Trying the Spirits
Zoar Chapel, Great Alie Street, London
August 1, 1844
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God.
1 John 4:1
Return to Part One
II.-But let us now look at some marks of that spirit which is not of God; and which God’s people feel in a measure in themselves, and see more fully developed in others.
1. One mark of the spirit which is not of God, is a spirit of hardness. I use the word “spirit,” because the Scriptures speak in the same way of “the spirit of error,” 1 John 4:6, “of antichrist,” 1 John 4:3, “of whoredoms,” Hosea 4:12, and so on. We read that “the Lord hardened Pharoah s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go” Exodus 10:20. And we read, “God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear” Romans 11:8. A spirit of hardness, then, is an infallible mark of the spirit not being of God. By hardness, I mean the opposite of tenderness. Opposition to God s truth, an unwillingness, an inability to fall under the power of it; setting up our prejudice, our pride, our preconceived opinions against the solemn authority of God, and maintaining a rugged, unbending, unyielding temper.
Now this is a very different thing from firmness. Gospel firmness and judicial hardness are two very different things. A man cannot be too firm when God the Spirit has meekened his heart, and made the truth precious to him; but he will not have hardness of spirit; he will fall in a moment before truth. Let God only bring one of His people upon His heart; let Him only touch his conscience with His finger, and he is broken to pieces. But it is not so with the heart that is hard; neither law nor gospel has an effect there, but even a profession of religion is carried out in an unyielding spirit, a hard, self-opinionated perverseness.
Now we are called upon to “try the spirits.” But wherever there is a spirit in man it will communicate itself to others. Spirit is of a diffusive nature. It is so naturally. The wind that blows in our face, and impels ships on the broad seas, spreads itself from place to place, and fills every corner; there is a certain impulse connected with the wind that makes it universally felt. So spirit is diffusive, whether the Spirit of God for good, or the spirit of evil for evil. Now, do you try the spirits of men this way? Try the spirits of the companions with whom you associate, that make a profession of religion; see whether there be any hardness in them, an unbending temper; see whether what is said to them on divine things make any impression; whether there be any softness, brokenness, tenderness, or any yielding of themselves to the truth of God. And if you sit under a sound ministry, watch whether the minister has a hard spirit. You will soon discover it, if God has made your conscience soft and tender, as Job said, “For God maketh my heart soft” Job 23:16. Watch whether his words fall as if they came from a hard heart. If so, they will communicate a similar measure of hardness to you. You will find, instead of that tenderness, softness, and contrition that you felt in times past, there will be a creeping over you by gradual steps a numbness, a hardness, a searedness, whereby truth seems to have lost its power; it does not sink into the conscience, nor carry with it that humbling impression it formerly did. How much the beginnings of this fearful evil are like the letting out of water! When once a man s heart begins to be hardened through the deceitfullness of sin, or whenever a hard spirit is communicated from the pulpit to the people, it is the beginning of a fearful evil; and, if God prevent not, it will lead to awful backsliding.
Sometimes we feel the spirit of deadness within, but that is a different thing from the spirit of hardness. People say, “How hard and dead they are.” But they are two different things. A man may feel dead, and unable to move his soul Godward, and yet not be hard. For he feels if God put forth His power, his heart will become like wax to the seal. Deadness is the absence of good and right feeling; hardness, the presence of bad and wrong feeling; so that deadness and hardness are not the same thing. But sometimes there is in us a spirit of hardness also, which steels our hearts against God s dealings with us in providence however kind, and mars that softness of conscience which we once had. But how a child of God dreads lest this hardness should grow upon him!
2. A spirit of vain confidence is from the devil; and you are to try whether the spirit that comes before you is of this kind. Sometimes we feel vain-confidence creeping upon us; a spirit of presumptuous assurance that does not spring from the Spirit’s inward witness; a sort of fleshly confidence, that when it works brings death into the soul. I know the feeling well; a proud daring boldness, which is as different from God’s teachings and leadings as hell is from heaven. Now, as we feel the workings of this vain-confidence in ourselves, it opens our eyes to see it in others; and as we detest the spirit in our own hearts, we cannot but abhor it in theirs. For myself I must say, of all persons, I would least choose for my companions those who have much of this vain-confidence; and of all preachers, those whom I would least wish to hear would be those in whom it is most manifested.
