Brethren Archive

The Negative Christian

by John Dickie

AT this day, what with photographic albums in every household, and photographic studios in nearly every street, there must be few intelligent persons who do not know what is meant by a photo-graphic negative. It is that dark, overdone picture, taken from the object, which the artist uses as a plate wherewith to multiply, by sun-printing, true representations of the person or scene that is delineated. Should the reader, however, not be familiar with photographic processes, if he will please to take an ordinary likeness of himself on glass, and to lay the glass on a sheet of white paper, he will see a negative portrait of himself which shall sufficiently answer our present purpose.

And how strangely the portrait looks, with its general outlines all right, but with the filling in of light and shadow all wrong. The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the chin,—all the features are there; and all, too, are in the right relative positions and true proportions, representing the peculiar features of the person with perfect accuracy. The lights and shadows, too, which are needed to give a portrait all its character, are also there, but they are strangely reversed. What ought to be light is shaded, and what is usually shade is bright. Nay, the lights are bright just in proportion as the shades should have been deep; and the shades are dark in proportion as the lights which they represent should be bright All this serves the purpose of the artist, who could not otherwise use the plate for the end designed; but all this unfits it for being itself kept as a portrait of the person who is meant to be represented.

Now, shall we be deemed guilty of censoriousness if we suggest that this dark, unsightly negative is only a too truthful representation of not a few who profess to be Christians? In a moral sense, they may be regarded as specimens of what we may term negative Christianity. Their profession is just as sharp in its outlines as that of the most positive Christian usually is. All the externally manifested elements that go to make up a devout character of life are there. They have knowledge—and that, perhaps, beyond most; they exhibit the usual tokens of faith and love, of hope and fear. There is sufficiency of zeal and diligence, of earnest desire and of patient expectation. But, strange to say, the ordinary sphere in which these qualities are manifested is totally reversed. Take a specimen of true Christian faith and practice, as these are exhibited in any of the eminent Bible saints or in any of the worthies whom the Church venerates for their holy living, and compare with it this sample of a negative Christian, and you will find that while the feelings of the one are represented by somewhat similar feelings in the other, yet the corresponding parts lie on the opposite sides of the two characters; and besides this, what is the brightest light in the one, is the deepest shadow in the other.

For instance, the positive Christian has faith; but it is faith in God alone. He cannot trust in men,— not even in the best of men; and least of all, can he place the faintest confidence in himself. But let God give him a clear promise, and no matter if the circumstances around him may seem to contradict it, he can venture at lengths on the certainty of this Divine word, smiling even as he turns his face to the wall to die. Or let a word of command accompany the promise, and he will get himself to obey; nay, he will count his life profitably expended if it be lost in the service. Remind him, in his sorrow, of some of the tender assurances of his Heavenly Father's love; and, as faith grasps them and clings to them, they are seen to minister a very real consolation, for his tears soon cease to flow, and he smiles amid the wreck of all that nature loves most dearly.

The negative Christian, too, has faith, and possibly he speaks ten times more about it; but, at bottom, it is faith in man, faith in circumstances, faith in self. On no account can it be spoken of as faith in God. So long as appearances are favourable, he may seem to trust fearlessly in the Divine promise; but let circumstances begin to threaten, and the reliability of the promise begins to dwindle. So long as he has reasons of his own for obeying the command, he will more or less zealously obey it; but let all his worldly interests veer round to the other side, and he will be sure to go along with them. The comfortable truths of God's Word seem to comfort him, while his enjoyments are not dependent on their supernatural consolations; but he cannot sing the song of Habakkuk anywhere else than amid rich unblasted vineyards, and beside his well-filled stalls.

