My Dear Hephzibah,
The perversion of terms and phrases, (especially those which occur in the word of God,) has been a fruitful source of mischief in every age, and has led astray the minds of the unwary, from truth and simplicity into the labyrinths of error and superstition; until reason itself has been fettered, and common sense insulted.
This remark is awfully true with respect to the word CHURCH, which has been indiscriminately applied to a pile of building— a national establishment— and the antichristian hierarchy: to neither of which can it properly belong, nor is there any countenance given in scripture to such applications of the term.
The most concise and striking exposition l have yet met with on the word, is Ephesians 3:15. THE WHOLE FAMILY IN HEAVEN AND EARTH; of whom Jehovah is the Father— Jesus the elder Brother— and the Holy Spirit the Preceptor; on whom the everlasting love of God is set; for whom all the provision of the covenant of grace is made; and to whom all the riches of eternal glory shall be communicated.
The CHURCH, in this spiritual sense, includes all that the Father gave to Christ in the counsel of peace, all whom Christ took into covenant union with himself, and whom the Holy Spirit regenerates in the fulness of time. These, and these only, properly speaking, compose the church of God; but, as it is the prerogative of God alone to search hearts, we can only judge of the Church of God from its visible appearance, and genuine excellencies.
In all ages of the world, God has had a visible Church on earth, in which his spiritual Church has been included; and though it has existed under various forms, and different dispensations, it has always been, and still is the same.
In the broadest and most extensive sense, the Church includes all the professed worshippers of the living God; but in the strictest and best sense, it includes those only who worship him in spirit, and in truth; and it is necessary to maintain this distinction, because there are many declarations in the scriptures of truth, which cannot otherwise be made to accord.
The Jewish nation was considered the Church; but Paul informs us, that “they are not all Israel which are of Israel;” and again,“he is not a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.” Rom. 2:28,29.
It is therefore of infinite importance, my dear Hephzibah, that your attention be fixed upon the spiritual Church, the mystical body of Christ, and that you ascertain the fact that you are a living member of it; this will open many otherwise dark passages of scripture to your view, and lay a firm foundation for your peace and comfort.
The bible contains a copious history of THE CHURCH, both in its visible form, and its spiritual character, describing it as the object of Jehovah’s perpetual attention and constant care.
When he drowned the world, he preserved his Church in the ark— when he sent a famine over all the land of Canaan, he fed his Church in Egypt— when he punished the Egyptians, the Moabites, and the nations of Canaan, he led his Church through the wilderness, and brought it to the promised land.
We are accustomed to make too much distinction between the old testament Church and the new, or rather, between the old testament dispensation of the Church, and the new, (for God never had but one Church on earth;) Its organization has indeed been very different at different times, in different ages, but its constituent parts have always been essentially the same; united to the same head, partakers of the same grace, and recipients of the same spiritual blessings.
The objects of Jehovah’s love— the purchase of the Redeemer’s blood— the subjects of the Holy Spirit’s grace, have always constituted the real Church of God; and although they have been divided and subdivided into sects and parties almost innumerable, after all, they are but one family— one body— and shall ultimately be one fold under one shepherd.
The purity and prosperity of the Church has generally corresponded with its distinction from the world, for it appears impossible for spiritual persons to associate with carnal, without receiving some injury; and whenever the Church as a body has joined affinity with the world, or allowed its simplicity to be violated by any connection with worldly aggrandizement, its purity has been tarnished, and its prosperity has been impeded. The whole history of the Church confirms this statement, both in ancient and modern times, and it will be found, that the idolatry of Israel— the innovations of the man of sin— and the degeneracy of modern christians, are alike fatal to the interests of vital godliness, and incompatible with the life of communion with God.
The divine Head of the Church has said, “ye cannot serve God and mammon,” and in his last prayer on earth for his disciples, he declared they were not of the world, and prayed that they might be kept from the evil.
Under the gospel dispensation, the Church, or the family of God, having grown and increased, has branched out in every direction, and will ultimately fill the whole earth with its glory; each of the branches has its distinct form, and is distinctly organized; but they still receive their sap and nourishment from the same root, and certainly ought to preserve oneness of spirit.
Hence we frequently meet with the word “Church” in its plural form in the new testament, as the Churches in Judea— the Churches in Syria—the Churches in Asia, &c. all which were distinctly recognized, and separately organized, yet, they were only so many parts of “the general assembly and Church of the first born, which are written in heaven.” Heb. 12:23.
When we speak of THE CHURCH, we mean the whole redeemed family, of every name and every nation, but when we speak of the Churches, we mean the separate companies of believers distinctly organised, for the purpose of worshipping God, enjoying his ordinances, and holding Christian fellowship.
