The Authority & Power of the Word upon the Heart

by J. C. Philpot

However vital godliness, either in its inward experience or in its outward fruits, may be imitated by the craft of Satan or the deceptiveness of man's heart, there is as much real and essential difference between the work of grace on the soul, as begun and carried on by the power and operation of the Holy Spirit—and any base counterfeit—as between light and darkness, life and death, Christ and Belial, heaven and hell. It may indeed be exceedingly difficult for any man or minister clearly, to discern the distinction, or accurately describe the difference between grace in its lowest degree and nature in its highest—between a saint in his worst state and a hypocrite in his best—for there is not a fruit of the Spirit which cannot be imitated, not a heavenly feeling, divine sensation, or gracious movement which cannot be counterfeited. Who, with all his real or fancied discernment, can at all times and under all circumstances discover all the delusions of Satan as an angel of light, or detect all the turnings and windings of a self-deceptive, hypocritical heart?

But of all the varied and intricate circumstances which puzzle the mind and perplex the judgment when we would try our own case or that of others, none seems to us more puzzling and perplexing than this—that every grace and fruit of the blessed Spirit has its corresponding counterpart in the natural mind. Thus is there an enlightening of the eyes of the understanding by the gift of the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ? (Eph. 1:17, 18.) There is a corresponding enlightening of the natural mind to receive the knowledge of the truth. (Rom. 6:4; 10:26.) Is faith the gift of God and a fruit of the Spirit? (Eph. 2:8; Gal. 5:22;) and does it come by hearing, and hearing by the word of God? (Rom. 10:1.7.) There is a natural faith—a believing for a while, and in time of temptation falling away. (Luke 8:13; John 8:30; 12:42, 43.) Is there a conscience made tender in the fear of God, as a choice new covenant blessing? (Jer. 32:40; Acts 23:1; 24:16.) There is a natural conscience bearing witness in a heathen mind in its accusing or excusing thoughts, and convicting a graceless hypocrite with a stone in his hand ready to hurl it at the open sinner. (Rom. 2:15; John 8:9.) Is there a receiving of the love of the truth, so as to be saved and sanctified thereby? (2 Thess. 2:10; John 17:17.) There is a hearing of the word gladly by a Herod, (Mark 6:20,) and a receiving of it with joy by a stony-ground hearer. (Luke 8:13.) Is there "a good hope through grace," an "anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters into that within the veil?" (2 Thess. 2:16; Heb. 6:19.) There is the hope of the hypocrite that perishes, and a trust which is but a spider's web. (Job 8:13, 14.) So might we run through the various fruits and graces of the Spirit, as repentance, and its natural counterpart in Ahab and Judas; (1 Kings 21:27; Matt. 27:3;) humility, and its imitation in Saul; (1 Sam. 10:21, 22, 27;) zeal, and its fleshly mimicry in Jehu (2 Kings 10:16), and in the false spirit of the sons of Zebedee; (Luke 9:54, 55;) love of holiness, and its sanctimonious counterfeit in the murderers of the Lord who, for fear of defilement, would not enter into Pilate's judgment hall. (John 18:28.) But we need not enlarge on a point so evident, and of such every-day observation. Suffice it to remark that it is this counterpart of nature to grace, this correspondence of many if not most of the features of the old man to many if not most of the features of the new, which so greatly perplexes our mind when we sit in judgment on our own case or on that of others.

When, then, we attempt to trace out the operation and effects of the word of truth on the heart of the saints of God, and to show the authority and power which in the hands of the Spirit it exercises on their conscience, we are met at the very outset by the perplexing difficulty of which we have just spoken—the counterpart of flesh to spirit, the fruits and effects of the word on the natural conscience, as resembling the fruits and effects of the word on the spiritual conscience.

Still, as there is a vital and essential difference between them, we will, with God's help and blessing, make the attempt to trace out that peculiar work and those peculiar effects which seem especially to distinguish the authority and power of the word of God on the heart and conscience of his people—from all its imitations and all its counterfeits. And we more particularly dwell on this point as being well convinced that in nothing is the true work of grace more distinguished from all counterfeits, than by the power which attends the word in the hands of the Spirit to the heart of the elect family of God.

