Text: "For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God?" -- I Peter 4:17.
The history of Christianity is a marvelous history. There have been ebbs and flows of popular favor. At times it has become so attractive that men by violence have pressed into the church, if not into the kingdom. There have been times when its power was so recognized that all people who wished to get the benefit of power have tried by methods direct and indirect, to align themselves with it.
This history shows that the greatest danger to the cause of Jesus Christ may arise from its popularity. There seems not to be half so much danger when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not popular. The danger comes from people who would join the church without religion -- who would join the church to use it as an instrument for accomplishing some secular or worldly purpose. On this account, as has been well said in a great sermon by Dr. Gordon, God has given to His cause a repulsive power as strong as its attractive power. If it did nothing but draw, then it would become corrupt through irreligious material brought into the church; but it has a repulsive force that drives those away who ought to be driven away.
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John we find our Savior deliberately stating certain doctrines in the harshest, strongest terms, and with a view to repelling people. He said to them that He was the bread that came down from heaven, and that unless a man would eat His flesh and drink His blood he could have no life in him; that He was the heavenly manna. And then He said: "None of you can come to me except the Father who hath sent me draw him."
At that time the crowds following Christ were immense. The gospel was drawing tremendously by its miracle-working force. Christ had been feeding thousands. They were following Him for the loaves and the fishes. He saw that this kind of following promised no good to His cause, and so said, "No man can come to me except the Father who hath sent me draw him." They said, "This is a hard saying: who can believe it?" Then the record adds, "From that time many of His disciples followed Him no more."
Now it was every way essential to the sure and permanent upbuilding of the cause of Christ that a certain following should be repelled. And what was that following? All who wanted to become open followers of Christ without regeneration. "No man can
come to me except the Father who hath sent me draw him." It was the doctrine preached to Nicodemus: "Except a man be born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God." Strange as the doctrine may be, difficult to understand as Nicodemus found it, yet it stands before the door of the church like the cherubim with the flaming sword at the gate of Paradise, keeping the way to the Tree of Life, repelling any who would seek to attain eternal life except through the regenerating power of the Spirit of God.
The lines of thought upon which I wish to speak today are these: God cares for His cause by a direct agency and a permissive agency. In the direct agency God Himself continually sifts His people as wheat, in order that the chaff may be separated from the wheat. And for the same reason God permits Satan to sift His people as wheat, in order that the chaff may be separated from the wheat. When God sifts, the design is benevolent; when Satan sifts, the purpose is malignant; but the end attained is the same.
Now, let us see how this sifting process works as conducted by these two agencies, one heavenly and the other from hell, one direct and the other permissive. When our Lord Jesus Christ sifted the crowds that followed Him after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, He had no evil end in view. He meant no harm at all, but only good. It was a sad thing to Him that when He came to save men, and great crowds would gather about Him, they would try to become His followers without entering in at the strait gate and walking over the narrow way that leads to life. He stood at the portals to sift that crowd.
There has been no time in the history of the world when the necessity of preaching the same sifting doctrine was greater than it is today. The church of today needs to invoke all the repelling power of the cause of Christ, in order to shut out the unregenerate, those who are not at heart Christians, those who have never been drawn to Jesus Christ by the Father who sent Him, those who have never been really breathed upon by the Holy Spirit from on high. I say there never was a time in the history of the church of Christ when the necessity was greater than right now to insist upon this sifting process at the portals.
Let us see how the same idea is manifested in the case of Simon Magus. Simon Magus could do a great many wonderful things. He himself knew that there was a large element of imposture in what he did, and when Philip came to Samaria to preach, it was not so much Philip's preaching that impressed Simon Magus as the wonderful things that Philip did, which were in the line of Simon Magus. He was himself a wonder-worker and now here is another wonder-worker that surpasses him. He did not understand how Philip could do such marvelous things. He knew he
could not do them. But never for one moment did he attribute this extraordinary power to the right source. He had been himself so much accustomed to practice deception upon the people in order to magnify himself before the community as some great one, he naturally supposed that Philip had found a way of trickery surpassing his own. It occurred to him in a moment that he ought to express his faith in Jesus Christ and be baptized.