In none of their characteristics is the striking reversal of light and shadow more manifest than in that which is connected with knowledge. The negative Christian may, in a certain way, be as familiar with spiritual truth as the most enlightened disciple; but the spirit in which this truth is held by the two, and the way in which the mind of each is influenced by the truth thus held, is as widely different as possible. His knowledge always humbles the genuine disciple to the dust. He trembles when he thinks of it; for he never forgets that his knowledge is the measure of his responsibility—that to him who knoweth to do good, while yet he doeth it not, to him his sin is without excuse. And he remembers that he is to give account for the use which he makes of this knowledge to One who, in the stately language of John Milton, "even to a strictness, requires the improvement of his entrusted gifts." While freed, then, by his gospel faith, from all spirit of legal bondage, he is no less moved by the constant recollection that, as a saved man, he has been entrusted by his Lord with certain talents, and that his final place in glory shall be assigned him by the righteous Judge, who, in that solemn day, shall bestow no crowns, save only crowns of righteousness. If, on the one hand, the humble man, as a sinner condemned by law, has fled for refuge to the free, pardoning mercy of God in Christ Jesus,—he equally, as a forgiven sinner, realizes that he is now a steward of God's manifold grace, and is stimulated to watchful diligence by the constant wish, that as a steward he may be found faithful (1 Cor. iv. 2.).

But in the case of the negative Christian, all this is reversed. Instead of his knowledge casting behind it this deepest and most sombre shadow of extreme concern (Heb. xiii. 17,), this knowledge, on the other hand, is attended by the brightest and most conspicuous light that is to be seen in the picture of his character. It is the occasion, not of his deepest humility, as in the other, but of his loftiest pride. In fact there is nothing about him on which he plumes himself quite so much as on this same knowledge. Comparing it with the ignorance of many others, he assumes airs because of it; as if the possession of godless, fruitless knowledge were in itself a glory, and not a shame. And with a man of this character knowledge never does anything but puff him up; though this is the very last effect which knowledge may legitimately produce. Knowledge should always humble its possessor; and if a man fails to find that his knowledge is accompanied by its proper fruits in their due proportion, the discovery of the lack should excite alarm, even to the extent of horror. The fact that his know- ledge is barren, indicates that he is at present unfit to use it aright, and that the possession of it is merely increasing his sin and danger. Can any conceivable condition under heaven be more alarming than that of the man who, entrusted with a capital more than usually immense, has been using it hitherto only to secure damnation on the greatest scale?

The affections, too, of the two classes of disciples lie reversed in position and in shade. The lively Christian supremely loves his Saviour, and so loves him that ofttimes he scarcely can endure himself. Like the dying Grimshawe, he has only one great joy to comfort him—namely, that such a most unworthy servant has been blessed with so good a Master; and he has only one immense sorrow to afflict him,—that this good Master is so poorly served by his unfaithful servant. Ofttimes, indeed, when all is going on smoothly, the Christian will not be conscious of the full measure of his love to his Saviour; but when some time of sore trial presses him, then stands out in clearest relief the blessed fact, that supreme among all his affections reigns his loving loyalty to Jesus. Just as it is often experienced by a dutiful son in regard to a beloved parent, while all was well, he felt that he loved his mother, but he knew not how tenderly he loved, till the hour of death and parting came; and then he learned how much more dear to him than he had thought his mother had always been. And there are also humble souls, not a few, who, conscious of some love to the Lord Jesus, bewail that it is so little; for whom a most joyous discovery is reserved, which shall show, to their happy surprise, that their love has been so much greater than they knew.

With the negative Christian, however, all this is reversed. He supremely loves himself; and it is only for sake of his own ultimate interests that he endures his Saviour at all. Christ's yoke, so light and easy on the neck of love, galls his ease-loving shoulders; however, for sake of the expected ultimate benefits, he will submit to its present oppression. In regard to him there would not be the least difficulty about an answer to the devil's malignant query, "Doth Job fear God for nought?" The fervent hyperbole of the old Christian could never have occurred to him, even as an extravagant figure of speech: "Burn heaven, and quench hell, and I will serve my God and Saviour all the same." If there were no selfish interests involved in it, there would be no appearance of religion with him. And just as the true disciple has in his inmost heart a strength of holy love to the Lord Jesus, which he himself suspects, not till the hour of trial brings it clearly cut to view; so our negative Christian has a singleness of eye in his idolatrous love of self, of which be never dreams till extremity shall yet reveal to him its hideous perfection.

