Rivers of Living Water

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 5 - The River of Grace Abounding

"How precious is thy lovingkindness, O God! and the children of men take refuge under the shadow of thy wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied (margin: "They shall be watered") with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures" (Psalm 36:7,8).

"Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life" (John 4:14).

"Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of him shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:37,38).

"And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb..." (Revelation 22:1).

"And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that thirsteth, let him say, Come. And he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take the water of life freely" (Revelation 22:17).

Leaving Ezekiel for the moment, we turn our thoughts to the simple meaning of this river of life, and all the wonderful, Divine promises associated with it. We begin with a re-statement of the fact that these things said about the river of life, the river of God - about the children of men being satisfied and watered, and being filled and made channels and vehicles of this life in fulness - all show what the Christian life is intended to be. We make that simple but positive affirmation on the authority of very much of God's own Word. That is how it ought to be, that is how it can be, and that is what God has provided for. What is it that makes the Christian life like that?

Again, the Scripture is full of the answer. It is that God has given His Holy Spirit: and, throughout the Bible, the symbol of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of life is water - not in little drops, but in rivers. "Rivers of living water", said Jesus; and John, immediately commenting on that, said: "This spake he of the Spirit..." God has sent the Holy Spirit in these terms to make the Christian life like this. What is the river? It is the river of life. Said Jesus: "I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly" (John 10:10); not in a little trickle, but abundantly. That was His idea as to the Christian life. What is this fulness of life, this fulness of the Spirit? The answer is in one fragment given us by Paul: "...that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God" (Eph. 3:19). It is, therefore, the fulness of God; and the statement is that it is God's will, purpose, intention, that we shall be filled unto all that fulness.

A further question. What is the motive lying behind the giving of this river? What accounts for it, what explains it, by what motive has God been actuated in purposing and providing for this? And the answer is in one word: grace. The river is, after all, the river of God's grace. It was to that that this same John referred when, looking back over a long life, the long period that had elapsed since first he came into touch with Jesus, he said: "For of his fulness we all received, and grace for grace" (John 1:16). This is a tumbling river. It is a wonderful thing for an old man of ninety, with all that he had seen of the work of God, and all the people that he had known to come into this grace, to gather it all up in this testimony: 'And we all' (I wonder who he was thinking of - certainly a great number) 'we have all received of His fulness, grace upon grace.' 'We have all drunk to the full, and have scarcely touched the fringe of this river of grace.' Or think of Paul's words - surely only inundations of water can describe or define what Paul meant, when he said: "...where sin abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly" (Rom. 5:20) - the word is "did super-abound". We know what inundations of water are; we know something of wide-spreading floods in modern times. Yes, sin abounded, but grace abounded so much the more.

Ephesians - The Letter of Fulness

Now, in order to get some idea of what this means, this grace abounding, this river of grace, we are going to turn to a very familiar book - the letter to the Ephesians. You know that this is the document of fulness. This letter is written in superlative upon superlative, a tumbling of language over itself as it strives to cope with the immensities that are in view. The language is the language of the overflowing of fulness. There is the "exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think" (3:20) - one wave succeeds another, overwhelmingly. Again, we find: 'that you may know what is the breadth and the length and the height and the depth, the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ' (3:18,19). It is the letter of Divine fulness for the people of God.

And that Divine fulness is presented in many very wonderful ways. This letter brings to our knowledge and understanding what we can find nowhere else in the Bible: the great thought of God for His people before time was, and the electing, the choosing of that people for Himself, with a great purpose in view. God is coming out from eternity into time to find them, and lifting them out of time and carrying them on into the eternity to be, with great thoughts, great designs, great intentions, great purposes. We have here the wonderful revelation of God's 'pre-thought' about us, of His calling of us in time, and of the great purpose of that thought and that calling, to be realised throughout the ages of ages.

Dear friend, if you have responded to the call of Jesus Christ and to the grace of God, you will find, as you go on, that you are caught up in something tremendous, something immense, something with which you cannot cope. Here Ezekiel comes wonderfully to our rescue, as we attempt to picture what is here. You remember how the river came out from beneath the threshold of the house, flowing by way of the altar, out through the whole sacred area, and down through the land, gaining in breadth and gaining in depth. The prophet says that the man in the vision led him up to the river and then into the river, and at first it was ankle-deep; and then he was led further until it was knee-deep, and still led on until it was thigh-deep; then - "waters to swim in", and the last description is, "a river that could not be passed through" (Ezek. 47:1-5).

That is wonderful! If that is the river of Divine grace, it is more than you and I will be able to compass or master, more than we can bring within our poor, limited capacity. It will be beyond us, always, no matter what the need may be; it will always be beyond us. Have you found that out yet? I am finding that out. Have you never got to the place where you despaired of yourself - where you thought that perhaps the grace of God could not help you any more? But you find that this river is beyond you altogether: you cannot cope with this river of grace! As I was saying, if you respond to the call of grace you will discover that it is something tremendous. It goes right back before time and on after time: it is boundless as eternity.

