The Battle for Sonship

by T. Austin-Sparks

From a transcribed message given in July 1967. Extract from "The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ" - Chapter 5.

Remember the three major words in this letter: Liberty, Spirit (with a capital S), Son. And we come back to that. The battle for sonship... and the battle for sonship raged around, or on, the ground of an "ism". And it was that "ism" that brought the Galatian Christians to this standstill, to this arrested progress and called out this terrible heart cry from the apostle, a terrible heart cry: "My little children! For whom I am again in travail till Christ be fully formed in you..." It is a pity they (the translators) haven't given us the whole word, they just put "till Christ be formed in you". No, till Christ be fully formed in you. That's the issue.

It was a beginning of the formation of Christ arrested, and the full formation of Christ to sonship has come under a change and all because of an "ism". A mighty "ism", it was Judaism. I need not, I think, spend any time in explaining and defining Judaism. You've read the letter. I trust that you've read it before this meeting. What Judaism is... what we're going to say will perhaps define it best as we enlarge this thing, but what I'm saying is it was an "ism", an "ism" that did it. Are you noting that? You've really got a hold of that? An ism did it all! Spoilt it all. And "isms" always have the same effect, they always do... isms.

Recently I came across something written by a very well known Christian leader and teacher, a man who over half a century ago wrote a standard on the lives of Christ and the apostle Paul, who were the great vogue of that time. We don't hear so much about them today. He wrote this, allow me to read it to you because it is so closely related to what we are saying:

"In the craft and subtlety of the devil and man, Christianity has ever tended to wither away into Judaism, into Rabbinism, into scholasticism, into ecclesiasticism, into Romanism, into sectarianism, into dead schemes of dogmatic beliefs, into dead routines of elaborate ceremonial, into dead exclusiveness of parties and party narrowness, into dead formulae of church parties, into dead performances of dead works or dead assent to dead phrases..."

That's pretty good isn't it? There are all your "isms"... but if he lived today I wonder how many more "isms" he would have had in it! I'm not going to be so unkind as to give you the extended list but think, think of the "ism", this thing which has become defined as an "ism" and that, and that, and that. Sometimes it is a distinct error. We should mention the errors. Sometimes it is a mixture of truth and error. Sometimes it is truth itself which is become an "ism". Yes, the truth! Quite right, the New Testament, but it has become an ism.

And what is the effect of an "ism"? What do we mean by an "ism"? Well, that thing has had a fence drawn round it and has in itself become the beginning and the end of everything. And that fence says, "Unless you tow this line, accept this ground, come onto this ground, there's no fellowship with you. Fellowship is not possible. Only if you accept this interpretation or this experience..." or whatever it is that you can put in the place of circumcision; "except ye be circumcised ye cannot be saved..." Remember that? A thing! It might be right in itself but it has been crystallized into a finality and the wall and door of exclusivism has been set up so that unless you come onto this ground you are excluded.

And that, as Dr Farrar (of whom I've just referred and given quotation) that is what he meant by the subtlety of the devil. You'll realize dear friends, that God has never done a new thing in Christian history, brought forth something that was intended to lead His people further on to that ultimate fullness, but what? Sooner or later, and usually sooner, men have fastened upon that and made an 'ism' of it, crystallized it into a teaching, a manner of practice in Christianity, with its own laws and ways and rights, and that thing has brought arrest to the fullness that God intended in Jesus; almost stopped there, the Ai... after Jericho.

One of the most pernicious things that the devil has ever done in Christian history has been to make men crystallize living truth into dead formula. And you know, he's clever. He's clever, Paul took the two-edged sword to that Goliath of Judaism and cut off its head and robbed the devil of his most potent instrument in the days of Paul, which was Judaism. Everywhere, everywhere that the apostle went, that was either waiting for him or on his trail; to discredit, to bring in the arrest of spiritual life and progress. A continuous battle. At last it headed up to this Galatian situation and with this Galatian letter of what Paul did as here recorded, that Goliath of Judaism was slain for the time being, it didn't lift its head again at that time. The devil lost a great instrument, a very serviceable means, when he lost Judaism. But do you think he takes that lying down? Well, I have quoted from Farrar twelve "isms" and I have said we can add many more.

The Lord Jesus said when the unclean spirit has gone out of a man it wanders in empty places. If something better and other does not take its place in that man, in that house, and it comes and looks in through the window, comes back from his wanderings and looks as a specter through the window and sees the house is empty, he goes off and brings seven others worse than himself. And the last state of that man is worse than the first. When the devil lost Judaism he looked to see what was going to take its place. And because of this vacancy in Christianity, this not going on to sonship, he brought back scores of others worse than himself: the "isms".

The "Isms"

Now, I'm not trying to be either humorous or just making up something to pass on to you. Dear friends, make no mistake about it, there are very fascinating and attractive "isms", New Testament "isms", and non New Testament "isms". And, in a somewhat extended life and ministry, again and again I have seen dear people of God who were out in the open going on with the Lord in the liberty of the Spirit with great promise and then they've been caught in some "ism". They simply are helpless to escape themselves from the tenets of that "ism". Again and again I've seen it! Tragedy.

