bosom to find why others have been faulty too.

Now we confess that for some years after we had received the love of truth we did not clearly or fully see the connection of the precept with the doctrines of grace and the experience of the saints. We saw, what was obvious enough, that the precept occupied a large and prominent place in the New Testament, and as such we received it. But two difficulties seemed to stand in the way of its cordial and hearty reception, and a right view of its beauty and blessedness as a part of divine revelation. These were, 1, the sinfulness; 2, the inability of the creature, and of ourselves in particular.

The consciousness of utter inability to perform the precept made it as if too inaccessible to the hand to reach it; the holiness of the precept made it as if too pure for the hand to touch it. Thus, if passed by, it was not from contempt—but reverence; if not handled, it was not from willful neglect—but from not properly seeing its place in the gospel of the grace of God. Allow us a few words on this point. All truth, especially revealed truth, must be consistent with itself—harmonious in every part. But to see this consistency and harmony, not only must the eye be duly instructed, but must look at it from the right point of view. Will our readers permit us to use a figure or two to illustrate our meaning? In some gallery of art* take your stand before a beautiful picture, say one of Turner's grand sea-views. Look at it near at hand; what is it? A mass of blotches and smears, with dabs of white paint here and there. Go back a few steps, and view it from the right point. What a change! What beauty, what harmony, what coloring! The blotches and smears resolve themselves into a sea heaving with life and motion, and the dabs of paint are waves, curling with foam as if they would dash at your very feet. *It will be observed that this is merely an illustration, and does not imply that we sanction Christians visiting the exhibition, or public picture-galleries.

Take a more familiar figure. Look through a microscope at a photograph. What do you see? Something like a building, but all confusion. Wait a moment. Now you have got the focus. What do you see now? The front of a palace or a cathedral, with every architectural detail so clear and distinct that you might fancy yourself looking upon the very building itself. So in divine truth. Let the eye be spiritually opened, let the right point of view be gained, and then every part falls into its right place—full of beauty and harmony. While then we view the precept from a legal standing, we must see it distorted and out of place. It is what we may call out of perspective; we do not see it from the same point of view as the Holy Spirit has drawn it in the word, and as he intended it to be looked at with a believing eye. But when we see, as represented in the gospel, doctrine and experience, promise and precept, love and obedience, motive and action, receiving Christ and walking in him, the grace which saves and the grace which sanctifies, the blood that cleanses and the water that washes, Christ as Priest to atone, Christ as Prophet to teach, Christ as King to rule—all forming one harmonious whole, all combining in one glorious plan for the glory of God and the present and future blessedness of his people, then we view "the truth as it is in Jesus" almost as Moses gazed on the land of promise from Pisgah's height, or as, John "saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." (Rev. 21:2.)

But there was another reason, perhaps, why we did not see the beauty and harmony of the precept. Having had our fleshly holiness and creature piety knocked to pieces, having passed for several years through much inward exercise and temptation, and having learned in that school the thorough helplessness of the creature; then being delivered from the galling yoke of legality and self-righteousness, and having tasted the sweetness and the freeness of gospel grace—our mind revolted from everything which seemed legal, Pharisaical, or self-righteous. Thus there was a going to the opposite extreme; and, to avoid one evil, there was not a falling into, but too near an approach to the other. Repelled and almost disgusted by the way in which Arminians, moderate Calvinists, and the whole race of man-made preachers handled the invitations and precepts of the gospel, holding them out to dead men to act upon and perform, there was a shrinking from any confederacy with such doings and dealings, such teachings and preachings, such a turning of things upside down, such a fouling of the waters, such a treading down of the pastures of the flock of slaughter. Besides which we saw in even some good men (men of whom we had hoped better things) a legal bias, which led them to use the precept more as a rod for others, than as a rule for themselves, and rather to feed a spirit of bitterness in their own minds and of those whom they influenced—than as the pure milk of the word that they might grow thereby—the result being rather spiritual pride and self-exaltation among many of the real people of God—than humility, brokenness, brotherly kindness, and love. Hence separation between ministers of truth and divisions in Churches, being just the contrary effect to the real spirit and intention of the precept.

These things all combined to produce an injurious effect; and thus the precept, being thrust out of its place, lost a good measure of its loveliness, and seemed rather alongside the building, than a glorious part of it. "As in water face answers to face, so the heart of man to man." Thus it may be that some of our experience on this point may have been the experience of others; and if so, it may explain why the precept has been too much neglected by them as well as by us.