In regard, too, to the increasing power of detecting sin, and the hearty vehemence with which the discovered sin is condemned, the lights and shadows of the two characters are completely reversed. In both classes of disciples, the readiness to detect evil is regularly increasing with years, while the antipathy with which it is regarded is also increasing. But at this point all the resemblance between the two parties ceases. It is his own sin that the lively Christian is so swift to discern, and so strict to condemn; it is only the sight of his neighbour's faults that awakens the ire of the other. The humble disciple, reviewing the day at the close of it, is confounded by the discovery of innumerable failures, in thought and feeling, word and action; the failures being such, both in kind and degree, that, years before, he would not have been able to discern them at all. It is simply because his anointed eyes are growing so much clearer in vision, that he so readily discerns the hosts of tiny offences which abase him in the dust. True, during the same day, divine grace as well as human sin has equally been tincturing, to some extent, his every thought and feeling, and it might comfort him to trace out these with thanksgiving before that God who has enabled him so to walk; but he does not naturally turn to this side of his life. Nay, even if the tokens of this grace were pointed out to him, his eyes are scarcely capable of seeing them clearly, and his heart can but feebly apprehend a joy that comes from this direction. It is his spots that he discerns most easily; and it is over them that he pours his penitential sorrows. And taught in this way the invaluable lesson of his own exceeding sinfulness, he grows more and more poor in spirit, more and more a holy mourner, meeker and still meeker to other faulty ones around him; and he is more and more shut up to seek his comfort exclusively in what God is to the chief sinners through his beloved Son. And these are among the most precious results of the Holy Spirit's teaching. Without it, nothing can save us from the Pharisaic pride and self-righteous contempt of others which are so offensive to the God of holy grace.

But in the negative Christian the whole process is reversed. When he thinks of himself, he remembers only his excellences, not his sins; when he turns his eye on his neighbour, it is almost invariably a censorious, merciless eye; and he detects with Satanic sharpness, the evil in his neighbour, but never the good. And when he compares himself, not with the broad and perfect law of God—for that he never does—but with the imperfect men and women around him, he does not carry on the process with even the most ordinary approach to justice. He does not weigh himself as he is, faults and all, against them as they are, virtues and all. Like the typical Pharisee of Luke xviii., he puts into the one scale only his own virtues— he sees no faults to put in; and he places in the other scale only his neighbour’s faults—they have no virtues in his eyes. And when the comparison is manipulated in this way, his finding can only issue in making him thank God still more heartily that he stands alone, unique among men. And the longer he lives, his eyes grow the more sharp to discover his neighbour’s faults; but however quick in detecting evil, it is always another's evil that engrosses him; loud in bewailing, and severe in condemning sin, it is always the sin of others that he bewails and condemns.

We are not surprised, then, to find that in these two classes of men, pride and humility are also strangely reversed. For all men, even the most humble, have tendencies to pride; and as pride is the chief hindrance to the discovery of a man's own evils, whatever these may be, it follows that he who is most free from pride is best fitted to detect its Protean workings in his own heart. It is only the humble man who can discern, under its strange disguises, the hidden movements of his own pride; and the more humble he is, he will the more easily discover it, while he will the more heartily loathe it. It is no paradox, then, to affirm that the truly humble Christian is made still more humble by his very pride.

But all this is reversed in the case of the negative disciple. He, too, has his corresponding action and reaction of pride and humility; but the whole process operates towards results diametrically opposite. It is not, in his case, bewailed pride, producing deeper and ever deeper humility; but, with him, it is his self-admired humility, swelling still further his enormous pride. The lively Christian has comparatively little pride, although in reality, the germs are there, only too ready to be developed into activity, and his discovered pride keeps his humility ever fresh and blooming; while the other, who has no real humility, and even no capacity for it, feeds his pride to surfeit on his fancied lowliness of spirit, and because of his voluntary humility, is vainly puffed up in his fleshly mind (Col. ii. 18). For he is humble—he knows he is—humble, that is to say, considering the grounds he has for being far otherwise; while the more swelling his pride becomes, his dazzled eyes discern more clearly his treble-gilt humility, and he is still further puffed up by it.