Jesus had said, "No man can come to me except the Father who hath sent me draw him." Had the Father drawn Simon Magus? Was he really a converted man? Was there a radical, internal, fundamental change in the man? He believed, and he was baptized upon that belief, but was his a gospel faith?
Without some sifting process the church will be filled up with men like Simon, men who look at a proposition that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and reach an intellectual conviction that the claim is made good by the fact that certain miracles have been wrought. "I will accept that. I cannot account for it. I cannot explain it; but I concede the fact."
When Peter and John came down to Samaria, they went a step beyond anything that Philip had done. Philip himself could work miracles, but Philip had no power of communicating this miracle-working capacity to others. Philip could not by laying on of his hands impart to others the same power to work miracles he himself possessed. But Peter and John did that very thing. They kneeled down and prayed for Philip's converts, and the miraculous power of the Holy Ghost came upon them.
Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles' hands the holy ghost was communicated, he recognized its force, and he wanted to possess the power. He knew he did not have it. It was perfectly evident that these men had it, and he proposed to get it in a business way. All along it was business with this man. He thought that like everything else it could be bought, that it had its price and he also supposed that if he possessed it he could become immensely rich. This surpassed anything that he had ever known in the way of divination or witchcraft, or necromancy. And so he offered money: "I will pay whatever this costs. I suppose you have a world-wide patent right. I would like to get the patent right for a certain section of the country. I will pay you so much money for it."
The proposition was a revelation. It revealed the internal attitude of Simon. It showed that the Father had never drawn him. It showed that he had gotten into the church by a mere intellectual faith that had not been wrought in him by the power of the Holy Ghost. Hence Peter said to him: "Thou and thy money perish together, because thou hast thought to purchase the gift of God with money. Thou hast no part nor lot in this matter."
There is the sifting, sifting at the portal, insisting that whoever is a member of the church should have a genuine part, a genuine lot, in this matter. But what was the trouble with Simon? "Thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Thou art in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity. Thy whole church connection is a fraud. There is nothing spiritual in it. Verily, verily I say unto you, except a man be born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God." He cannot understand it. He cannot appreciate it. There is nothing in it palatable to him. The carnal mind is enmity against God and is not subject to His law, and with that mind unchanged, it is impossible to become a subject of Jesus Christ. You may whitewash, you may put on a thin veneer over the internal depravity and hide it from sight, but the dry rot is inside, the element of death is in the soul, and if a man be "in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity," there is no power in an ordinance to make him a child of Jesus Christ.
We need now to stand right there with a sieve, and as representatives of Jesus Christ to sift the people as wheat, in order to separate the chaff from the wheat. Are you God's child? Is your heart right in His sight? Are you "in the gall of bitterness?" Are you "in the bond of iniquity?" "No man can come to me except the Father who hath sent me draw him." And it is time, as our text says, that "judgment should commence at the house of God."
Now let us see how it is that Satan sifts. Take the case of Peter. The case of Simon Magus shows how Jesus and His agents sift those who would become members of the church, but let us see how the devil sifts.
The devil had looked at the group of apostles. There were twelve of them. One might have supposed that he would have contented himself with sifting the recent converts, or, at least, the unofficial members of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. But he had long been a student of human nature. He had a skepticism that had grown on him since the time he himself fell through pride, and his theory was that no man does anything except from selfish reasons; and while sometimes it is difficult to get at, yet if you can make a complete analysis you will be able to show that the best seeming men in the world are influenced in private and public life by self-interest. And he was not disposed to except any from the general classification because they were apostles.