There is such a thing as true confidence given and maintained by the Spirit. Every grace and fruit of the Spirit will attend this; and its companions will be humility, godly fear, contrition, tenderness of conscience, deadness to the world, prayerfullness, and heavenly-mindness. But the confidence that rests upon the doctrines of grace in the letter only, is a confidence that God never gave. It is usually little else but health, strength and good spirits carried into religion; and its general companions are pride, worldliness, covetousness, frivolity, levity, self-indulgence, and carnality. Depend upon it, this vain confidence in minister or people is death to all that is good. When once a vain-confident spirit takes hold of them, and they can rest in a dead assurance, and believe and talk as though they were going to heaven, whilst they know nothing of the Spirit’s inward teachings and testimony, and are not broken down in godly fear, it will be the death of everything good and spiritual in that people and congregation. When ministers get possessed of this vain-confident spirit, it will be sure to spread itself. Spirit, as I before said, is of a diffusive nature; it will communicate itself. And if a man stand up in vain-confidence, and you give him your ears and heart, if God the Spirit do not mercifully break the snare, depend upon it, that vain-confidence will soon spread and grow upon you.
Look, and see whether you are now standing in this vain-confidence. Perhaps, some years ago you had more doubts, fears, and exercises than at present; but you say, “Now I have lost them all; and can talk more confidently of going to heaven!” But what has been the cause of the removal of these doubts and fears? What has made them take flight, and brought you out of them into this confidence wherein you now stand? Has it been by the liftings up of the light of God s countenance upon you? Has the Lord Himself raised you out of the dust, given you the inward witness of the Holy Ghost, and softened, melted, and humbeled you by His teaching? In a word, is your confidence felt in a broken heart and a contrite spirit? Is your soul dissolved at times in godly sorrow, and brought into sweet communion with a broken-hearted Jesus? Or does it rest merely in the doctrines of the Bible? Have you borrowed it from some minister? Do you speak confidently because the members of your church do so; and because doubts and fears are generally scouted and ridiculed where you attend? Does your assurance rest upon the letter of the word without the inward witness and sealings of the Spirit? Depend upon it, if it stand not in the inward witness and testimony of the Spirit, it is a spirit of vain-confidence, however subtle and refined. And you had better be harassed with doubts and fears all your life than get out of them in any other way than God’s way.
3. A spirit of presumption and irreverence in divine things is a sure mark that the spirit is not of God. I think of all painful things to a living soul, one of the most is to see a spirit of irreverence in the things of God. Lightness, frivolity, irreverence in the pulpit; a talking to God as an equal, instead of lying at His feet as a suppliant — how painful a spectacle to the soul that has been taught to tremble at His word! I do not say a man of God may not be entangled in this snare; but where can his conscience be, not to see the awfullness of approaching a holy God without reverence of His dread majesty? What says the Scripture? “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” Hebrews 12:28,29. How the Lord has visited with the hottest tokens of his displeasure those who dared to rush irreverently before Him! How Nadab and Abihu were consumed because they offered strange fire! Leviticus 10:1,2. How Uzzah, because he touched the ark, not being a Levite, was smitten by the immediate judgment of God! How more than fifty thousand of the men of Bethshemesh were smitten with a “great slaughter,” because they dared irreverently to look into the ark of God! 1 Samuel 6:19. Is He not the same holy, jealous Jehovah now? And will He suffer any man to rush into His presence with irreverence, and talk to Him as though he were His fellow? O where can a man’s conscience be, who can go before the Lord without some reverence and godly fear in exercise?
Now this spirit is diffusive, like every other spirit, for good or bad. Tender, reverent feelings soon get damped; and if we do not take an early alarm, and heed the first admonitions of the Spirit, we know not how soon the same irreverence may creep upon us. A man may as well think he can expose his face to the wind, and not feel it blow upon him, as expose his conscience to an irreverent spirit, and think it will produce no injurious effect. “Try the spirits,” then, and see whether they be of God: see whether this familiarity of approach to the throne of grace in yourself or others be the spirit of irreverence and presumption, or whether it be the inward teachings of the Holy Ghost in a tender conscience.
