The Precepts of the Word of God

by J. C. Philpot

The place of the precept in the WORD

After our long and labored explanation of the nature of the precept, this point need not detain us long. But as the place of the precept in the word admits of two meanings—

(1) Its place in the written word.

(2) Its place in the preached word.

We shall address ourselves to the consideration of both of these significations.

1. The place of the precept in the WRITTEN word.

One main point with us has been to show that the precept, as it stands in the written word, is an integral, that is, a real and constituent part of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and is as much a gracious revelation of the mind and will of God for our instruction and guidance as the doctrines themselves of our most holy faith are, for a knowledge of the way of salvation. We do not mean that a knowledge of the precept is saving in the same way as a knowledge of the truth is; but as a means, in the hands of the blessed Spirit, of influencing the heart and life, it is sanctifying. It is necessary to make and keep this distinction clear, lest in our zeal for the precept we should strain it beyond the place which God has assigned to it in the word of truth. We are saved by grace through faith; (Eph. 2:8;) are justified freely by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; (Romans 3:24;) are reconciled to God by the death of his Son; (Romans 5:10;) are blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace. (Eph. 1:3, 7.) These are the grand foundation truths of the everlasting gospel, are salvation matters, and as such stand apart from all works performed in us or by us.

We cannot, therefore, elevate the precept into a level with them, for we may be saved and sanctified too, as was the dying thief, without knowing or performing one gospel precept except that of love—love to the Lord for his manifested mercy. But as it is the purpose of God that his redeemed, justified, and saved people should glorify him here below, he has most graciously revealed to them how they shall learn to know his will and do it. This is the end and object of the precept. How beautifully does the Apostle pray to this effect for his Colossian brethren—"For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God." (Col. 1:9, 10.) How blessed to be filled with a knowledge of the will of God in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so as to walk worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.

We are also bidden "not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, that we may prove," (that is, learn, ascertain, and approve of,) what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God." (Romans 12:2.) To know the will of God and do it, is the desire and delight of every regenerate soul. The Apostle, therefore, says—"therefore be not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is." (Eph. 5:17.) So he speaks of "doing the will of God from the heart." (Eph. 6:6.) Our Lord also said—"For whoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother." (Mark 3:35.) The Apostle also prays that the God of peace would "make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for over and ever. Amen;" (Heb. 13:21;) and John's testimony is, "He who does the will of God abides forever." (1 John 2:17.)

How any one who calls himself a believer in Christ Jesus can think lightly of knowing and doing the will of God, is indeed a mystery. But this all must do who ignore the precept, think lightly of it, and neglect it. It is almost become a tradition in some churches, professing the doctrines of grace, to disregard the precepts and pass them by in a kind of general silence; and thus in a sense they "have made the commandments of God of no effect by their tradition." But when we are brought to see and feel the blessedness of knowing the will of God and doing it; when we can enter experimentally into the meaning of such words as, "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." (2 Cor. 5:14, 15). And again—"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." (1 Cor. 6:19, 20;) when such gracious precepts fall, we say, with weight upon the heart, we see what a blessed place the precept occupies in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When, too, we read and can enter a little into the spirit which breathes through such prayers of the Apostle as, "And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you—to the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints;" (1 Thess. 3:12, 13;) and again, "And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ;" (1 Thess. 5:23;) we see from these prayers what are or should be the desires of our own soul. To despise, then, the precept, to call it legal and burdensome, is to despise not man, but God, who has given unto us his holy Spirit in the inspired Scriptures for our faith and obedience.

But we have rather wandered from our point, which was to show the place which the precept occupies in the written word. This is best seen by examining the epistles of the New Testament. The three which we would select for that purpose, as being most systematically written, would be that to the Romans, that to the Ephesians, and that to the Hebrews. It would take up too much time to give even a short analysis of these blessed epistles, or even of one of them, but we may observe generally that doctrine occupies in them the first place, experience the second, and precept the third; and yet all these three are blended so beautifully together that they sometimes run into one another, or, if not, always harmonize with the sweetest accord.

Take, for instance, the Epistle to the Romans, chapters 1, 2, and part of 3 are taken up with proving the sinfulness of the Gentile and Jewish world, and the universal depravity, ruin, and condemnation of man. The Apostle then, (3:21-31,) in a few but most significant words, opens the grand remedy—justification freely by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. This grand point of justification by faith (3:28) is proved chapter 4 by the case of Abraham, of whom the Scripture testified that "he believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." In chapter 5 commences experience in our having peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, as being justified by faith; and this strain of living experience, ranging from the deepest conflict (7) to the highest assurance, continues, blended with doctrine and precept, to the end of chapter 8. Chapters 9, 10, and 11 are chiefly doctrinal, as opening the case of the present rejection and future restoration of Israel after the flesh. In chapter 12 commences the precept, and runs on in the most beautiful strain to 15:14, the rest of the epistle being chiefly occupied with Paul's personal matters, greetings, etc.