Just so he had his opinion about Job. He had walked around him. He had studied him. He arrived at a conclusion about him. And while Job seemed a good man, while he was very attentive to his religious duties, while he offered sacrifices for himself and for his children, the devil said, "Does Job serve God for naught? I would be a Christian myself if He would do me that way. Why, just look how the Lord has blessed him! Who has as many cattle as Job? Who has such healthy, stalwart sons,
such beautiful, accomplished daughters? Who has such a reputation for sanctity? Who has such hoards of stored up wealth? God has built a hedge all around Job. The wind cannot blow on him. Enemies cannot get to him. Doth Job serve God for naught?"
And with the very spirit that prompted him to sift Job, he proposes to sift the twelve apostles. He thinks that all of them are either hypocrites or deluded men. The devil knows that all men are not hypocrites, but he divides them into two classes, those who are hypocrites and those who are deluded. And he believed that if Jesus would let him do the sifting, that his sifting would be a fairer test than if Jesus did it; that Jesus would manifest too much love in the matter, too much tenderness. He would allow His great, warm, loving heart to be too partial. And so the devil comes up to Jesus and makes a request: "You say that you come to establish a kingdom here on the earth that is not to be of the world, but a spiritual kingdom, and you have selected the leaders. Here they are, these twelve men, James and Andrew, Peter, John, Bartholomew, Judas and others, and with these twelve men you propose to establish a spiritual kingdom in this world that is not to be of the world. Now I request that you let me have the sifting of these twelve men."
Jesus determined to grant his request, and He said to Satan, "You may sift them." But just as soon as Jesus gave the permission to Satan to sift them, He commenced praying for Peter: "I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not." He knew there would be no mercy in the devil's test, that it would come from as deep a malignity as hatred could furnish, and that sorely tried would be each of these twelve men. It is somewhat remarkable that He prayed for Peter, but not for Judas. Why? Why this discrimination? It is said in the context that "Jesus knew from the beginning who believed on Him," who were at heart believers, and He knew Judas was not. Here was a man like Simon Magus. He had gotten into the external camp of God, but not into the spiritual camp. The Father had never drawn him. In order to the purity of the church there must be given to it a repelling power that will push off the Judases and the Simon Maguses. There must be some way by which the unspiritual element shall be eliminated or sloughed off and if necessary let the devil take the sifting process in hand.
And so the devil put those twelve men in his sieve and commenced sifting. We have not much record as to how that sifting affected ten of these men. We have a little -- not much -- but that little says that they all, after Christ died and was put in the grave, became oppressed with gloom. They fled. They hid. They did not avow openly that they were the followers of Jesus Christ. All through the darkness of the time that Jesus was on trial, and on the cross, and in the grave, the hour of the power of
darkness had come to each of these twelve men. But we have a particular account of the sifting of two of them, and when the devil sifted these two they bounced around in the sieve very much. Peter was light-weight, but wheat. Judas was chaff altogether. As the devil continued to sift, it looked like Peter would go out with Judas, but Christ prayed for him: "I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not." Peter was retained and Judas was lost.
Take another case; and this is the last historical instance for today. After the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit had been poured out and great power had been conferred upon God's children, and they had favor with all the people, it seemed then that the hazard was that everybody would come inside the church, ready or not ready. They were the centers of attraction. They filled men's vision. There was more talk about the apostles of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem than about all the great men of the world put together, and crowds that could not be numbered were going into the temple in order to hear them preach, and multitudes of men and women were professing the faith and were being baptized, three thousand in one day, five thousand men alone on another occasion, not counting the women. Thousands upon thousands poured in, and the apostles worked mightily in signs and wonders, electrifying and thrilling that capital of Judea with the displays of the power which God had conferred upon them.
The heat became so intense that there was just one mind and one heart. First of all, unity, one mind and one heart; and then community; they had all things in common. Men were so much impressed with the power of the Christian religion, they were so drawn by the attractive power of the world to come that when they compared this life's wealth with the treasures in heaven, when they compared the fading with the unfading, the temporal with the eternal, the visible with the invisible, the transitory with the eternal; they counted property as nothing and began to sell it.
