The Falling Away: Its Origin and Nature

Having seen that the Lord and His apostles foretold the fact of the falling away of the Church, let us consider more particularly the origin and nature of that falling away. But this cannot be rightly understood unless we have a true conception of that standing or condition from which the Church fell. We must, therefore, enter into some particulars as to the ends which God purposed to accomplish by it, so far as He has made them known, and how those ends were to be attained.

Before entering upon this enquiry, it is important to keep certain points in mind: First, that the Church is an election, some taken from among others for a special purpose. Revelation of Himself and of His will to the world through election has always been God's method. He chooses some to prepare them to be His instruments of instruction and blessing to others. This He did through individuals, as with the patriarchs; or, as in the case of the Jews, through a nation. They were separated by His act from other nations, and brought into a special Covenant relation to Him. The Christian Church constitutes a new election, wholly distinct from that of the Jews; its members gathered, indeed, from all nations, yet made one community under one Head.

Secondly, That this election may fail partially to fulfil the purpose for which God chose it. It was so with the Jews (Is. i, 2; v, 2), "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." But His purpose in them cannot fail forever, nor his Covenant be broken. (Jer. xxxiii, 20.) And, as with the Jews, so with the Church. It is not preserved from all falling away, but cannot become wholly apostate. "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it." From this it is preserved by the headship of Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost.

Thirdly, That as there was salvation out of the pale of the Jewish election, so is there outside of the Christian. The principle rules in all God's elections, that the greater grace given to the elect takes no present grace from the non-elect. That there are higher workings of the Spirit within the Church, does not forbid or diminish His lower workings without it.

Fourthly, That the Church is not the kingdom, but preparatory to it. It serves for the gathering and preparation of those who shall be Christ's helpers in the administration of the kingdom when it shall be set up. This election is but a part, the kingdom will embrace all the saved.

It is only by keeping clearly in mind that the Church is an election, a part, that we can understand the full meaning of the name so often given it, the Lord's body. As the human body is that through which a man acts upon things without, so is it with Christ's body. The Church is not the totality of men, or of the saved, but is a part brought into a special relation to Him that it may be the instrument of His action upon others.

With these preliminary remarks upon the Church as an election — the body of Christ — we may now consider the ends which God would accomplish through it. Regarded in its relation to men, it is a means whereby He effects their salvation; regarded in its relation to Christ, the Head, it is a means of His self-manifestation. First, as a means of salvation. The Church, indwelt of the Holy Spirit, is to gather into itself through the preaching of the Gospel all who believe; and, through its ministries and ordinances, instruct and prepare them both for the present time and for the kingdom to come. This is its appointed work toward men in the present dispensation. Upon this, as familiar to all, we need not now dwell.

Secondly, as a means of the self-manifestation of the risen Lord as its Head. To this end, the Church must be brought into closest union with Him that His will may first be done in it; and that through His actings by it the world may know that He is the living and ruling Head. And here we meet that which constitutes the essential and unique characteristic of the Church, the headship of Christ.

The Apostle Paul (Eph. i, 22) teaches us when this headship was established. The Son of God, having fulfilled His work in mortal flesh, rose from the grave in the power of an endless life. It was not till made immortal and glorified that He could receive and send down the Holy Ghost to build His Church through the impartation in regeneration of His own resurrection life. (John vii, 39; Acts ii, 33.)

Thus the Christian Church is wholly unlike any other religious community in that it is founded on life, not on abstract religious truth or doctrine. Many teachers, claiming Divine inspiration, have taught more or less of truth, and founded religious sects or schools; but no one has ever pretended to make his disciples partakers of his own life. Their community with him is only that of opinion or belief. But all symbols used to describe the relation of His disciples to Christ imply a vital union — the temple made of living stones, Himself being the chief corner-stone; the vine and the branches; Eve made from the side of Adam, "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh." None are brought into this vital union by natural birth; all must be regenerated, born again.

Again, this life, common to the Head and body, is a supernatural life; Jesus risen from the dead, immortal, glorified, the second Adam, the quickening Spirit, the Heavenly Man, is its source. As His body — one with Him — the whole constitution of the Church is supernatural and heavenly.*

*It is much to be regretted that the term "supernatural" should be used in so vague and general a way as greatly to obscure its meaning in the Biblical presentation. In this we see three distinct and successive conditions of nature: The first, or natural, the world as it was made, and which God pronounced good ; the second, the fallen, or unnatural, that into which it came through the sin of man; the third, or supernatural, that into which it comes through Christ, when all things are made new.