British Israelism... whether it's right or wrong, it's a side track! It's something with a fence around it and you can't get anywhere with those people beyond that thing. That's the obsession. I take that as an illustration, but I mean many others, there's many others.

There's a great "ism" sweeping right over America and over Europe in these last years. I can dare to mention this one, well I'm going to at any rate: Universalism. It's an "ism" which has captured multitudes! And you just can't get anywhere with these people once they've got it. But I have known them, oh so promising... so promising and then this thing has come subtly along their way, attractive and fascinating... so appealing: everybody, ultimately, including the devil himself, will be saved. What are you going to do with that? Willy-nilly they'll be saved, undercutting so many of the very vitals of the Gospel.

I'm illustrating, I'm not just making attack, I'm trying to show what I mean. You may call these things gross errors, but there are things that are not such errors. Not such errors, indeed in themselves they're quite true, but they have become the beginning of all and the end of all to the people who have taken them on. You can get no further, no further. They have lost the great ground, the vast ground of God's full purpose for this dispensation and become stuck on some thing that is only partial at best. Arrested... like Judaism; come to a standstill, or going round and round in a circle, the circle of this particular thing.

It should be a warning to us because, you see, this is the thing that has been the enemy of the fullness of Christ all through the centuries - this sort of thing. The Lord does something; it's right, the Lord does it, then before long it is crystallized into a system governed by men and unless you come that way, you're out, you're not accepted, no fellowship. You must stand on this ground, this ground, or you're not included at all in the whole compass of things. You understand what I mean? Isn't this true?

The liberty of sonship goes on without considering personal interests, without asking any questions as to how much must I, and how much can I not. Do you see the difference? And we are all in peril of some kind of "must", and drive, even in the things that the Lord has done with us, the blessed things that the Lord has done, if we're not very careful, we will bring them into a systematized form and they will become our prison and it'll be the bondslave. Sonship is God's goal for the Christian.

Oh, the point is, keep out in the open with the Lord! Keep out in the light of the Spirit, the Spirit will not let you go wrong. The Spirit will make known to you all that is intended for you, but don't begin to say to other people when you've got that experience, or that light, "Now, unless you accept this and take this ground... you see, you're outside the pale, we are the people! We are the people, the truth begins and ends with us." Oh, God save us from the spirit of it... the spirit of it. For you to go and think about the "isms", whether denominations are right or wrong, I'm not going to argue. But I will say emphatically denominationalism is wrong. When it becomes an "ism", something that binds you, controls you, sets the boundaries for you, then it's wrong. And whatever other things it may be, whether it is right or wrong, as soon as the enemy succeeds in making that the limit, however good, he's defeated the end. There will be an arrest and a reverse....

You see how strong the Holy Spirit, the Word of God is upon this matter of keeping out in the open with the Lord as your Government, the Holy Spirit as your Control, your Teacher. And it is safe when the Holy Spirit really is Lord. There's liberty, but it's safe, it's safe.

Remember again what John said about this, "Ye have an anointing and the anointing which you have received abideth in you and you need not that anyone teach you anything, the anointing teacheth you all things..." Oh be careful! Be careful... "I'm quite independent! I don't need anybody to tell me anything!" that is not what John is saying at all; at all. What is John saying? There are many antichrists in the world and an antichrist is not a spurious, fearful creature, you know, with a tail and a pitchfork. No, an antichrist is something that assumes the place of Christ. The devil himself is transformed into an angel of light, there are many. And with the natural judgment, natural powers, you are not able to distinguish between the true and the false. The Christ and the antichrist seem to be so much alike. You can't discern the difference but the Anointing will tell you! The Anointing which you have received, when you come into touch with something false, will tell you if the Anointing is really governing, saying "be careful", not in words but inside. You have a feeling there's something not quite clear here, not transparent here, not safe here... "I don't feel happy about this, I can't tell you why but I just don't feel quite happy about this... there's something in me that says: beware".

The Anointing will teach you, it's perfectly safe when the Anointing is in charge you see, and here you are: there's your other humanity isn't it? The spiritual man, says Paul, discerneth all things. And I would close with just saying this, dear friends, that in my judgment the greatest need in Christianity among Christians today is spiritual discernment. I could not say anything beyond that. I am convinced that in a day like this of deceptions and misleadings and all that, the great need is our spiritual discernment; of knowing the Holy Spirit in this way, that He's able to warn you, just to warn you! Not in words, it might be by words of Scripture, but in your own spirit where He dwells He says, "That's alright, go on".

The arbitrator is Life and Peace, but people say, "No, be careful there's danger there". Then it is for us in our spiritual sensitiveness to take note of that and let me tell you that it's not my experience that the Holy Spirit speaks with a shout. I've very rarely known the Holy Spirit to speak out in a way that there's no mistaking it. It's been such a gentle thing... such a gentle thing, it's just something that I could miss if I didn't pause and learn. That's the voice of gentle stillness that is so often the voice of the Spirit. That is sonship you see, growing to discern, to sense, to understand; the spirit of sonship.


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