In the Epistle to the Ephesians, doctrine occupies the first place. Election, predestination, redemption, the death, resurrection, and glorification of Christ, occupy the first chapter. In chapter 2 begins experience in the quickening of the soul from its death in trespasses and sins, its spiritual resurrection with Christ and sitting together in heavenly places in him, blended with the sweetest doctrinal truth, (2:11-22,) and accompanied with the earnest prayers of the Apostle (3:14-19) that the saints to whom he wrote might know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, so as to be filled with all the fullness of God. In chapter 4 commences the preceptive part of the word sweetly blended with both doctrine (4-13) and experience, (20-24,) and occupying the rest of the epistle, with the exception of that beautiful, experimental description of the whole armor of God, (6:11-18,) and even that urged with all the earnestness of practical exhortation.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is constructed on the same pattern; first, doctrine in chapters 1-9; then experience, 10, 11; then precept, 12, 13. This brief sketch of the plan of these three epistles must suffice; but a longer and more detailed analysis would only more plainly show that though there is a systematic arrangement in them all, yet there is such a blending together of doctrine, experience, and precept, that the three form but parts of one harmonious whole, and, like a compact and beautiful building, mutually strengthen and adorn each other.

2. The place of the precept in the PREACHED word. But our view of the place which the precept occupies in the written word would be incomplete unless we added the place which it should occupy in the preached word. This is, we know, a difficult and delicate point, and yet we shall not shun to declare our views on it, whether they meet with the approval or disapproval of those whom they may concern. As the ministers of Christ profess to preach the same gospel that the Apostles preached, there must be some uniformity with the pattern which we have just laid out of apostolic teaching; for though preaching a sermon is not the same thing as writing an epistle, yet we may gather from the account which Paul gives us of his own ministry (Acts 20:21-27, 35; 2 Cor. 4:1-6; 1 Thess. 1:5, 6; 2:7-12) that there was a considerable resemblance between what he spoke by tongue and what he wrote by pen. Doctrine, then—pure, sound doctrine, must be the basis of the Christian ministry—"In doctrine showing integrity and seriousness;" (Titus 2:7;) "Hold fast the form of sound words, which you have heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus;" (2 Tim. 1:13;) "Take heed unto yourself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them; for in doing this you shall both save yourself, and them that hear you." (1 Tim. 4:16.)

Let us endeavor to keep every part of divine truth in its right place, and no more sacrifice doctrine to experience than experience to precept. He is the ablest minister who is soundest in doctrine, deepest in experience, and most godly in practice; for he preaches with heart, tongue, and feet. The servant of God, therefore, must "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered unto the saints," (Jude 3,) and "hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers." (Titus 1:9.) He must have also a gracious experience in his own soul of the truths which he preaches, in their savour, sweetness, and power; or how can the unction of the Holy Spirit rest on his ministry?

All this will be readily granted; but now as to the precept. Is he to preach that also, as well as doctrine and experience? If he does not, there would seem to be something lacking, if we take apostolic teaching as our model. Assume, then, that he ought to preach the precept. Now comes a more delicate and difficult point. How is he to preach it? For as to preaching the precept, this is done by hundreds of ministers who know no more what the precept really is as a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ than they know what is a gracious experience of truth by the teaching of the Holy Spirit. Anybody may preach the letter of the precept. But that is not what we want. It is the spirit of the precept which is needed, and which must be preached if preached at all. There is dry precept as well as dry doctrine; and as the latter is often concealed Antinomianism, so the former is open and often barefaced legality; for looseness, like Tamar, covers her face (Gen. 38:15) when Pharisaism stalks abroad in open day, for she loves to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets to be seen of men. What was true of old is true now. "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." (Acts 15:21.) The preachers of Moses are to be found in every city and every church.