In our last paper we left the word in possession of the heart. At this point, therefore, we now resume our subject. In describing, however, this work, we drew rather a general sketch than worked out our subject in detail. We rather laid down the general truth, that light, life, and power attend the entrance of the word into the heart, than minutely described either the way in which they enter or the effects which they produce. To this more detailed description we now, therefore, come; for truth, it may be observed, is often lost, or if not altogether lost in, is much obscured by generalities. A map of a district to be of any real value must be minute. A child's map would be of little service to a bewildered traveler in a foreign land. Some friends of ours, many years ago, taking a walking tour in Switzerland lost their way on the mountains, and would probably have perished if one of the party had not had with him a most minute and accurate map of the country—by following which they soon arrived at a place of safety.

To a wanderer on the mountains of Israel, a map Zionwards must be not only accurate, but detailed, that he may know, not only that he is in the way, but whereabouts in the way. May wisdom and grace be given to us to line out the map not only plainly but accurately. To make it more clear and simple we should go back a few steps, and take the vessel of mercy in his carnal, unregenerate state before the mighty work begins whereby he is turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.

To help our understanding on this point and establish our faith, the Scripture has given us a variety of figures, such as the quickening of the dead, (Eph. 2:1,) the breathing of life upon the dry bones, (Ezek. 37,) the taking up and rearing of the outcast child, (Ezek. 16,) besides the more ordinary emblems of begetting or being born again, of a new creation, of a resurrection, etc. But we shall, for the sake of clearness, adopt the Lord's own figure of the strong man armed keeping this palace. (Luke 11:21, 22.) View, then, the strong man, strong in his unregeneracy, in his palace and equipped is his armor. His palace is the heart; his armor his defense against the word of truth, the sword of the Spirit. How strong is his armor and how confident his trust in it. See him clothed from head to foot in his armor; and as every truth has its opposing error, and every grace and fruit of the Spirit its counterfeit, so the armor of the saint has its counterpart in the armor of the sinner. He stands, therefore, in the whole armor of sin and Satan. The belt of error, the breastplate of unrighteousness, the shoes of enmity, the shield of unbelief, the helmet of perdition, and the sword of the old man which is the word of carnal reason, equip him from head to foot as with armor of proof. And lest these be insufficient, he is firmly entrenched behind all such bulwarks of his palace as the prayerlessness, carelessness, watchlessness, and slothfulness of the carnal mind.

Who can overcome this strongman armed? None but the stronger than he, the mighty One, the strength of Israel. His goods are in peace. False peace and security wrap him in their folded arms, and he bids defiance to every fear and every foe. But Jesus comes upon him by the power of his word, assaults him in his castle, overcomes him, and takes from him all his armor wherein he trusted, stripping it off, piece by piece. While this armor was on, no arrow of conviction could reach the heart, for it was at once met and turned off by the shield or breastplate. But when the armor is stripped away, then there lies a naked, exposed, defenseless soul—for the sword of the Spirit to enter.

Did we not find, when eternal realities were first laid with weight on our mind, that something came over us which we could not describe, but which was sensibly felt? and that under this peculiar power there was a breaking up and a loosening of that ignorance, hardness, unbelief, prejudice, and carelessness which had hitherto held us locked up in carnal security? This was the coming upon us of the stronger than we, and this falling off of unbelief, hardness, ignorance, etc., was the stripping away of the armor in which we had stood encased, and to which we had trusted.

But now let us move a step onward. We have seen how the soul lies naked and bare, all its armor gone. Now comes the sword of the Spirit. Its operation and execution are clearly and beautifully described by the Apostle—"For the word of God is living, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." (Heb. 4:12.) Before this entrance of the sword of the Spirit, the word of God was not living—but dead, for it did not communicate life; nor "powerful," for it was weak through the flesh; (Rom. 8:3;) nor did it "pierce to any dividing asunder of soul and spirit, or of the joints and marrow," for it did not enter where soul and spirit, joints and marrow are; nor did it "discern the thoughts and intents of the heart," for all things were not yet made naked and opened before the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

This sword has two edges, and therefore cuts as it goes, and cuts both ways at one and the same stroke. (Rev.1:16; 2:12.) It is not sharp on one side and blunt on the other, like a table knife, which cuts but does not pierce, but it severs as it enters with both its edges at once, and thus effectually divides asunder soul and spirit, separating, as nothing else can, the natural religion, which is of the soul, from the spiritual religion which is of the Spirit.**