Now each of these separate companies of believers is a Church, according to the phraseology of the new testament, but, it requires the whole of them to make up that CHURCH, which Jesus “purchased with his own blood.” Acts 20:28. and which he will “present to himself, a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing.” Eph. 5:27. Surely then, the whole of these companies of believers, or distinct Churches, should cherish the warmest affection to each other, and never allow themselves “to bite and devour one another.” O! I sigh for the day, when the bitterness of party spirit shall be consumed by the celestial flame of brotherly love.
The offices specified in the new testament state of the Church are two; the first relates wholly to spiritual things; the other exclusively to temporal things; and though the officers in the Church, are known by various names, such as, Bishops, Pastors, Overseers, Presbyters, Elders, Deacons, &c. it appears to me that they all come under the above classification, and that their work is, either the care of souls, and the superintendence of spiritual things; or the management of temporal and pecuniary matters. The officers whose work is spiritual, should “give themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” The officers whose work is temporal, are appointed “to serve tables.” Acts 6:2.
The table of the Lord, the table of the Pastor; and the table of the Poor, are to be provided for, according to the means with which the Church furnishes them, while the care of all the Church cometh upon the Pastor daily, and the prosperity of souls demand his unceasing labours and prayers.
Every member of a Church so organized, should consider it his high privilege, and constant duty, to cultivate the spirit of Christian fellowship, “being kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love, in honor preferring one another.” Rom. 12:10. “the strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak. Rom. 15:1. “endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Eph. iv. 3. “Not forsaking the assembling of themselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another.” Heb. 10:26. and to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel.” Phil. 1:27.
Attending to these new testament directions, the members of a Christian Church may be of incalculable advantage to each other, and constrain all around to exclaim, “behold how good and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Psalm 133:1.
Allow me to conclude this brief sketch of the church of God, by reminding you, my dear Hephzibah, that to belong to the spiritual family of God, is essential to present peace and eternal life— and that to belong to a well-organised company of believers is a high privilege.
That you are a member of the mystical body of Christ, which is the spiritual and universal church, I cannot doubt, while I witness your attachment to his truth— his cause— his people— and himself, connected with your abhorrence of sin, especially in yourself. But I am anxious you should share in all the privileges of the redeemed family, and be introduced to the society of saints on earth, before you go to the society of glorified saints above. “Why should you be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of Christ’s companions?” Sol. Song 1:7.
As I feel persuaded you will associate with them in heaven, I am unwilling you should stroll through the wilderness alone, while different companies of believers, are inviting you in the language of Moses, “come thou with us, and we will do thee good, for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel.” Num. 10:29.
Choose your own company, even the company to which you feel the greatest attachment, and with which you can anticipate the most extensive soul-profit, exclaiming, “I will go with you, for I have heard that God is with you,” and let not the popular talent of the minister, the polite circle of the congregation, nor the worldly advantages which may present themselves to your view, influence your decision. Pure truth alone can feed your soul, and the only suitable companions for heaven-born souls, are those, whose spirituality and devotedness distinguish them from the world.
On the other hand, suffer not the reproach of Christ, the offence of the cross, or the stigma of opprobrious names, to deter you from uniting with that flock with which you can go in and out and find pasture. Beware also of the influence of relative ties; it is indeed lovely to see the family circle surrounding the table of the Lord together, when the members of that family are partakers of the grace of God, but I trust you will have some better reason to assign why you join a society of Christians than “my father or brother is a member there.” Look out for a company of believers amidst whom Jesus reigns and shines, carrying on his glorious work, and with whom you feel a holy oneness of soul, there enrole your name, saying, “I will go with you, for I have heard that God is with you,” and having voluntarily united with such a company, consider its interests your own, and suffer no trifle to interrupt your fellowship with your brethren, or grieve the heart of your Pastor, watch over your spirit and conduct, and be ready at all times to sacrifice everything but conscience, for the prosperity of the church and the encouragement of its officers.
Praying that all the pleasures of church fellowship, and Christian communion, may be enjoyed by you, I remain, my dear Hephzibah,
Your affectionate fellow member
Of the mystical body of Christ,
Thrice happy people! whom Jehovah loves—
Whom he has chosen—pardon’d— and renew’d:
Maintain your high distinction from the world,
But, let your love as brethren be preserv’d.
In tribes and families distinctly known,
See Israel onward march. But when encamp’d—
Or fighting with the common foe, their ark—
Their interest— and their object— are but ONE.
So let the gospel churches (marshall’d well)
In bands distinct their little banners wave,
And rallying round the standard of the Cross
In ONE grand army— FIGHT AND OVERCOME !!!