4. Thinking lightly of sin; talking about it as though it need never grieve or trouble a living soul; speaking of it in a reckless manner, as though it did not matter whether we lived to God s glory, or to our own worldly ease and advancement; in a word, making sin appear anything but that horrible thing which God hates — that abominable thing which caused the Son of God to agonize, bleed, and die; is a spirit which is not of God. The Holy Spirit of God will never lead a man to think lightly of sin; nay, He will make his very heart at times almost bleed under it. There are some who deny that a believer can backslide. If they had ever felt what has passed through my soul, they would almost weep tears of blood, if blood could flow down their cheeks, that they have such base adultery and such vile idolatry striving for dominion in their carnal mind. It is greatly to be feared that an Antinomian spirit widely prevails in the Calvinistic churches, and is, for the most part, propagated from the pulpit to the pew. An unexercised minister, with a sound creed, soon drops into carnality and self-indulgence; sin becomes packed on the old man and the devil; and the doctrine of grace is easily substituted for the power of grace. But any preaching that allows or encourages a hearer to walk in forbidden paths, to indulge his flesh, to live prayerlessly and carelessly, to slight the precepts of the word, and scorn all reproof and rebuke, and all the time maintain a towering profession, is not from the Spirit of God, but a spirit from the devil — a spirit fraught with the most pernicious consequences.
Now we are to “try the spirits.” We are not to submit implicitly to what every man who stands up in a pulpit may choose to say. We are not to receive, as written by the Spirit, every book put into our hands that is called a religious work. We are not to believe every word that is spoke by persons professing a sound creed. We are commanded, God the Spirit calls upon us, to “y” by our own experience, and by the doctrine, experience, and precept recorded in the book of God. Now, do so, my friends. I would charge it upon your conscience. Do see what impression the things connected with religion have upon your minds. Look at the religious books you read: see what impressions they leave upon your heart. Look at the persons professing godliness that you associate with; see what effects attend their conversation. Above all, look at the ministers you hear; and see what impressions they leave by their ministry on your conscience.
O, if I were to come to this chapel, as I do once a year, and go away feeling that I had left the people more hardened, more presumptuous, more trifling, more vain-confident, more reckless by my ministry, I should never desire to enter this pulpit again. My desire is, God knows, that something spiritual, something profitable, something abiding, some permanent fruit may come out of my labours; that the spirit communicated from my lips may be a spirit for good, a spirit of humility, a spirit of brokenness, a spirit of contrition, a spirit of godly fear, a spirit of separation from, and deadness to, the world and all its pleasures, a spirit of love, a spirit of communion with the Lord of life and glory, a spirit which shall bear some feeble resemblance, some faint likeness, to a sorrowing, suffering, broken-hearted Jesus. And if a man has any other object in view, except to be an instrument in God s hand, to communicate a blessing to God s people, whereby some may be called, others comforted, and all the Lord s people have the work of grace more deepened in their conscience, and the word of God more powerfully felt in their hearts, and more powerfully brought forth in their lives, if a man has any other motive, and stand up in any other spirit, he is a disgrace to the name of a minister of the gospel.
Now do you try what effect the ministers whom you hear have upon you. When you hear preaching, you that have consciences, secretly examine what impression has been left upon your heart. As you pass through the streets on leaving the chapel, do you find that some rain and dew have distilled in your consciences? Does the spirit of prayer seem more increased-the evils of your vile heart more opened up, your refuges of life more discovered, the Lord Jesus more endeared, the power of eternal things made more manifest to your soul? Is there in your heart a desire to be alone, that you may secretly pour out your soul before the Lord, and look up to Him that He would come down manifestly and bless you?