** If any consider this interpretation forced, let them consider the following points—Paul draws (1 Cor. 2:14,15) a distinction between the "natural" man and the "spiritual" man. Now the word there translated, "natural," is literally, if we may coin an expression, "soulish;" that is, the man has a soul, but not a spirit, as not being born of the Spirit; for "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." His religion, therefore, in this state is natural, its seat being not the new man of grace, but the mere intellectual, mental part of man—the soul as distinct from the body. So James, describing a carnal, earthly religion, says, it is "sensual," ("natural," margin,) or "soulish." Similarly Jude speaks of certain ungodly characters, and says of them that they are "sensual," using precisely the same word as is rendered "natural," 1 Cor. 2:14, and "sensual," Jas. 3:15.

The word thus also becomes "a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart," laying the inmost movements of the mind, whether in imagination or intention, naked and bare before the eyes of the omniscient Majesty of heaven. Before this entrance of the sword of the Spirit, it was not known or felt that "the thought of foolishness is sin," (Prov. 24:9,) and that "every imagination of the thoughts of the heart is only evil continually." (Gen. 6:5.) Heart sins were not seen or regarded. As long as the outside of the cup and platter were made clean, the inward part might be full of ravening and wickedness. (Luke 11:39.) As long as the whited sepulcher appeared beautiful outward, the dead men's bones and all uncleanness within were considered of little significance.

But God searches the heart. And how? By his word. (Prov. 20:27; Psalm 45:3-5; 139:1, 2, 23, 24; 1 Cor. 14:24, 25; Rev. 2:23.) This searching of the heart is effected by the entrance of the law into the conscience, for "by the law is the knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20.) This is the coming of the commandment in its spirituality and power, armed with all the authority of God, and discovering to the awakened conscience that to lust is to sin, because God has said, "You shall not covet." (Rom. 7:7-9.) The light which attends this entrance of the word (Psalm 119:130; Eph. 5:13) reveals his character as a just and holy, righteous and inflexible Judge; the life which accompanies it makes the conscience bow and bend like a bruised reed, or a tender plant beneath the stroke; the power which clothes it awes and impresses the mind with solemn and ineffaceable convictions that it is the voice of the mighty God who speaks, for his voice is now upon the waters of a troubled heart, and as such is powerful and full of majesty; (Isa. 29, 3, 4;) and the knowledge of the only true God which it communicates (John 17:3) fills the soul with godly fear before him. (Hab. 3:16.)

It is in this way that the authority and power of the word become established as the lord of conscience. This is the grand point of the Spirit's first work—to make the word master of the heart. Before, it was rather the servant than the master, a book like other books, which we could neglect or despise or criticize at will; air it, perhaps, on the Sunday, and lay it on the shelf or lock it up in a drawer for the rest of the week. But no more neglect, no more cold arrogant treatment, no more secret if not open contempt, no more Pharisaical reading of it now. If we neglect it, it will not neglect us; if we struggle against the convictions it produces, and seek to draw away soul and spirit from the word, there it is firmly fixed; and the more we plunge, the more deeply it penetrates and sharply it cuts.

Satan may muster against it all his arts and arms—unbelief, infidelity, love of sin, unwillingness to part with idol lusts, fear of man—gloomy prospects of temporal loss and ruin, family ties, religious connections, a whole lifetime of schemes and projects, education and prospects toppling to their very base—if these things be true—all these and a thousand other obstacles and objections which array themselves against the power of the word, plead against it, but plead in vain.

Where the word has no authority or power on the heart, or only what we may call common power, these, or similar hindrances, either prevent a profession, or induce the professor, after a longer or shorter time, to draw back unto perdition. We see this again and again in the gospels. Many felt the power and truth of the Lord's words with transient flashes of light in the understanding, and of conviction in the conscience, who became his persecutors and murderers.

It needs, therefore, a special, an uncommon, a spiritual, and a divine power to give the word that place in the heart and conscience which it is ever after to maintain as its lord and master. Until this power be felt, we do not really know that it is the word of the Lord. To establish, then, its authority and supremacy is the special work of the Holy Spirit. By this peculiar power it is effectually distinguished from the word of man. God himself gives this test—"The prophet that has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like as a fire? says the Lord; and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?" (Jer. 23:28, 29.) The false prophets had their word; but it was the word of man, and therefore light as chaff, not heavy and weighty as wheat. It had no fire to burn, as shut up in the bones; (Jer. 20:9;) nor was it a hammer, to break to pieces a stony heart.