Grace the Basis of All

Let us, then, look at our letter to the Ephesians. This is the letter, we were saying, of fulness, and the impressive thing about it is this: that one of the most frequently used words in it is the word 'grace'. It is not a long letter - you can read it through in twenty minutes - and you will come on 'grace' no fewer than twelve times. Let us just see, then, what it has to say about grace in relation to fulness. "But God... even when we were dead through our trespasses, quickened us together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenlies, in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:4-6). "By grace have ye been saved". The apostle brackets that, but that is a tremendous thing. "When we were dead" - dead to God, dead to all God's purposes, dead to all the meaning of our very being from God's standpoint; yes, "dead through our trespasses" - He "quickened us together with Christ". 'But', the apostle is very careful to say, - 'but it was all of grace.' "By grace have ye been saved." That is the basis of everything.

You see, he is going to say some very wonderful things. Almost immediately he is going to launch out into the matter of this eternal fulness. He is going to take us back and he is going to take us on, and he is going to tell us some astounding things about this Christian life. But the basis of it all he puts in here, in brackets, as though to say, 'Let us make quite sure that they do not run on too quickly, but know exactly what the basis of it all is - by grace.' The basis of everything is grace. Let us say quite simply, quite emphatically, that, whatever you do, however long you go on, and hope and struggle and wait, you will never get away from this: it will always be on the basis of grace. And grace is grace - it is grace! God has said it is grace - it has to be grace, and you will never make it anything else. That is the open door for everything. Grace opens the door, and becomes the very entrance into all this fulness. The river of grace brings us in.

Grace the Goal of All

"...That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (2:7). And then a re-affirmation to safeguard that: "for by grace have ye been saved through faith" (vs. 8). What a statement! I have often said that you can never exhaust this letter. Every little fragment ot it will keep you occupied for a lifetime, and that is not exaggerating. Just listen again: "that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus". Can you grasp that? It is beyond you, it takes your breath away. It defeats and defies every effort to comprehend and understand and explain. But there is the statement. Under the illumination and constraint of this self-same Holy Spirit - the eternal Spirit, who knew everything before ever man was, and knows everything when time shall be no more - this man Paul was led to put that down, as the wonderful goal of grace. "That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus". That is the object of all. The basis of all is grace; the final object of all is grace. Here is the source of the river - grace. Here is the course of the river, picking us up in time - calling us, saving us by grace. Here is the goal of the river - carrying us into the ages to come and making us the very means or vessel of displaying the "exceeding riches of his grace". How great is the grace of God!

Grace to Proclaim Christ

Let us move to the next chapter. "...If so be that ye have heard of the dispensation of that grace of God which was given me to you-ward; ...whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach unto the nations the unsearchable riches of Christ" (3:2,7,8). Here is electing grace for service. It was a tremendous thing that this man was called to do. He was thinking, 'How great is this calling which God has laid upon me! How immense is this privilege, this opportunity, this choosing of me - me, who am less than the least of all saints! To think that I should be chosen for it! It is just grace.'

Now, you and I are not Pauls, by any means; we do not stand in the same category as he. But we have the same message and the same blessed commission. There is not one of us who is not called to proclaim the grace of God to the nations. It may be to the nation into which we were born and in which we have to remain, it may be to others; but, as the people of God, as a part of the Church, the Body of Christ, our function, our business, our existence is to make known the grace of God. It is even grace that we should be able to do that! What tremendous grace it is that any one of us should be allowed, even in the smallest way, to minister to others the things of Christ.

Here is the electing grace of God - sovereign grace, Paul would call it. 'Why choose me? why allow me? why give this honour to me - to one who is "less than the least of all saints"?' Can you put yourself into that category? I think there are some who feel just like that. Paul did not say, 'less than the least of all preachers, or teachers', but: "less than the least of all saints" - of all Christians. Do you feel like that? Yes: without any feigned humility at all, without any put-on meekness, we may well believe ourselves to be like that; we may feel that we are utterly worthless. But sovereign grace looks toward the most worthless and says: 'It is possible, even for you, to know My grace in such measure that you can go and honestly tell others of it without being in a false position, without there being any contradiction whatsoever.'

The Provision of Grace

We pass on to the next chapter. "But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ" (4:7). Here is grace doing something else. Grace calls us; grace brings us into God's great purposes and thoughts, in direct line with that goal in the ages to come to manifest and show forth "the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus"; next, when we are in, grace gives us something to do - some work to do, some message to convey; and then grace stands behind us and makes full provision. "Unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ": grace is the wonderful provision for all that to which God calls and which He has in view.

How the Apostle knew that grace as the provision! There was a time when he found himself troubled, bothered - indeed, almost annoyed, as well as handicapped and thwarted - by something in his life. It was not some sin, not something morally wrong, but perhaps a physical malady. He described it as 'a messenger of Satan to buffet him', 'a stake in the flesh' (2 Cor. 12:7), something that seemed all the time to be holding him down. And he would say, 'How, how in all the world can I fulfil my ministry, how can I do all that God has called me to do, with this thing always interfering and bothering me? It seems such a contradiction; it seems to be so inconsistent with the calling and the possibility. On the one side, I hear a voice that says: God has called you to this; and, on the other, I find that He has given me this terrible handicap in it.'