It is the second of these conditions, the fallen, which is the sphere of special Divine interpositions, or of the miracle. These could have had no place in the primitive order; here could be only growth, progress; nor will they have a place in the future and perfect order. Redemption is the deliverance of man from the law of sin and death, and the world from the bondage of corruption. To effect this, the Son of God became man, and was in mortal flesh, and suffered death. In His resurrection He entered into the third and perfect condition of humanity; upon the natural was superinduced the heavenly. In Him as the Incarnate Son we see the foundation of the supernatural laid, but it was not realized and manifested till He rose from the dead. Then the fallen and mortal passed in Him into its final and perfect condition of immortality and glory. Made the Head of the Church, He gives in regeneration His supernatural life to His children, and to nurture this supernatural life, He feeds them at His table with supernatural food. The Church in all its constitution is thus supernatural, but "mortality is not swallowed up of life" till the Head returns; then will be "the manifestation — apocalypse — of the sons of God"; and then will the creation be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of their glory. It is this perfected and supernatural condition, not any development of the natural, much less any evolution of the fallen, which is the great object of Christian hope and prayer.

We have here, in the fact of Christ's headship, the foundation of the organic unity of the Church. No organic unity is possible where there is not a common life. No community of belief, or of interest, or of action, can make an association of individuals an organism. And the constitution of an organism — its principle of life, and the organs through which this life is put forth, and the mode of their action — can never be changed except by the same power that gave it being. There may, indeed, be weakness of life, and disuse and mutilation of organs, and consequent partial failure of activities, but the organic structure abides. The Church, not the body alone, but the Head and body, is an organism through the life of the Head pervading it; and thus all the members are one with Him and with one another. Separated from Him, the Church would cease to be an organism, and be only an organization. But this common life does not take away individual freedom and responsibility. There may be " withered branches" in the vine, which shall be cast forth and burned. (John xv, 6.) It is possible for the members of Christ so to separate themselves individually from Him that the whole body may become spiritually enfeebled, and so fail to fulfil its purpose; but the Church, however weak or mutilated, cannot cease to be Christ's body, or its members cease to be members one of another. Divisions, separations, even bitter hate and bloody persecution, cannot break this organic unity.

As a consequence of this community of life, there is such a community of feeling, purpose, and action between the Head and the body as cannot otherwise exist. Not as a king who makes laws for his subjects, or as a general who gives commands to his soldiers, or even as Jehovah giving ordinances to His elect people, does the Lord direct His Church. It is one with Him; the law of His life is the law of its life, and, therefore, so far as it abides in Him, it is in full sympathy with Him, His truth is its truth, His purposes are its purposes, His strength is its strength. It loves and hates what He loves and hates. As the human body, when in full health and vigour, responds to every volition of the man, so the body of Christ to His volitions. As one with Him, it can join in His present intercessions, and hereafter sit with Him in His throne.

Thus we see that the Head in Heaven has a twofold work: first, in the Church — to fill it with His life; and, secondly, through the Church — to manifest Himself to the world; and the unity of life is the basis of both. Himself perfected and endowed with all power at His ascension, He became the Father's perfect instrument for all His future work, both that in heaven before God as High Priest, and that to be done on earth in the formation of His body. The first He carries on alone. But He must have His helpers in His earthly work of preaching the Gospel and gathering and perfecting His disciples. To this end He sends down the Holy Ghost, and by the impartation of His life His body is formed.