Joseph Irons (1785-1852) was an Independent sovereign grace preacher, author and hymn writer. In 1819, he was appointed the minister of Grove Chapel, Camberwell, a position he held until his death thirty-three years later. John Hazelton wrote of him:
“Joseph Irons (1785-1852) was one of the ablest preachers of his day, and a powerful and prolific writer. His doctrinal teaching was pellucidly clear and consistent; he was a profound student and sound expositor of the Word of God, and many were influenced by his sermons, spoken and printed, and confirmed in the faith of God's elect. He was a determined foe of Romanism and Ritualism, deeply interested in the welfare of the young, and ready to aid any effort that commended itself to him on the basis of the faith for which he so earnestly contended. Many of his hymns have secured a permanent place in our hymnology, and his sermons are doctrinal, experimental, and practical in the best sense of the words. He never ceased to preach Christ, making Him the Alpha and Omega of all his discourses. He was born at Ware, in Hertfordshire, and brought up under the care and counsel of a godly father, who was a builder, and who trained his son in that trade. When he left his father's roof, he tells us the parting words were, "There's poor Joseph going to that wicked London. My heart bleeds while I bid him goodbye. I fear it will end in his ruin. You will be far away from a father's eye and a father's counsel, but never will I cease to pray for you that God may preserve and prosper you, although surrounded with so much that is evil." The youth was but eighteen when, in 1803, God led him to the Church of St. Mary Somerset, Thames Street, to hear W. Alphonsus Gunn, and there the arrow was directed into his conscience and he was brought to a saving knowledge of Divine truth. In 1808 his first sermon was preached over a smith's shop at Dulwich; he was actively engaged in business, but on most Sundays would walk from ten to twenty miles, preaching in various villages. "My only companions were my pocket Bible and its Divine Author, who often favoured me with the spirit of prayer on the way and shed many a ray of Divine light on the inspired page, so that I was furnished with a 'Thus saith the Lord.'"
After six years' service in Hertfordshire, he became pastor of the Church at Sawston, near Cambridge, and in January, 1818, he preached his first sermon in Camberwell. Ultimately, Grove Chapel was erected and opened on July 20th, 1819, and within its walls until the time of his death he continued proclaiming the Gospel; his mortal remains rest in a vault under the pulpit. In his last sermon, about ten days before his decease, he spoke of heaven in joyful terms: "I confess that my soul longs for it, and I anticipate meeting with prophets and apostles and patriarchs, and above all, with Jesus Himself, to behold Him face to face in glory, to be like Him, and to see Him as He is."
His published writings were numerous, some running into many editions. "Jazer," letters on Gospel doctrine; "Nathaniel," letters on Christian experience; "Nymphas," an exposition of the Song of Solomon; 611 original hymns; and a paraphrase of the Book of Psalms, are among the number. He established a Home Mission and other Societies for visiting and assisting the sick poor, and to the end of his life he was one of the best friends and helpers of the Aged Pilgrims' Friend Society. This great man was no idler in the Lord's vineyard. He talked not about "working for Christ," but delighted to magnify his glorious Lord. His sermons should be models for our preachers to-day in their perspicuity, plainness and power. He could not cut and trim to the times. His faithfulness gave offence to many whose creed and conduct could not bear the blaze of truth and the pointed appeals he made to conscience. Many hard speeches were made against him, but he remained unmoved as an iron pillar. As a man he had very tender feeling and often smarted under the unkind treatment of those of whom better things might have been hoped; but neither the fawning of one party nor the frowns of the other could shake his firmness. When at home in his "Shepherd's Tent," Grove Lane, he used very frequently to visit his chapel; to him it was a peaceful, private promenade, after the close confinement of his study, in which he spent many hours every day. Covenant love, covenant blood and covenant grace were his constant theme. His dying desire, so graciously fulfilled, was that Grove Chapel "might never be desecrated with another gospel." Someone told him that he put too much in his sermons and should reserve ideas for future use. He replied, "Thank God I obtain my materials from heaven; my Master knows what things I have need of, and having called me, He will not allow me to work alone. I get my sermons on my knees with the Word of God before my eyes and if I empty my seed-basket to-day, I know He will fill it to-morrow; therefore I will, God helping me, tell it all out, or it would be like a fire in my bones, burning its way out." Grove Chapel recalls many memories of those who have gone before; in its schoolroom is a unique collection of portraits of free grace ministers of various sections of the one Church. In No. 5 pew in the Chapel is the spot where the Lord first met with the "Wayside Notes" writer, broke him down in contrition of heart and revealed Christ to him as all his salvation, and there are friends still with us who can testify to the power of Mr. Irons' ministry, when in their early years they sat under it.”