You may understand the power of that meeting by this fact. They began to sell their property and to bring the price of it and put it into the common fund. "The earth is fading. Its foundations are shaking. Eternity is coming. Its dawn already has made rosy our sky. The judgment of God is at hand. Heaven has come down to earth. What do we want with property?" And they sold it, and they brought the money and laid the price of it at the apostles' feet, saying, "Who is hungry let him be fed; who is naked let him be clothed. We are all one. We are brethren." Unity! Community!
Well, there were some people in the church who could not understand this enthusiasm. Why didn't they understand it? They had no spiritual insight, and spiritual things can only be spiritually discerned. They were just as much puzzled with that phenomenon as Simon Magus was by the wonders wrought by Peter and John.
They saw there was some tremendous power at work. They could not understand it, and they determined to do this: "I will divide my investment. This seems to be a bonanza. This new thing looks like it. I am not prepared, however, to venture all, but I will give a part, and lest this is only seeming, lest it is only a bubble that will burst, I will save back part of it. I will hold on here to earth with one anchor, and then I will cast an anchor to the windward."
One man who happened to be a member of the church, not a Christian, but who got in like Simon Magus and Judas did, had a talk with his wife about this thing. That must have been a strange family conversation: "Wife, what do you think of this movement? There is something here. What do you think of it?" "Well, I don't know." "What are we going to do about it? You see how this enthusiasm is running. You see what Barnabas has done. You see what the others have done. Now, we cannot be behind the procession. What are we to do?"
And they agreed together. The husband and wife conspired. They entered into a solemn covenant, each knowing what the other would do and say, and their conspiracy went so far in duplicity as to court the appearance of investigation. It was arranged that Ananias should go to Peter at one time, and his wife should come after, to avoid the appearance of collusion, so that Ananias could be examined by himself and the wife by herself, and therefore the husband would not seem to dominate the wife, nor the wife dominate the husband. And so, having sold a piece of land, they cut it in two. They kept back a part. "This new religion of Jesus Christ may come to an end in a little while, and we had better have something left down here in this world. We will keep that part hid."
So they arranged that Ananias should go first, and his wife should come after. And Ananias came and laid his money down at the feet of Peter, saying, "I have sold my possession and here is the price of it. I want to put it into the common fund. I feel this new spirit. I want to move on with the rest of the disciples of Jesus Christ. Here is the price of my land."
Peter had here the gift of discerning spirits just as later, in the case of Simon Magus. This case was too artificial. It was managed too cleverly. There were too many protestations concerning it. It did not come up naturally. So Peter says, "Tell me, did you sell the land for so much?" "Yes, so much." "Is this all of it?" "Yes." "Ananias, you have not lied to men; you have lied to God. You have lied to the Holy Ghost; you have committed an unpardonable sin. It hath never forgiveness, neither in this world nor in the world to come." And he fell dead at the feet of the apostles, and they took him up, the dead man, whose soul was in hell, lost forever. They took up
the dead body and carried it out and buried it, to rest there until the resurrection comes.
Just about the time they got back, here comes the wife. She looks very religious. She has all the external seeming of a Christian. She comes and stands before Peter. The wife has an interest in community property. And Peter puts the question, to her: "Tell me, did you sell that land for so much?" "Yes, for so much." 'Is this the whole price of it?" "Yes." "Woman, woman, you have lied to God." And down she fell at his feet.
There was one swift and sharp and fatal exposure of hypocrisy. There was a judgment in the house of God. There was a sifting under the direction of God Himself. This man, Ananias, had no part or lot in the matter. He was "in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity." He thought to hoodwink the eye that never sleeps and lied to the Holy Ghost, and he perished.
Now, why did God strike down Ananias and Sapphira? Why did He? Were they greater sinners than all the sinners of Jerusalem? Not so. I doubt not there were in Jerusalem many sinners as heinous in God's sight as this man and this woman. But this man and this woman were in the church. This man and this woman were pretending to superior sanctity. This man and this woman at the very time that the spiritual evidence was being given of the power of God in the church, were knowingly perpetrating a fraud. They were not required to sell their land. There was no law in the church that everybody should sell his property and put it into a common fund. Peter said, "Before you sold it, wasn't it yours? And after you sold it, wasn't it yours?" There was no compulsion about this.