But for the last few years we have been called to walk in a somewhat different path. We have had much affliction of body, and with it much exercise of mind upon the things of God, with many searchings of heart. We wish to speak upon this point very cautiously, knowing the hypocrisy and deceitfulness of our wretched nature; but we trust that through these afflictions and accompanying exercises there has been wrought in our heart a greater, as well as a more earnest and abiding desire to walk more closely with the Lord, to live more in his fear, and to know more of his Person and work, mind and will in the revelations of himself through the word of his grace. Not that we are one whit better; not that we find our nature less corrupt, or our heart less deceitful above all things, or less desperately wicked. Not that we can move forward a single step with any more life or power; not that our barren seasons are not many and long, and our fruitful seasons few and short.

No, all this we may but more increasingly feel, and yet not be wholly given up to carelessness and carnality, but only all the more bend our back to the word which smites it, or our neck to the word which yokes it. And yet we cannot but acknowledge that light upon the precept seems to have come gradually into our mind, and its place in the word of truth to have been more clearly opened to our understanding, and larger room made for it in our heart and conscience. How far this light is from above, let our gracious readers judge, when we shall have accomplished our task, from the truth and savour of our communication, and the weight and power with which it may be commended to their conscience as harmonizing with the word of God and their personal experience.

But as we have confessed our fault in not at one time clearly seeing the place of the precept in the gospel of the grace of God, so we have thought it best to state as simply as we could the way in which we have been led to our present views and feelings on this important part of divine truth. In thus speaking, we have not, through rich mercy, any past error to acknowledge, any wrong or perverted view, any willful or unseemly neglect, any delusive experience as a Christian man, any false teaching as a Christian minister to confess—but we have rather thankfully to record a greater enlargement of desire at least after, if not of fuller attainment unto, "the knowledge of God's will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding." (Col. 1:9.) And as we are bidden to "grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," we should certainly desire and aim both for ourselves and others not to be ever fixed as a post at one and the same spot, or lie like a dead man at the same point of knowledge and experience, as if we already knew all that was to be known, and having reached the goal, were only waiting for the conqueror's crown—but rather with blessed Paul, forgetting the things which are behind, should reach forth unto those things which are before, and thus press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Let, then, this suffice for an introduction to our subject, as to commence it in our present paper would either require more space than we can well afford, or compel us to break off abruptly soon after we had made a beginning.

As we advance onward in the divine life, we usually see and feel more and more of the thick darkness and gross ignorance which brood by nature over our mind, and we become more fully convinced of our utter inability to understand or realize the certainty and power of spiritual things, except by a gracious revelation of them to our soul. "The things of the Spirit of God" we feel can only be, as the Apostle says, "spiritually discerned;" (1 Cor. 2:14;) for being high, heavenly, and holy, they are, from their very nature, far beyond the sight, far out of the reach of our natural understanding, strain itself as much as it may, let it be cultivated to the utmost of its powers. As it is only in God's light that we see light, (Psalm 36:9,) and as whatever does make manifest its light, (Eph. 5:13,) the very sight and sense that we have of our darkness springs from the light of life in our soul.

As, then, we grow in light and life, for there is or should be a growth in grace, (2 Pet. 3:18,) there is a growing discovery and a deeper feeling of the darkness of our mind in the things of God. But all is not darkness with those who have been delivered from the power of darkness—for darkness is one thing and the power of darkness another—and been "translated into the kingdom of God's dear Son." (Col. 1:13.) Every now and then there are favored moments when glimpses and glances of heavenly realities, in their brightness and glory, break in upon their soul; and then, perhaps, they are as suddenly withdrawn, much almost, if we may use such comparisons, as the sheet which Peter saw in vision was received up again into heaven, or as the cloud received the ascending Lord out of the sight of his gazing disciples. (Acts 1:9; 10:16.) But from these breakings in of divine light we obtain those spiritual views of heavenly realities which not only reveal their nature to the enlightened understanding, and seal their blessedness on the heart—but deeply convince us also what a veil there is over our mind when it is not thus graciously lifted up. Will our readers permit us to use a figure to illustrate this? (We crave this indulgence, because some, whose judgment in divine things we much respect, object to the use of figures for the purpose of illustrating scriptural truth, on the ground that spiritual things cannot be explained by natural comparisons. Admitting to some degree the force of this objection, we still find, as a matter of continual experience, that an appropriate figure, cautiously and temperately used, and not pressed beyond its legitimate bearing, will often convey an explanation of a truth where reasoning seems to fail; for many can understand a comparison who cannot comprehend an argument. Argument is much more forcible and much less fallacious than figure, but demands a more trained mind. We, therefore, to meet different readers, seek to blend both; and while we base our views and our explanation of them upon scriptural argument, we intersperse, as occasion serves, illustrations and comparisons, not only to enliven, but to throw light upon our subject.)