How, then, should the precept be preached? We answer, In the same way as doctrine and experience should be preached—from a gracious knowledge of its spirit and power, and its sensible influence on the heart and life. To preach the precept in any other way is either legality or presumption. If a man knows nothing in his own soul of the spirit of the precept, and is not under its gracious influence, he cannot handle it with the fingers of a workman, and must either legalize it, or handle it deceitfully. If he binds burdens upon the people of God inconsistent with the liberty of the gospel, he legalizes it; and if he bids others do what he himself never does or attempts to do, what is this but hypocrisy? And may God not justly say to him, "What have you to do to declare my statutes, or that you should take my covenant in your mouth, seeing you hate instruction and cast my words behind you?" (Psalm 50:16, 17.) We see, then, what a narrow line it is—the very line of which Mr. Hart says, "The space between Pharisaic zeal and Antinomian security is much narrower and harder to find than most men imagine. It is a path which the vulture's eye has not seen, and none can show it to us but the Holy Spirit."

But you will, perhaps, say, "Then you make the preaching of the precept depend on the feelings of the minister." That is an invidious way of putting the point, and it is neither our mind nor our language. What we say is this, that no man can preach the precept as a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ who has not a gracious experience of the power and spirit of the precept in his own soul. Is not the same thing true of preaching the doctrines of the gospel? Can any man preach the doctrines of the gospel as they should be preached, who has had no gracious experience of the doctrines of the gospel? And is not this all the difference between letter preaching and letter preachers—and those who preach the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven? Is not this the main, the real distinction between the two classes of ministers, that the one have no gracious experience of what they preach, and the others have?

Now, we carry this same distinction between letter preaching and spiritual preaching into the precept as well as into the doctrines. Can they be separated? Have we not labored again and again to show that the precept is as much a part of the gospel as the doctrines and experience of the gospel? If this be so, then the preaching of the precept must stand on precisely the same footing as the preaching of gospel doctrine and gospel experience; and to preach the letter of the precept without a gracious experience of the spirit of the precept is no more preaching the precept as it should be preached than to preach doctrines of which you never felt the power, or experience of which you know only the theory, is to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15.)

Besides which, look at the inconsistency of a man preaching the precept who himself does not practice it, nor even know under what power and influence it should be performed. Consider the contradiction of a covetous man preaching up liberality; of a worldly professor inculcating "Love not the world;" of an unforgiving persecutor admonishing to forgiveness; of a light, trifling preacher, full of jests and jokes and foolish anecdotes, exhorting "young men (much more grey-haired ministers) to be sober-minded," for all "to put away foolish talking and jesting," and that their "speech should be always seasoned with salt, that it may administer grace unto the hearers." Such men instinctively feel that their hearers would despise, and that justly, such preaching and such preachers. They, therefore, quietly drop, not only the precept itself, as condemning their own conduct, but all allusion to it, and ignore it just as much as if it had neither part nor place in the word of truth! And as many, if not most, of such men's hearers are in precisely the same state, as unwilling to hear the precept enforced and as unable to bear it as their ministers, need we wonder that there should be a silent compact between the pulpit and the pew that the subject should never be introduced at all—and that all mention of it or allusion to it should be considered legal and inconsistent with the doctrines of grace? The consequences of this silent compact may be easily read in the state of many churches professing doctrinal truth—that they are flooded with carnal professors, who think no more of the precepts of the gospel than of an old almanac, and that even among those who are partakers of the grace of life, vital godliness is, for the most part, at a very low ebb. This sad state of things some writers and preachers have seen and sought to remedy. But how? By rushing into the opposite extreme, and urging the precepts as legal duties, separating them, if not avowedly, yet tacitly, from the spirit and grace of the gospel.

After all this fault-finding and harsh censure, as some will doubtless consider it, may we be allowed simply to declare our view of the right way of preaching the precept as a part of the ministry of the gospel of the grace of God? It is this—that no man can do so, or ought to do so, without a gracious experience of the power of the precept in his own heart. And we will go further still—that we firmly believe no man can preach the precept with any power, savour, life, or unction, unless he be at the time under a divine and gracious influence. Why does the preaching of the precept fall from some men's lips, even good men—hard, dry, and repulsive? Why does it produce bondage and death instead of life and feeling in the soul of the hearer? Principally, for the best of hearers may be much bound, very cold and dead under the warmest and most savory preaching, but principally because the preacher himself is not under a heavenly influence when he handles it, and does it more as a duty at the tail-end of his sermon than as a part of his gracious message.