All the killing, (1 Sam. 2:6,) slaughtering, (Ezek. 21:9, 10; Zech. 11:7,) hewing and slaying, (Hos. 6:5,) stripping, (Hos. 2:3,) emptying, (Jer. 48:11, 12,) bringing down, (Psalm 18:27; 107:12,) and laying low (Isa. 26:5; Jas. 1:10) of the soul before God are wrought by the power of the word. God speaks by and in it, as if by a voice from heaven; and what he speaks is listened to because he speaks it. We see this in the saints and prophets of old. The word of the Lord came to Noah, (Gen. 6:13,) to Abraham, (Gen.12:1; 15:1,) to Isaac, (Gen. 26:2-5,) to Jacob, (Gen. 28:13; 35:1,) to Joseph, (Psalm 105:19,) to Moses, (Exod. 3:4,) to Joshua, (Josh. 1:1) to Gideon, (Judges 6:12-14,) to Samuel, and to all the prophets—and was known by them to be the word of the Lord, by the power which attended it and the effects it produced upon their heart. Surely these men of God knew who it was that spoke unto them, and what he said.

Sometimes it was "the burden of the Lord," (Jer. 23:33; Hab. 1:1,) or "the burden of the word of the Lord," (Zech. 9:1,) implying the weight with which it pressed upon their minds; sometimes it was "the vision of the Lord;" (2 Sam. 7:17; Isa. 1:1; Obad. 1;) the word coming to them when their bodily senses were locked up, but their spiritual eyes open; (Numb. 24:4; Acts 10:10; 22:17, 18;) and sometimes God spoke to them in a dream in the hours of the night. (Gen. 31:10; Job 33:14-16; Matt.1:20.) But however the mode differed—the power and the effect were the same. It was still the word of the Lord, and known by them to be such.

In a similar manner the Scriptures are known by the people of God to be the word of the Lord now, by their power and their effects; for they are to us what the direct word of the Lord was to them; and though the same degree of power may not attend the word now as it attended it then, the power is the same and the effects are the same, though bearing each a proportion to the measure of influence put forth. Among these effects is trembling at the word; (Isa. 66:2; Psalm 119:120; Hab. 3:16;) standing in awe of it; (Psalm 119:161;) hiding it in the heart, that we may not sin against God; (Psalm 119:11;) refraining the feet from every evil way, to keep it; (Psalm 119:101;) being afraid of God's judgments; (Psalm 119:120;) receiving it as a lamp unto the feet and a light unto the path; (Psalm 119:105;) choosing the way of truth, and hating every false way. (Psalm 119:30, 104.)

By this power of the word experimentally realized and felt—the conscience is made tender, the heart humble, and the spirit broken and contrite; and thus, like wax to the seal and clay to the potter, the soul is rendered susceptible of divine teachings and heavenly impressions. Pride and self-righteousness are brought down; human traditions and old ceremonial forms of religion lose their power and influence, and drop off the liberated hands and heart like chains and fetters from a loosened prisoner; an empty profession and a name to live are dreaded as awful delusions, and as stamped with the hateful impress of hypocrisy; all known sins are forsaken and repented of, with many bitter tears and sorrow of spirit; convictions are hugged, lest the guilt of sin should go off the wrong way, and not be purged by the blood of sprinkling; the world is forsaken, never to be returned to; retirement and solitude are sought, that far from human eye and ear the almost bursting spirit may pour itself forth in groans and sighs, prayers and tears before the Lord of heaven and earth, the heart-searching, thought-trying God. The word is thus received into an honest and good heart, (Luke 8:15,) made so by divine grace, where it takes root downward and bears fruit upward. Light attending the word in its first entrance, in that light the Scriptures are read; life accompanying the light, in that life the Scriptures are felt; knowledge being the fruit of light and life, of divine teaching and testimony, in that knowledge the Scriptures are understood; and power clothing the word, by that power faith is raised up to believe what the Scriptures reveal and declare.