Here were some good Christians so impressed with the power of the world to come that they sacrificed all their property and put it into the common fund, but there was no law to that effect. There was no statute demanding a community of goods. It was the voluntary, unprompted act of the soul of the religious enthusiast. Ananias and Sapphira did not have that enthusiasm, but they thought they must follow along after that procession some way, in order to keep up pretenses, to make it seem that they were all right. That this judgment in the house of God accomplished its purpose appears in this record, Acts 5:13,14: "And of the rest durst no man join himself to them; but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women." So now let not the unprepared dare to unite with thy people, so that the people may magnify their cause, and believers the more may seek admission.
"The time has come that judgment should commence at the house of God." The repelling power is essential. If the church lays too much stress on the attraction, if the
church uses worldly means of drawing people, don't you see how fatal that influence becomes?
Out in the unregenerate world are a great many nice people. They do not belong to the riff-raff. They are exceedingly respectable and high-toned, and they are willing to belong to some church, saying, "If you will just let the gap down low enough -- if you will not stand there with a flaming sword and demand regeneration, we will come in." If you will quit preaching the necessity of regeneration, if you will quit preaching salvation by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, if you will lower the doctrine, why you can get the multitude. They will come in. And then lay a little more stress on the aesthetical parts of your worship. Bring in art. Be a little more artistic. Employ some fashionable singer, whose reputation is for song and song only, and put her in the church, and let her draw. Let her draw!
Oh, the repulsion of the ancient Gospel, when the people of God would rely upon the truth and power of spiritual religion rather than factitious, adventitious aids from other sources! God needs no such help. It is a question of life and of death. You are lost if you are not regenerated, and you are guilty of suicide if you deceive yourself by any whitewashing or veneering on the subject of religion. "It is time that judgment should begin at the house of God."
Away, and forever away, with every appliance that appeals to men except as to lost sinners, guilty before God and needing the regenerating power of the Spirit and the atoning blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. And when the church forgets, when it turns away from its ancient source of might, to make alliance with the feeble forces of time, and surrenders the dignity and majesty and sublimity and omnipotence of God's methods in order to adopt some time-serving method, it stands accursed. The curse of God is on it.
I would rather see this house unroofed, each timber taken down, cast off brick by brick its walls, its foundations dug up and the trench of the foundations filled with salt; I would rather that the congregation itself, all in one place, by one bidding of Jesus, should be called through the portals of death to heaven, and leave not one upon the earth, than for this church to turn aside from God's holy way of saving men to the miserable frauds and shams and impostures that are sometimes employed. "It is time that judgment should commence in the house of God." This is true, brethren. It is true no matter who is hit by it. Even if it lifts out your pastor and every other preacher in the church, and all your deacons, it is true that you have no religious power in the sight of God that is not in the line set forth in that book. You fail in your mission as a church when you abate one jot or tittle, when you lower the
standard by a hair's breadth, when you turn aside to any flimsy method of time, when you go away from that simple foundation: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except you be born from above you can never see the kingdom of God." Let Judas go to his own place. Let Ananias and Sapphira, with lies on their lips, go down to their doom. Let Simon Magus clank the chain of his bondage, his fetters never having been broken. But let the church of Jesus Christ stand for the simplicity of the Gospel as it is in our Lord.
Do thou, Lord, give equipoise to thy church and cause. Make great the centripetal attraction. But also make great the centrifugal force. Let thy cause draw all men, but let not it draw them except by spiritual force. Oh, let not the builders of Zion's walls daub with untempered mortar! Neither let them work wood, hay and stubble. Keep us forewarned of the trial by fire, lest we suffer loss in the day of fire. ==========
[From B. H. Carroll, Christ and His Church, pp. 79-88. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on B. H. Carroll
Baptist History Homepage