Guidance by the Spirit or by Books?
Guidance by the Spirit or by Books?
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
One of the truths that God has got into my heart very clearly is the one that I’ve kept on repeating probably maybe to your boredom but the fact that we, each one of us here, are here on this earth so that the son of our Maker could live inside us the life that he has planned. You know I repeat it so often because the very conventional sound of the words can easily put you to sleep when you can say, “Well of course that’s right, we know that.” I think the dreadful disappointment is that we don’t live in the glorious immediacy of that. We sink into our own old selves as we call it.
I’d just remind you of the verses upon which the truth is based. One of them of course is back in Ezekiel 36:26. It is during the 2nd exile you remember and God spoke to Israel through Ezekiel promising them eventual deliverance but first of all making it clear to them that there was blessing that could come to them in this time when they were in a land that belonged to someone else and they were prevented from operating their public synagogue services of worship. Then they had to worship within their own homes and in their own hearts. So that’s where this promise is given.
Ezekiel 36:26, “A new heart I will give you,” so not the commandments up there on the stone or up on the wall of the temple but “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” God will put something within us and of course we know who that something or someone is. He will put someone within us who will make us want to do what God wants us to do from within.
Of course that’s the promise that was fulfilled and it’s stated there in Galatians 4:6, “And because you are sons,” Paul says, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’” And that’s the promise fulfilled. “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying ‘Abba! Father!’” I know that all of us tend to go to sleep at that point and say yes, that’s the doctrine of assurance of forgiveness of sins, the Spirit of God himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And we miss the incredible fact that it means Christ is within you to live a unique life in you that he will live in no one else.
What we do is ignore all that and we say, “Yonder see the morning blink, the sun is up but up must I, to wash and dress and eat and drink and look at things and talk and think and work, and God know why!” (Poem by AE Housman). And God know why, I don’t know why because I ignore the great person who is in me. And of course that is why we all go after celebrity. I want to be noticed! I want to be noticed! Noticed!? The Christ, the son of the Maker of the universe is inside you. You are noticeable. So that’s the truth.
Of course what brought me to this “a little touch of Harry in the night” the part of Shakespeare’s “Henry the IVth” and Harry went around the troops to encourage them during the night before the great battle. And this is a touch of Barth (author and theologian) in the night. As always just wonderful, a dear man if you can wade through his tomes to get to the good bits. It will be real life to us all and real revelation I think.
He’s talking about ethics. “We refer to the ethics which in church history bears the name of casuistry.” Casus is chance in Latin but casuistry is defined by Webster as the science of choosing really between right and wrong, of deciding what is right and what is wrong, in the light of all the
natural laws and all the principles that mankind knows including the Bible. Casuistry is the cases of conscience they say, cases of conscience, places when the conscience has to decide what is right and what is wrong. “The pattern of casuistry is the exposition of the Torah in rabbinical Judaism with it’s attempt to discover in all actual or even imaginable instances the right decision.” It was found first of all with the connection with the Torah. “In the Torah’s attempt to discover in all actual or even imaginable instances,” so all the experiences, “the right decision concerning the question of the right attitude and action enjoined upon man by God.” Actually it’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that’s really what it is. So it is a preoccupation with that.
And then this is what was light to me. “This type of Christian ethics” where you are preoccupied with is the right thing or is that the wrong thing. I’ll tell you the right thing; no you tell me what the right thing is. No I’ll look at this book. “This type of Christian ethics like many other things first arose at the time of the transition from the 1st to the 2nd century.” That’s about 100 AD, around there when John you remember we reckon died about 100 AD. So we think of the end of the apostolic age as around about 100 AD and after that it is called the sub apostolic age.
“But this first arose at the time of the transition from the 1st to the 2nd century when there developed a lack of confidence in the Spirit who is the Lord” as he says, remember the Lord is the Spirit. “When there developed a lack of confidence in the Spirit who is the Lord as the guide, lawgiver, and judge in respect of Christian action and the necessary reassurances was thus sought by beginning to read and treat both the old and new testament witness, not without borrowings from the stoic moralists as a text of ethical law.” He says an oval lex in Latin, a new law. I mean I see it clearly now but it didn’t come home to me as strongly as that, that there did come a time that at the end of the apostolic age when as he says there was a lack of trust in the Spirit, a lack of confidence in the Spirit, who is the guide, lawgiver and judge in respect of Christian actions. So they went over into looking at the books. We never think of them as turning to the tree of knowledge of good and evil but in fact that’s what they did. And of course we have continued to do it.