By this power and influence the ear and heart are circumcised to discern truth from error; the veil of unbelief and ignorance is rent off; (2 Cor. 3:16;) obedience to the word is produced; (1 Sam. 3:10; Acts 9:6; Rom. 6:17; 16:26; Heb. 11:8;) the stony heart taken away and the heart of flesh given; (Ezek. 36:26;) and the soul turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. (Acts 26:18.)

Until the authority and power of the word are thus established in the heart—nothing real, nothing effectual is done for the soul. Look at this point as exemplified in the case of the professors of the day, who, acknowledging the Bible as the word of God, and compassing perhaps sea and land to distribute it, yet have never felt its killing, subduing, renewing and regenerating power in their own soul. What a halting in them between two opinions; what a sheltering themselves under the rags of their own righteousness; what a cleaving to forms and ceremonies, self-imposed rules or traditional duties; what blind attachment to buildings, whether of church or chapel; what love to the world and conformity to its ways, fashions, and opinions; what dread of the cross, of being an object of contempt and derision, or a mark for persecution; what unwillingness to make any sacrifice of money, respectability, or comfort for Christ's sake or his people's; in many what indulgence in secret sin; what dislike to separating truth, to the bold and faithful servants of Christ, and to the poor despised family of God.

Why all this, but because they have never felt the keen edge of the sword of the Spirit letting out the life-blood of a carnal, sensual, earthly religion? We can look back and see that such was once our own case; for what they are we, more or less, were; and we can see that it was nothing but the power of the word felt in our heart and conscience that pulled us out of their ranks, and put the Redeemer's yoke upon our necks!

It is the power of God's word which men and devils oppose and hate, as being the only weapon which they really dread. To them the mere 'letter of the word' is as straw—and a mere 'form of godliness' as rotten wood. Such darts are counted as stubble, and they laugh at the shaking of such a spear. (Job 41:27, 28.) But they dread, though they hate, the 'power'—because it is the very voice of God. By the power of the word the dear Redeemer foiled and defeated the tempter in the wilderness. (Matt. 4:1-11.) By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony the ancient martyrs overcame the accuser of the brethren; and the remnant of the seed of the woman with whom the dragon made war, were such as kept the commandments of God, and had the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Rev. 12:11, 17.)

It is against the authority and power of the word that all infidels, unbelievers, and erroneous men set themselves. What are such infidels aiming at—but to destroy the authority and power of God's word, by undermining its authenticity and inspiration? If not authentic, if not inspired, it has no power; and if it has no power, it can have no authority. The two are proportionate. What gives authority to a magistrate? The power to execute his decisions. Strip him of this power, and his sentences are not decisions, but opinions. So with the word of God. Take away its power by denying its authenticity and inspiration, and its authority to bind and loose, condemn and justify—is gone at once.

So again, what is Puseyism, or as it is now called, "Ritualism," but a setting up of traditions, forms and ceremonies, kneelings, bowings and intonings, vestments, buildings and decorations in the place of the word of truth? Can a new Gothic window, or a purple velvet altar-cloth, or a pair of huge wax candles lighted or unlighted, or a long procession of ornamented priests and choristers, or all the sounds of the pealing organ point out the way of salvation to a lost sinner, bind up a broken heart, or purge a guilty conscience?

What, again, is all error but the setting up of carnal reasonings and natural deductions in the place of, or against a "Thus says the Lord?" And what do so many preachers and writers really intend when they set their bow against what they call "frames and feelings," but to aim an envenomed shaft against the power of the word of God on a believing heart?

But does not all our daily and dear-bought experience convince us that in this power stands all our hope of eternal life? We have been hunted out of our false refuges by the power of the word, and brought to embrace the Son of God as revealed by the same divine power to our souls. We therefore know that "the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power;" and that our faith "stands not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." (1 Cor. 2:5; 4:20.) The preaching of the cross was once to us foolishness; but it has been made to us the power of God; and Christ crucified has become to us both the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:18, 24.)

After this power we are seeking and feeling, we may say, every day in our lives, and sometimes often through the day and the lonely hours of the night. By this power we live, and in this power we hope and desire to die, as being well assured that nothing but this power can rob death of its sting and the grave of its victory, and land us on that happy shore where ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands will forever sing, "Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power be unto him who sits on the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever!"