But assume that his soul is warmed and melted with the life and power of the blessed Spirit, and is full of tenderness, love, and affection to the Lord and his people, how freely and fully can he exhort, admonish, entreat, and even reprove to love and good works. The people of God who sit under his ministry, for it is chiefly the pastor's office to preach effectually the precept, know the man and his communication. They esteem and love him for his work's sake. He has a place in their hearts and affections, and they look up to him with a mixture of reverence and love. Such a man can speak with authority, and enforce the precept without legality or presumption, as a part of his message from God. His exhortations will not be legal, nor will they fall upon the people's ears and hearts as dry, harsh, or bondaging. They will see and feel that the man speaks under a gracious power and influence; that he is not binding upon their shoulders heavy burdens which he himself will not touch with one of his fingers; that if he exhorts to love and unity, he does so because love is in his heart; if he calls for separation from the world, he is separate himself in spirit from it; if he admonishes to every good word and every good work, it is because he is himself desirous to speak and perform them.

The grace of God in a man cannot be hidden. If Asher be blessed with children, and is acceptable to his brethren, it is because he dips his foot in oil. (Deut. 33:24.) As anointed with fresh oil, his very countenance will sometimes shine; (Psalm 92:10; 104:15;) the sweet savour of the knowledge of Christ, like ointment poured forth, will be made manifest in him; (2 Cor. 2:14; Solomon's Song 1:3;) and his heart being melted and softened with the love of God, there will not be a tinge of legality or harshness in his enforcing obedience to the revealed will and word of God. The Lord's tender-hearted people will receive this ministry of the precept, will fall under it, and feel the benefit and blessing of it.

Antinomians, evil-doers, open or secret sinners, those at ease in Zion and settled on their lees, the quarrelsome and the contentious, will all make an outcry against this ministry as legal, bondaging, and burdensome. But those whose conscience is tender in the fear of God will, if not at once, yet sooner or later receive it, even though, at times, it cuts them very deeply, and reproves their inconsistencies and backslidings. They will feel at times very much searched by it, for a power attends it. This ministry of the precept will often find out hidden idols, lay bare indulged inconsistencies, and detect secret snares in which they have been long held, or allowed practices in business or in the family, which have weakened their strength and sadly marred the spirituality of their heart and life. They would resist it if they could, for it so crucifies their flesh; but they must fall under the power of the word when brought home to their conscience.

Nothing more detects hypocrites, purges out loose professors, and fans away that chaff and dust which now so thickly covers our barn floors than an experimental handling of the precept! A dry doctrinal ministry disturbs no consciences. The loosest professors may sit under it, no, be highly delighted with it, for it gives them a hope, if, not a dead confidence, that salvation being wholly of grace they shall be saved whatever be their walk or life. But the experimental handling of the precut cuts down all this, and exposes their hypocrisy and deception. It thus takes forth the precious from the vile, and becomes as God's truth. (Jer. 15:19.)

To do all this, indeed, as it should be done, demands wisdom and grace, such as the Lord only can give. Nor can it be done at all times and seasons. Here the Lord the Spirit can alone help and teach the servants of God. But we can say for ourselves that we have at times, especially of late years, felt such a holy influence resting upon our spirit that we could preach the precept as freely as the promise; and while we never had a deeper sense of our own sinfulness and helplessness and of the freeness and fullness of superabounding grace, yet we could urge upon our own conscience and upon all who loved the Lord the obligation laid upon us by that grace to live and act in all things according to the revealed will of God. We are, then, well convinced, both from the word of God and our own experience in the ministry, that there is a way of preaching the precept in the fullest harmony with every truth of the gospel, and every gracious, tender, and affectionate feeling of the heart; and that the right thing, spoken in the right way, will fall into its right place.

But you will say, "If this be the right way of preaching the precept, how you are limiting the men who should preach it!" With this we have nothing to do. It is not for us to say how many or how few real servants of God there are at all; for your objection equally applies to all preaching and to all preachers. Should any preach the doctrines of the gospel who has not felt their power and influence in his own heart? Should any preach the experience of the gospel who has not felt it in his own heart? Similarly, should any preach the precepts of the gospel who has not felt their power in his heart, and does not manifest their practical influence in his life? The difference between us and you, supposing there is a difference, is this, that we put preaching the precept precisely on the same footing with preaching the doctrines and experience of the gospel. Now if you deny this, what will be the consequence? That you put asunder what God has joined together. You allow that a man should not preach the doctrines of the gospel or the experience of the gospel without knowing them for himself; and yet you think that he may preach the precept without a gracious experience of its power, or without living under its practical influence; or else you would strike out of his hand that part of the ministry altogether as legal or unnecessary. The Lord knows that it is neither one nor the other—not legal, but full of precious gospel; not unnecessary, for we see all around us in divided churches, loose profession, worldly conformity, and the low ebb to which practical godliness has almost everywhere sunk, the urgent necessity of its being more attended to.