He says, “And by the end of the 16th century matters had gone so far that the Puritan William Perkins was willing and able to write a book “De Casabas Conscientiae”, Latin title for “Cases of Conscience”, in which he gave a systematic account of the correct individual decisions enjoined upon a Christian.” So he wrote up this is right for a Christian to do, this is wrong for a Christian to do, this is the right thing to say in this situation, this is the wrong thing to say in that situation. And well on into the 18th century.
Then of course, it’s not fair to lay it on to the Catholic Church but it so happened that it did affect the thing. He says, “The whole thing was more and more complicated by the fact of the whole confessional. It was an easy way,” he says. “The real upsurge of Christian casuistry is due to the rise of the practice of confession. Penitentiaries was the medieval name for the collections of moral decisions in particular instances which designed for the use of Father confessors were arranged either systematically or sometimes for handiness simply in alphabetical order and which in increasing measure were grounded not only upon the Bible and natural law but also upon pronouncements and assertions of special authorities in the earlier traditions of the Church.” And so they began to begin to bring in the ethics of the Roman and Greek authors and there gradually grew up a whole set of do’s and don’ts partly based on the Bible, the Old Testament and New Testament, partly based on the advise of the early Church Fathers, partly based on even the recommendations of the Roman and Latin authors, like Seneca and Plato, but there developed a whole
tree of knowledge of good and evil that of course we ourselves know so well.
Our schools began to teach and we benefited from much of it. But the dreadful thing was we said, “Lord, no, I can find it in the book. In this situation, there’s guidance in this book what I should do in this marriage. No, get behind me Satan, get behind me Savior, get behind me Holy Spirit. I can find an answer to this. There’s a book that somebody has just written on this. I saw it in the Christian bookshop yesterday and it will tell me what to do in this situation. No, no get behind me.”
So instead of the freedom, the glorious freedom of the infinite Son of God, who has thought of all these birds and flowers and all the variety that is in the universe and has a whole variety of things to do through each one of us so that your life is planned to be different from everybody else’s, and he has a life to live in you that is different from everybody else’s. Instead of that glorious dynamic Savior being our daily moment by moment guide, we have put upon ourselves heavy burdens. Books upon books, laws upon laws, which we then play games with a lot of the time but most of all which we burden ourselves and indeed not most of all, the most most of all, we use as a wall and a barrier between ourselves and the Spirit of his Son which he has put within us.
So that we are tone deaf, we no longer hear him, we hear others, we see other’s writings, we observe what others do but no longer do we live by the light and guidance of the only One who knows what our life is planned to be. So we miss the whole glorious spontaneity of life. Barth is very good in that he says, “There isn’t really a law for every situation in the Bible.” But that’s what the theologians and so many of us have believed. We have believed for every situation there is guidance and a law in the Old Testament or the New Testament. He says no, there are historical instances where God acted in a certain way with certain people. And from those you can have a sense of whether you are way out in left field or not, so the words of scripture are precious, the laws are precious but primarily precious in that they let you know the things that God has done and guided people to do in the past.
But when you take that historical event, that particular instance of what he did with the Israelites in that situation, and then ignoring him completely you work out in your little logical faulty impaired mind how that will apply to you, you’ve actually engaged in sin. You’re actually walking independent of him and independent of his guidance and his spirit within you. Of course this blessed law here is a hedge against excessive errors by us human beings. Not only that, of course it is something that makes us conscious and aware that we have gone in the wrong direction here. Of course it will keep us from the hideous psychotic neurotic extremes that the mad man goes into or that the egotist or the maniac gets into.