Each of the two classes referred to, cherishes a more or less joyous hope of the promised glory—each is more or less confidently assured of being an object of Divine complacency. The degree in which this personal assurance is cherished will vary according to the temperamental and other peculiarities of the individual; but the negative disciple is quite likely to have, on the whole, the most of it. And yet, when they are examined, the lights and shadows in the two pictures are in this case also totally reversed. The confidence is built on two altogether different foundations. Where the one man would not venture to set the sole of his foot, it seems such a fickle quicksand, the other fearlessly builds his palatial house; for he takes the ground to be stable rock. The lively Christian, whether his confidence in regard to personal salvation be strong or weak, bases that confidence exclusively on what the Word reveals as being in God's heart towards himself, the chief of sinners. His feeling is not so much confidence as it is dependence. He has never discovered anything in himself but what goes to deepen his sense of exceeding sinfulness, and to make him repeat his Job-like groan, "Behold, I am vile." But he has seen something out of himself altogether, which can comfort all these sorrows, and which warrants him, in spite of his felt corruptions, to cherish a good hope through grace. This something, however, he finds not in his own heart, but in God's; it is not connected with his own doings, but with the doings and the death of the Lord Jesus. It is here where he finds his one solitary ground of hope; and according to the degree of his faith, does he really expect to be saved, but saved simply because God is what he is to sinful men in Christ Jesus. As for even his faith, he can get no direct comfort from that—at least as a foundation of confidence; for he sees so much imperfection in it, that it seems to him rather unbelief than faith. His love, he laments as being so cold, and his repentance, he confesses to be so impenitent, that he would as soon dream of claiming the crown of glory on the ground that he had never sinned at all, as he would think of expecting it because, as a gracious man, his gracious affections are what they are.

But it is as different as possible with the negative disciple. His confidence—and it is often strong enough—is all based on what he, in his fancied grace, has now become to God, and never on what God in his grace has become to sinful man. He has found the chief reasons for his strong assurance, not in God's heart, but in his own. He is a true believer; there can be no doubt of this fact, for is he not conscious of his faith? And is it not written in the Bible that every believer shall be saved? And faith, with him, is also pro-ducing its fruits in rich abundance—the chief, perhaps we should say the only fruit, in his case, being this strong assurance of salvation, and the comfortable feeling accompanying it that he is no longer like other men. As for the unequalled and incurable deceitfulness of his own heart—a heart whose almost infinite self-deceivableness, God alone can know—he has never even begun to suspect it; and so he trusts it more readily than he trusts aught besides in heaven or earth. And it is almost exclusively on the testimony of this "heart, deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked," that he builds without fear his strong confidence of safety.

By all means, let the Christian cherish the fullest assurance of God's favour, through Christ Jesus. He will need constantly this "hope of salvation" as the divinely-provided helmet wherewith to cover his head in the day of battle. But let us be careful to get our helmet along with our other accoutrements where the apostle procured his—out of the armoury of God (Eph, vi. 13). In Second Timothy i. 12, the Apostle Paul indicates to us the precise spot on which he founded his personal expectation of salvation; and, in so doing, he virtually instructs us where we are to rest our own: "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." How many in our day, if called to state their expectation and the grounds of it, would alter slightly this formula of the apostle, because they altogether alter the foundation itself; and instead of saying, "I know WHOM I am believing," would put it thus: " I know it as a fact that I am now a believer." Paul rested on a person—"whom;" and that trusted person was Christ; they rest in an act; and that act is their own—their faith. He had discovered in Christ what afforded him ample reason for his trust; they have discovered the reason for their confidence, such as it is, in themselves—in their faith. He had discerned in Christ, as revealed to him in Scripture, such a willingness to receive, and such an ability to keep, the precious deposit of a guilty but immortal soul, that he not only was encouraged to make the deposit, but a further acquaintance with the Saviour's faithfulness and love only confirmed him in the peaceful assurance that all was safe in his hands, for he knew in WHOM he was trusting. But confidence like this is a totally different thing from that which rests mainly on our own exercises of heart. It is not on self—neither on working self, nor on believing self—but on Christ alone, that we can warrantably trust; not on our faith, but on his faithful love. We must say,—"I know, not the fact that I am now a sound believer, but I know the blessed and most trustworthy character of HIM to whom I so absolutely commit my eternal all."