If you go away from this chapel, from hearing any one that preaches in this place, with your heart moistened refreshed, softened, the love of the world mortified, sin crucified, your soul cast more into the mould of Christ’s likeness, your affections drawn heavenward, you have received good; and the Spirit, which is of God, has been in a measure communicated. But if you go away from this chapel, or any other, and feel hardened, careless, vain-confident, puffed up with I know not what notions; and the next day can rush into the world with redoubled ardour, and take what the minister says for a fresh motive to plunge more eagerly into business and the things of time and sense, O beware of the snare that this may be made to you. Let the deacons and members take care to have “men of God” to stand up here, and to flee from all other ministers as they would from a pestilence. And so far as the deacons are men of discernment, they will “try the spirits:” they will not be seeking merely for men who shall draw great congregations, obtain the largest collections, bring most persons into the church, or most advance the temporal prosperity of Zoar. Let all such carnal motives fall. If they are men who fear God, and have the Lord the Spirit as their teacher, this will be their prevailing motive-to obtain such ministers as shall profit the souls of the people most, and who have the most evident traces of the Lord being present to bless their word. They will, when the ministers have left, watch the effect of their ministry; what crops of fruitfullness spring up to God’s glory: what godly sorrow, brokenness of heart, love to God, love to the brethren, spirit of prayer, deadness to the world, appear as its fruits: and their desire will be, that every good word and work should abound in the church to the glory of God.
Thus, as far as the Spirit of God is your teacher, you are called upon to “try the spirits whether they are of God.” And thus, a child of God will have, more or less, perpetual cause for inward trial. Sometimes he will be trying his own heart, to see how God is dealing with him: and it will be his happiness if he can find some sweet testimony that the Lord is dealing with him in mercy. Sometimes he will try the books that come before him, (for, “the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat” Job 34:3), and he will cast aside every book, however sound in doctrine, that does not communicate grace to his soul. Those works, written by gracious men, which have power and feeling, such as Hart’s Hymns, Bunyan’s Grace Abounding and Pilgrim, and Huntington’s Works, will be his chiefly prized books, that his soul, under the Spirit’s teaching, may be imbued with some of the rain and dew that fell upon those blessed men.
And, as he tries the spirits, he will get more weaned from a name to live, with a few doctrines floating in the brain; and he will see men and women in different colours from what he did in times past. Those will be his chief religious associates who are most humble and tender-hearted, and most free from gossiping and religious newsmongering; whose conversation is most seasoned with salt, whose conduct is most consistent and self-denying, who walk most solitary and alone, and whose religion generally is most of inward life and feeling-to such he will feel a close union, and of such he will say, “With these do I wish to live and die.” And as the Holy Spirit leads him more and more into vital godliness, he will be more thoroughly weaned from the flesh in all its forms, will desire to live more under the bedewings and droppings of God the Spirit, and will come to this solemn conclusion in his mind, that five minutes communion with the Lord of life and glory, and to live under His teachings and anointings, is far better than all the intercourse he can have with the world, or all the conversation he can have with the people of God. Thus his religion will be narrowed up into a smaller compass, so as to consist more simply and singly in the inward dealings of God with his soul. And as he is brought more and more into the furnace, the dross and tin of his false religion will be more taken away, and he will come forth a vessel meet for the Master s use, more purged and refined, with more of the image, mind, and likeness of Christ stamped upon him.
Now, it may take us many years spiritually to see these things, and more to feel their power. We may know them in early days, but not very deeply. I can, I hope, say for myself, that ever since I felt the power of eternal things, I have contended for the life and power of vital godliness. Thus, when I was in the Church of England, buried under a whole dust-heap of formality, I used to preach the same things I do now, so far as I was led into them, though I did not then know there were such persons as experimental preachers, or such works as experimental books. But, as the Lord taught me, I spoke as I felt, feebly indeed, I confess, and in much ignorance and darkness, but simply and sincerely. And now, it is the desire of my soul, to cleave to and contend more singly and simply, not for notions and forms, but for the inward teachings, guidings, and leadings of God the Spirit in the conscience; to know nothing, but by His teaching; to be nothing, but by His making; and to have nothing, but by His bestowing. And thus, if the Lord be our Teacher, we shall desire to live more to the Son of God, and less to ourselves, to cease from the creature, to be like clay in the hands of the Potter, and the desire of our souls will increasingly be, that He would work in us to will and to do of His own good pleasure, and make us what He would have us to be.