But we must wait patiently for the Lord's time and way of bringing it about. A great step would be gained towards it if it were laid upon the heart and conscience of the servants of God to enforce it in the spirit of the gospel. We say "the spirit of the gospel," for there is no use flogging and spurring, scolding and censuring, setting tasks and impositions like an angry schoolmaster with school-boys, or giving extra drills, bread and water, and putting into the black hole, as an officer deals with obstinate soldiers. The precept needs the most cautious handling, or in your zeal for it you may soon turn it into the greatest legality, or drift yourself into the general preaching of the day, and getting far, far away from the experience of the Lord's tried and tempted family, may become a nurse for Pharisees. You may take the precept into the pulpit and preach it in such a hard, dry, legal, universal way that a casual hearer might well suppose he had strayed into the wrong chapel, or that you were one of the general dissenters. This will never do, and is as great, of not worse, a fault than not preaching it at all, for to pervert any part of God's truth is worse than to pass it by.

Well, then, may we say, "Who is sufficient for these things?" Certainly not the writer of these lines; for bear in mind that it is one thing to see what is spiritual and right, and in some measure strive after it, and another thing to be able to do it. The best of men and ministers must ever see and feel their miserable deficiencies and shortcomings even in the things which they see to be according to the will of God, and which they desire with all their heart to be ever found doing. But we must not lower the standard of divine truth because we ourselves cannot reach it, or handle the word of God deceitfully to please the vitiated palate of ministers or hearers, preachers or professors.

It will be seen from these remarks what are our views of preaching the precept; and as the Apostle said of the law, "We know that the law is good if a man use it lawfully," (1 Tim. 1:8,) so we may say of the precept—the preaching of the precept is good if a man preach it spiritually. But surely there is a vast difference between a man's getting into the pulpit and preaching the precept in a hard, legal, bondaging way as a kind of moral duty, whipping up the poor, distressed, exercised family of God to a fleshly holiness and to a rigid line of strict practice which he himself never performs—and a man of God setting forth the precept in a spiritual, experimental manner, from a sweet sense of the goodness and mercy of God tasted, felt, and handled in his own soul. The former kind of preaching repels, irritates, provokes, burdens, and distresses the real family of God; the latter as applied to their hearts and commended to their consciences by the Holy Spirit, softens and melts them, is received in love and affection, and even if it smites them it is in kindness, or if it reproves them it is an excellent oil which does not break their head.

A servant of God has to "reprove, rebuke, exhort," but then it must be "with all patience and doctrine;" that is, patient, experimental, gracious teaching. (2 Tim. 4:2.) He is bidden "to exhort and rebuke with all authority," (Titus 2:15.) But, to do this, he must have a strong place in the esteem and affection of the people, and his ministry must be commended to their conscience as attended with unction and power from above. His life and conduct, too, must be consistent with his profession, and he must practice what he preaches, or the people may well say, "Physician, heal yourself." The true pattern of exhortation is given us by the blessed Apostle—"For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts." (1 Thess. 2:3, 4.) And again—"but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us." (1 Thess. 2:7, 8,) And again—"You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory." (1 Thess. 2:10-12,)

Backed and recommended by such faithfulness, such a walk and conduct, such a tender, fatherly affection, we should feel no more bondage under the preaching of the precept than we should under the preaching of the doctrines and experience of the gospel. But to sit and hear every and any whipper-snapper who has just jumped from the counter into the pulpit, after being ground in the academical mill, exhorting and exhorting as if he were a Paul, or some poor legal, blind Pharisee whipping and spurring, or some loose liver reproving and rebuking, or some graceless preacher admonishing to every good word and work, in whom a microscope would not detect one good word or one good work from one year's end to another—who that knows anything of doctrine, experience, or precept, in their vital influence and power, would not turn away with disgust from such preaching and such preachers? Who ever commissioned them to preach God's word? If God had sent them they would preach it faithfully; and then, like a fire, it would burn up the chaff which gathers round them, and, like a hammer, would break into repentance and contrition rocky hearts now hardened under them. (Jer. 22:28, 29.)

We would close up our views on this part of our subject with one question to the dear family of God. Do you feel any bondage in reading the precepts as they stand in the epistles of the New Testament? We can say for ourselves that we have felt as much sweetness in the precepts as in any other part of those blessed epistles. If, then, the precept is preached as we find it in the epistles, and by men of God under the power and influence of the same blessed Spirit, it will meet with the same acceptance, and be received as a part of the same gospel. If it be otherwise, there is a fault somewhere.