And the two classes of professing Christians have their special affinities and aversions with respect to the objects around them; but here too the lights and shades are all reversed. The Christian walks apart from the spirit of an evil world—a true Nazarite, separated unto God by a genuine consecration. The other walks enslaved by the spirit of the world, but in vehement, noisy separation from certain outward forms of the world's evil—his separation being that of a Pharisee, not of a Nazarite. Nay, his separation disunites him quite as distinctly from many of the saints as it does from the most loathsome of the sinners. He is essentially and bitterly sectarian in his spirit; and he cannot be otherwise. His entire set of spiritual affections, such as they are, is constantly revolving round self as their only centre, and leads him to make that self the standard by which he judges his fellows, and to find in his own personal interests his sole reason for liking or disliking them. He really divides the body of Christ, loving for his own selfish ends the little fragment of it that subserves these ends, and virtually hating all besides. Of course, in so limiting his love, he indicates how incapable he is of sympathy with the glorious Bridegroom of the undivided Church, who so loves the entire Bride, and loves her on grounds so holy and so gracious. In short, the negative disciple, loving those whom he does love simply because they resemble himself and serve his own ends, does not even approximate towards a genuine Christian love at all. The ignoble affection which he dignifies with the sacred name is merely selfishness. It is only because he loves himself, that he loves those who resemble him; and he loves those most in whom the resemblance is the most complete; while the far greater number, whom he refuses to love, have to some extent the image of the Lord Jesus, and are united to his glorious person; and so, in disliking them, he shows dislike to him. To state the case plainly yet moderately, his likings and dislikings are regulated by a spirit to which self is everything, and Christ is nothing.

The two classes of disciples have, each of them, a cherished home of the heart, towards which the affections ever gravitate, and in which alone they find anything like a satisfying rest. The heart's repose in this, its chosen home may be more or less disturbed; but, like the magnetic needle when it is unsettled, the heart spontaneously tends to recover its natural resting-place, and is uneasy till it finds it. Duty may call it away; distracting circumstances may drive it away; weakness may for a time turn aside; but the affections, by an abiding law, seek their natural centre, as surely as the stone left to itself, seeks the earth. But here, again in the two classes, as in the two pictures, the relate position of the heart's chosen resting-place is reversed. The negative disciple, with all his zeal and orthodoxy, has never been delivered (plucked violently, as the Greek word implies) from the present evil world; so this world continues to be to him what it became to him at his natural birth,—the suitable resting-place of his heart. He has had no true second birth, to introduce him to a second childhood, a second parentage, a second home, a second sphere of things. Like those Christian professors of whom Paul speaks with tears, he still minds----that is, sets his affection on earthly things (Phil. iii. 18,19). Whatever his religion may have, or lack, it is merely an appendage to what he has, and holds, from nature; in the so-called new, came not to supersede and to displace the old, but only to supplement and complete it. So like the Pharisees, he is, with all his religiousness covetous (Luke xvi. 14). He loves the world, and is the world's friend; and he cannot be anything else, seeing that the world is his natural home. True, he may leave his shop sometimes, and may be found occasionally in the closet, or in the sanctuary; but whether he be in the shop, or in the closet, the selfishness, the worldliness he never leaves. In it he lives, and moves, and has his being. The outward devotion to the world may apparently be broken up by occasional visits to the sanctuary, or even by what assumes to be the work of faith or the labour of love; but neither in the sanctuary nor yet in such service does the heart find its congenial home; and, moreover, into these exercises, it carries all its natural selfishness along with it. To win the world for self is his true vocation, and worship or gospel service is but an occasional parenthesis.