On a misty day, when thick fog hides from view the surrounding landscape, the sun will sometimes suddenly burst forth; in a moment the veil is lifted up, and the whole prospect shines out bright and clear. The lofty mountain chain, or the smiling valley, or the long, winding sea coast, with all its rocky headlands, which had been shrouded in mist, stands out at once to view like a sudden apparition of beauty, and the whole landscape presents itself fully and clearly to the eye as a lovely, harmonious whole. But the mist returns almost as suddenly as it was drawn up; one object after another becomes wrapped up in cloud, until the whole view is again buried out of sight. And yet all is not gone. We can remember what we have seen. An impression has been made on the mind, which remains fixed as a durable recollection, though the vivid clearness is vanished and gone, and what we see now is but mist and fog.

May we not apply this illustration to our views of spiritual things, both as regards light and darkness? For the most part we groan and sigh under a sense of the thick darkness of our mind, for though the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun, yet the days of darkness are many. (Eccles. 11:7, 8.) This is the dense mist and fog. But there are times and seasons when the Sun of righteousness suddenly arises upon the soul, with healing in his wings. (Mal. 4:2.) Then the mist and fog are immediately dispersed. Light beams into the heart; and at once the whole plan and scheme of salvation from grace to glory, from before the foundation of the world to the ages to come, from the original purposes of God to their full and final accomplishment in a blissful eternity, shine forth.

This is produced sometimes by reading the word, sometimes by the power of a passage of Scripture applied to the heart, sometimes in secret meditation, sometimes when on one's knees before the Lord seeking his gracious face. At these favored moments there is an entrance of divine light into the soul, for "the entrance of your words gives light;" (Psalm 119:130;) and this light spreads itself, as it were, over the word of truth, lighting up every part on which it shines with an indescribable beauty and glory. Let us read, for instance, under such a divine power and influence, Ephesians 1, or Romans 8, or the discourses of our blessed Lord with his disciples before his sufferings and death, or that wondrous prayer, (John 17,) in which he interceded for them, and for us too who believe in his name, (ver. 20,) as the great High Priest over the house of God.

As we read these heavenly truths, and faith is drawn out upon and mixed with what we read, what beauty and blessedness shine through every sentence; and how the glorious gospel of the grace of God beams forth, as with light from heaven, to connect every part into one grand harmonious whole. As the soul becomes softened and melted under the power and influence of the word thus made to it spirit and life, all seeming difficulties vanish; and not a jarring note interrupts the harmony of the heavenly choir of gospel truths, making sweet melody in the heart. At such moments and in such a frame, what we cannot fully understand we are content to leave; caviling and contention with either God or man, with both ourselves and others, die away, for they cannot live in this heavenly atmosphere; and the majesty and power of the word of the living God both awe the mind with reverence, and draw forth the affections into love.

All doctrine, all experience, all precept are then seen to center, as one grand harmonious whole, in the glorious Person of the Son of God. From him they all come; to him they all flow. Severed from him, doctrine is seen to be but a withered branch, experience but a delusive dream, precept but a legal service. But his light enlightening, his life quickening, his power attending the word of his grace—doctrine is seen to be no longer doctrine dry and dead, but glorious truth; experience to be not a mere matter of fluctuating feeling, but a blessed reality, as the very kingdom of God set up with a divine power in the heart; and obedience not a legal duty, but a high, holy, and acceptable service.

But we must not anticipate our subject, for it will be found that in the channel thus briefly sketched our views and thoughts will chiefly run. And yet we have ventured to give this preliminary sketch, as feeling desirous, on the one hand, to disarm at the very outset all suspicions which might arise in the mind of friend or foe, that by taking up the precept we were swerving from the truth into legality; and, on the other, to prepare the way for a fuller consideration of the point which we have undertaken to elucidate. Without further preface, then, we purpose, in handling the subject before us, to consider the precepts of the Word of God mainly under these four heads:

I. The IMPORTANCE of the precepts.

II. The NATURE of the precepts.

III. The place of the precepts in the WORD.

IV. The place of the precepts in the HEART and LIFE.