By T. Austin-Sparks
The question concerning every instrumentality raised up by God in relation to His purpose is: What justifies His maintaining it? There are evidently some things which do not justify His preserving such instrumentalities.
In the first place, because God originally raised up an instrumentality - it came from Him... it was His work initially in bringing it into being - that does not justify His keeping it. We should take serious account of that fact - that because God raised up a thing, it does not mean that God must of necessity keep that thing right through, no matter what its state or character may be in the course of time.
Again, because God has greatly used a thing which He Himself raised up, that does not justify His preserving it.
Further, because that thing has had a wonderful history of devotion to Him... and has at some time been a very real and full expression of His grace and power... even that does not resolve itself into a claim upon Him to keep it; and He does not regard Himself as under any obligation to preserve even that.
But we have to press the point still further: Because at any given time many commendable things are to be seen in that instrumentality - things which the Lord Himself may praise... there may be not a few such things... nevertheless, even that does not justify God's preserving it in its place; even that does not mean that He may never consider putting it out of its place, or that He is bound to refrain from so doing.
The issue with every one of the seven churches of Asia (Revelation, chapters 2 and 3) was whether, under the Lord's permission, they could go on or not - whether they could continue before the Lord. The Lord had them before Him, shall we say - had them in His hand - and was determining whether He could keep them or whether He would have to put them away; whether He would have to remove the "lampstand" out of its place or whether it could go on in relation to Himself. So the question was clearly one of continuing in relation to the Lord's purpose or of passing out.
We have seen bodies cross the sky at night, coming from afar and gaining in brilliance, it seemed, as they got nearer to us... flashing on their way and then disappearing altogether from view in the darkness of the sky. Here are these churches of Asia - "stars" brought in out of the eternal counsels of the Godhead - flashing in with the glory of His grace, some of them to pass right out... to fade from view, lost to sight.
That is a very thorough sifting of anything. It might be thought that if God raised up a thing - if it came in the first place from His own hand, if God had used that thing and blessed it, if it had shown the features and characteristics of His grace and of His love, and if it still had in it many things which God, looking with His eyes as of a flame, could commend - surely that is enough to argue for its continuance before the Lord.
Understand that we are speaking about instrumentalities; we are not speaking about souls. We are not dealing with the question of salvation; we are dealing with the question of service to the Lord.
What is it... and what is it alone... that justifies God in maintaining any instrumentality in relation to Himself and His purpose? It is not that the instrumentality has a lot of good things. It is not that it had its origin with Him. It is not that it has a great history, a great past. It is not that it has a name, a reputation - the same name carried on as it once had in more glorious days. It is that there is today the same undying flame of Divine Life in its mighty testimony against the power of death all around. That is God's justification.
When you come to analyze the state of these churches of Asia, you find that in five of them, at least, there is a variety of elements of which each is a contradiction to the Holy Ghost - a contradiction to the Spirit of Life. That thing - being within the vessel, the instrumentality... amongst the Lord's people... constitutes an element of death and provides Satan with his foothold, his place; and all unconsciously for the most part amongst those people, the testimony is definitely contradicted and nullified.
Satan will resort to anything - his methods and his means are numerous - to get some foothold for death into a Divinely constituted instrumentality, so that that whole thing becomes a contradiction right at its very center. It has a name, it has good works - it has many things which even the Lord Himself cannot judge, because they are good; but the thing by which alone the Lord can be justified in maintaining that instrumentality has been countered.
The enemy does not mind how many "churches" there are, or how much preaching there is, or how much religious worship; I do not know that he minds very much how much orthodoxy there is - what we might call sound doctrine. What he is against is Life. You can go to multitudes of places, and so far as the preaching is concerned - so far as the things said are concerned - you can find no fault; but you have no sense that there is a vitalizing. There is no energizing, no impact, no moving of the people to register the testimony of the risen Lord against the forces of evil. The enemy is getting them all quietly, nicely, snugly into spiritual death. It is not a question of what was at one time... or what is today... counted as good, but rather: Does the Lord have that central, basic, essential, indispensable thing for which He has ever raised up His instrumentalities, whether individuals or companies, and brought them into relationship with Himself... that for which He apprehended them - that which was intended to be their specific vocation?
That applies to all of us. We have all been apprehended of Christ Jesus, and there has been a purpose behind that apprehending. We have not been apprehended just to be saved. Our salvation is but basic and introductory to something very much more. Then, as to collective instrumentalities, the Lord gathers His own together to form them into a corporate vessel of Divine purpose. He raises up such instrumentalities from time to time. But whether they be individuals or companies, the one constant danger is that the essential thing in the Divine thought in raising up - in apprehending - that vessel should somehow be lost, while many other things may continue.
What was the Church raised up for? I do not believe that the Lord originally thought of having a general Church and then a special one within it. I can never believe that the Lord was going to be content with having a general mass of believers and then a company called "overcomers" in the midst. That never has been the design of God - it is what we might call an emergency state of things. It became essential because of failure. It seems to me that the very word "overcomer" declares very loudly that there is failure somewhere. The Lord's purpose for all His Church as a vessel - which nevertheless may only be realized in a few - is that that vessel should maintain the testimony of a Life which has conquered death... and will conquer death right to the end. It is a Life question.
It is the testimony of the New Testament that God raised Jesus from the dead... and that He is alive for evermore. That is the essence of the testimony. So the whole thing resolves itself into a matter of a testimony in Life - a testimony of Life. Is the flame burning as at the beginning, witnessing that Jesus lives and is triumphant, even over the dark, deadly background of this world? That is the question for the Lord's people.
I have no doubt in my heart as to what the issue of our time is. I have not the slightest shadow of a doubt but that the issue of our day - of this hour in the Church's history - is more than ever the issue of life and death in a spiritual sense.
I trust that we shall know that God is not only making us aware of the great issue which is at stake for His people... and not only warning us about the perils of it... but assuring us that He comes mightily to our aid and shows us what is on our side in the battle.