But it is altogether different with the lively disciple. His affections, his nature has been completely changed. Behold, all things have to him become new; and his heart has found a totally different rest. He is never happy, save when, admitted within the veil, he there beholds, though it be but as in a glass, and with dim eyes, the glory of his Lord; and has, by the blessed vision, his heart still more inalienably won for Christ. His longings for a nearer approach are insatiable; he hungers and thirsts, with groanings that cannot be uttered, for a more perfect rest in God. And the remembrance of past blessed experiences—too brief, alas! and too few—help to make death a welcome thought to him, when he shall be released from the clay fetters which chain his willing spirit. For his true home is in heaven, beside his Lord; and, with Augustine of old, he feels, "Lord, thou maddest us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee." He has found his only, but perfect, rest of conscience in the blood of Christ; he has attained to whatever rest of heart he has reached at all, only as he sought it in the person and presence of Christ; though even in his person and presence, he has enjoyed so much less of it than he desires: and so he labours assiduously that he may be able to enter more and more perfectly into this most blessed rest (Heb. iv. 11).

For the so-called conversion, through which each individual in these two classes of disciples may have passed, has brought only a partial satisfaction to any of them. The negative disciple, indeed, may have been greatly more satisfied with what he received in his so-called conversion than the other. His experience then fully met the one grand need of his soul, for he sought only for a something that should remove his guilty terrors in view of Divine wrath, and should deliver from the painful dread of coming punishment. He has been converted, as he thinks, and so he has no longer any need to fear. But his conversion has not wakened in him, new and fervent longing after God. It has still left him to the world, to seek in the pursuit of its selected good things wherewithal he may slake his spirit's thirst; just as he had been doing before his conversion—though then, perhaps, with the world's worst things. But the case has been altogether different with the lively Christian. His conversion settled one grand question, but it stirred up others quite as grave. It served to quench one thirst, but it excited others quite as imperious as the first. It spoiled forever, his rest in himself, or in worldly things; and if it brought him a sip of God's satisfying grace in Christ Jesus, a draught previously untasted by him, this little sip has rather excited his thirst than fully quenched it. The little possession to which he has attained has greatly intensified his insatiable desires. And just as the gaining of money excites the covetous longing for its increase; as the first successes of ambition stimulate to a further ambition; as acquisitions of knowledge excite to fresh ardours in pursuit of knowledge,—so what the true disciple has seen in God only makes him cry out the more fervently: "O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee; my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee, in a dry and thirsty land where no water is."

What the end of the two classes is to be, it needs no prophet to foretell. The Bible does this with sufficient clearness. The general sort of resemblance which the negative professor bears to the indisputably genuine disciple may be sufficient to satisfy himself and to deceive others; nay, it may buoy him up with the most confident expectations to the very last (Matt. vii. 21, &c.). But there are differences between the two classes as well as resemblances, and these differences will finally be found to be fatal.

The negative disciple needs to be reprinted and reversed. The work must be gone over from the very beginning; he needs to be made altogether new. What in him is light now, must be made shade; what lies on the right side must be turned over to the left. He cannot do this for himself; his fellow-man cannot do it for him. In fact, it is because no hands mightier than his own have been operating on him that he is the poor, bungled piece of workmanship that he is. God alone can put him right. The sun alone can do sun-printing properly; and the negative Christian needs to be put through another process to bring him out, a fair copy of what Christ means all his saints to be. Let him begin to know his own misery and impotence; let him learn his need of the Saviour's grace; and let him, in the deep sense of that need, and in the hearty faith of that grace, commit, like Paul, his precious deposit into hands so mighty, so merciful, and so faithful, that these hands may fulfil in him all the good pleasure of the Divine goodness, and the genuine work of faith with power.

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