Of course it will let us know now, look that can’t be because that is not the spirit that is exuded here in this particular instance in the Old or New Testament. Of course it will do those things but God has put the spirit of his Son into our hearts to live a life that nobody else has lived, nobody else will live but that He has planned to live within us. And of course you can see for yourself where it has led us. No one would have thought 30 years ago that the American budget would be at the mercy of the abortion issue. No one would have thought it. They would have said you’re crazy! The Christians even they will not be preoccupied with that whole issue but certainly the non Christians won’t be.
You think of the activity of what we call evangelical Christianity and lest we congratulate ourselves in that we are not part of that extreme, let us remember the way we live our lives, the
way we seek guidance, the voices we listen to, how we get up in the morning. We joke about Humphrey who was so rambunctious and so full of life and of course the comedian was joking when he said, “ Hubert Humphrey, when he gets up in the morning he jumps out of bed and says ‘whoopee’.” That’s what it is meant to be like. “ Whoopee Lord! Here is a new day for you to take me into whatever you have for us both.” But not only is that not the normal Christian life, but you might say the normal Christian life is reading the next book to find out how you pray or to find out what you should do or what your position should be in this political opinion poll.
And your own dear minds, just think about it, “Should I do that? I don’t want to do anything wrong. What should I do to be sure that I am right?” It’s almost “What should I eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil today?” Yet God has said, “If you turn to the right or to the left you will hear a voice saying this is the way, walk ye in it.” Quiet and gentle, loving, able to lead a Tyndale way out clear of everybody so that he can do what is right. Or a St. Francis, able to lead him way out in a new direction, able to lead people in new ways, in fresh ways, that still small voice, that sound of gentle stillness and I think it’s Barth himself that says, “Christianity has gone, can go in two directions.”
It can go the way we know so well, it can go into a development of casuistry. A development of casuistry, the science of deciding what is the right action in this particular instance for human beings, what is the right kind of thinking. He says the reformers went a little further, they said, “It’s not only the outward action that is the issue, it’s the intention of the heart, the motive.” There are certain motives that are right and certain intentions that are wrong but it is still casuistry.
So you can either go that way which I think all of us would. We have no trouble in this abortion situation where men end up killing doctors. We know the casuistry has gone way way out to the legalism, way way out to the legalism. And he said Christianity can go that way or of course it can go the other way, “Oh if it feels good do it. It’s what you feel you should do, that’s the only thing that matters.” Well of course he says that isn’t it. It’s the spirit of his Son within us that will guide us and you can tell if it is the spirit of his Son because you can see is it the same spirit as moved in Jesus of Nazareth? Is it the same spirit as came down to Moses in this situation?
So you can see whether the thing is right or wrong. He says Christianity goes to one extreme or the other and the middle way is the way where you see that you have a unique life to live, that the son of the Maker of the world is within you, and he has a unique life to live in you. He will guide you into it and at times it will be surprising, at times you’ll invent geophysic domes, at times you will do what everybody else is doing, at times you’ll do something that nobody else will do. That is the privilege that you have. That is what God has in mind for each of us.
It seems to me just glorious and wherever you see me flipping into it, pray for me. And gently express something that will guide us and we do the same with you so that we can encourage each other to listen for that voice that God has promised he will give us. Most of all, well they say, “Hang loose.” Most of all relax and see that this is a glorious life you have like nobody else’s and he is within you and he has a life to live through you that he will live through nobody else.
You can see what a tragedy it is, what a tragedy it is for us to think, “Oh well maybe that’s so in me but so and so thinks I should do this and that.” Some of that, I mean I don’t suggest that we throw everything out but do suggest strongly that we see that casuistry, the preoccupation with the
knowledge of good and evil, the preoccupation with doing the right thing, that has for many of us in many situations become a deadening heavy weight and it has been a sin. Sin is living without God. Sin is living apart from God. Sin is living by what we think rather than what he thinks. So it has brought about a very pious sin, a very pious independence of his voice and therefore of ignoring him.
It brings you back to the Studdert Kennedy poem you remember, “When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed him by, they wouldn’t hurt a hair of him,” and then it ends, “They only let him die.” And the last bit is “Jesus crouched against the wall and cried for Calvary.” So thank you to dear old Barth, a little touch of Barth in the night and of course our blessed Savior who has spent so much time inside each of us and been so ignored as we substituted our casuistry.