Paul was in the throes of that problem, that seeming paradox. He says: 'I cried to the Lord about it and said, Lord, take it away - it is a hindrance, it is a limitation. No answer. And I said again, Lord, take it away! No answer. And I came back again the third time - "for this thing I besought the Lord thrice" - Lord, take it away. And the Lord did not say, No, I won't. But He said unto me, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness." Without taking it away, I will make it possible for you to do all that I want you to do. You may have limitations, you may have difficulties; you may have things which seem to spell defeat and curtailment; but grace can enable for the doing of the thing in spite of them.'

Those things may be necessary, as Paul came to see, 'lest I should be exalted above measure'. They may be necessary to keep out pride, which would wreck any ministry quicker than anything else. Pride will destroy usefulness to God far more quickly than sickness or infirmity or 'messengers of Satan to buffet'. Let us keep that out at any price, and rely on the supply of grace, which will see that the thing is done.

The Influence of Grace

"Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for building up as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear" (4:29). The effect of grace in our lives is to cause us to behave properly, to speak properly; to be good people, courteous people, gracious people; to say things which minister grace: so that others, because of the work of grace in us, become gracious also, become characterized by the grace of God. Here is the effect or the influence of grace in our lives. The grace of God working in your life and mine means an influence on others, so that they also come under the influence of that grace and become different.

"Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth". Because of the work of grace in you, you do not use the words that others do. But it does not end there. Your presence makes other people feel that it is wrong to say that sort of thing, to talk like that, and even ungodly people begin to stop using their corrupt communications in your presence. The grace of God in your life is putting a restraint upon them. And if they do let go, they have a bad time afterwards! 'I do wish I knew your secret - how it is that you are able to be provoked, to be annoyed, to be upset, and yet not do this sort of thing. You do not let go!' That is a simple beginning of a work of grace in others because of the work of grace in you - the effect of grace upon other people when it is worked in us. "That it may give grace to them that hear." That is the best kind of ministry, is it not? - far better than preaching and talking and telling people that they should or should not do things. Let them see the grace of God, and come under its influence, and they may be changed. Grace is an effective thing. It is not something passive; it is something that tells upon others.

The Benediction of Grace

Finally: "Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in uncorruptness" (6:24). "Grace be with all them..." This is a part of what we call the 'Benediction'. "Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Yes, but it is a benediction of grace! A benediction is not just a formula to be pronounced at the end of a meeting. A benediction is a blessing to impart. And we ought to be a benediction. We ought to be the very grace of God in this world, the blessing of God to others. It is so easy to pronounce something that we call the 'blessing' or the 'benediction'. But the man who ended his letter like this was not just using pious language, winding up his letter in some nice, proper way. He was himself a benediction. And you and I have come under the blessing of the grace of God, in this man Paul. Now that same grace is to us-ward, that we should be a blessing: not merely that we should pray for a blessing on others, and not only pronounce blessings on others, but be a blessing - the blessing of the grace of God.

The grace of God is a very great thing: it is mighty to save, to keep, to use, and to make us a blessing. When we respond to the grace of God, we find ourselves in something very great - something that could never, never be compensated for by anything or everything else that we might have. And so the Apostle was most concerned, and prayed that believers might not fail of the grace of God. We pray that, too, concerning any who may not be the Lord's - that they may not miss the grace of God. This favour comes out to us freely and - because it is grace - asks for nothing as a basis for operation, calls upon us to do nothing but to accept it in faith, to believe in the good faith of God. That is all. You will only put it back if you argue, in any way, 'I am not good enough'. That puts grace out of court, does it not? - for grace is just what it is because we are not good enough! We may almost say that it requires us not to be good enough. There would never be such a thing as grace if we were good enough. Grace presupposes in its very nature that we are not good enough, and that we can do nothing about it.

Perhaps you argue: 'But if I do start, I shall not be able to go on' - and you put grace out of court again, because none of us has ever gone on one day without the grace of God, as we know right well. Grace comes in to keep us going. 'But I could never be of any use to God - oh, no, I could never think that I could serve the Lord.' You put grace out of court when you say that. Ask the people who have been most used by God - ask this man Paul, so mightily used. Was it because he was such a well-educated man, so clever, so intellectual, had such tremendous power of mind and will? He will tell you, 'Certainly not; none of it would have carried me on. It is nothing but the grace of God that has seen me fulfilling my ministry.' You say, 'Well, I think that great calling, that which you say is going to be at the end, is far beyond me. That might be for some people, but I cannot think that it applies to me.' If you say that, once again you put grace out, for it is grace that is going to do it. It was grace that wrote our name in the Lamb's book of life, and the grace that commenced will perfect.

It is all of grace. Cast yourself upon the grace of God. I am quite sure that some of us who have known the Lord a long time find that this is the only thing to do, and we want to do it again: just plunge into the river and let it carry us on - the river of His grace.

In keeping with T. Austin-Sparks' wishes that what was freely received should be freely given and not sold for profit, and that his messages be reproduced word for word, we ask if you choose to share these messages with others, to please respect his wishes and offer them freely - free of any changes, free of any charge (except necessary distribution costs) and with this statement included.