In this Divine order we see, first, the Head risen and glorified and clothed with all authority, but Himself invisible in the heavens; secondly, the Church, a visible community on the earth, through which He can act and manifest Himself to the world. Accordingly as He can do His will in the Church, so can He manifest Himself through the Church. The measure of the manifestation of Himself to the world, and of its knowledge of Him, is, therefore, found in the spiritual condition of the Church as affected by its unity with Him; if it abide in Him according to the Divine appointment, it will be the perfect instrument by which He can carry on His work in the earth. As He has no will separate from the Father's will, so the Church should have no will separate fron His will. As He said: "I can of mine own self do nothing." "The Father that dwelleth in Me, He doeth the works;" so the Church of its own self can do nothing. It can have no independent activity. In all things taught or done in or by the body, it is the Head who teaches and acts. He is the Apostle, the High Priest, the Prophet, the Elder, the Evangelist, the Pastor. It is He who acts by His ministers, and leads the worship of the Church. In nothing, Godward or man ward, can the body act separate from Him; and only as His will is fulfilled in the Church, can it answer the end of its calling.

With these remarks on the nature and place of Christ's headship, we are able to see clearly what is meant by "the falling away" of the Church. It is such a change in its corporate relation to its Head, that He cannot carry on His perfect work, first in it and then by it. The vital union of the Head and body is not, indeed, broken, but it is weakened; the body is no longer filled with the fulness of His life, and, therefore, He is not able to put forth His full power, either in gathering and in perfecting its members, or in His action upon the world. There may be in individual members much zeal and activity, but the corporate action is enfeebled, and comparatively ineffective. The world does not see in the Church the reflection of the truth, the love, the power of the invisible Head, and He is dishonoured.

If we now ask for the cause of this change, its deepest root, we find it in the Lord's words addressed from heaven to the Church at Ephesus — the representative of the Church of the apostolic age: "1 have this against thee, that thou has left thy first love." (Rev. ii, 4, R. V.) Here was the first step in the falling away. In all other respects the Lord highly commends the Church. Let us carefully note the significance of this first downward step — the loss of the first love.

The Scripture reveals God to us as a Person; in His essence, indeed, unknowable, but One who can so reveal Himself to men that they can know and love Him. "He is love, and he that loveth dwelleth in God, and God in him." In our religion we are not dealing with principles, but with Persons, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. In the Son made man, we have the visible embodiment of Divine love, and, therefore, His Person is the special object of Christian affection. Love is the bond of all true spiritual unity and communion, and finds its fullest scope in the relation of the Church to her Head. If it fails, there comes estrangement, separation. If the Church ceases to be one with the Head through her loss of love, she no longer has full communion with Him, and cannot grow up into Him in all things, and come unto the measure of the stature of His fulness. (Eph. iv, 15—.) He is hindered in all His teachings and actions. Though the loss of the first love is not the loss of all love, yet it is in His eyes a fall, as declared to the Church in Ephesus, and calls for repentance: "Remember, therefore, from whence thou hast fallen, and repent, and do the first works." The first works can be done only where the first love is found; and this failing, the Lord — the Doer of the works — is unable to put forth the fulness of His power. Hindered in doing His perfect work in the Church, He cannot, through the Church, do His perfect work in the world. The Lord cannot fulfil His promise: "Greater works than these shall ye do, because I go to my Father." He is the all-powerful Head, but through the weakness of the body He is "as a strong man that is bound."

It is thus in the loss of the first love, not in doctrinal errors, that we find the root of the falling away in the beginning, and the key to the whole subsequent history of the Church. Then began that spiritual separation from the Head which cannot cease till the first love has been regained. The Church has not, indeed, ceased to be His body; the Holy Ghost has not ceased to dwell in it, and to act through its various ministries, and has continued to make the preaching of the Gospel effectual to individoal salvation, and to fill sacraments and ordinances with supernatural power, and to embody Divine truth in Creeds and Professions of Faith; but it early ceased to be so responsive to the will of the Head that His full headship could be put forth. Its members did not "attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God." It has been like a human body partially paralyzed. Its history shows that the words of the Lord: "I will remove thy candlestick out of its place," began early to find a partial fulfilment. He did what he threatened to do if the Church did not repent, and do the first works; His attitude to the Church was changed. The candlestick was removed out of its place, the communion of the first love has never been restored.

Let us now note briefly some of the consequences to the Church of the loss of the first love.

First, as to its Unity. We must here distinguish between the unity of life and the unity of love. The first cannot be broken by man. Whatever divisions and enmities may arise in a family, its members remain one. Love may cease, the vital bond remains, they cannot cease to be brethren. It is so in the Church. All its members are one in the unity of a common life, and cannot cease to be one. But the unity of love may be broken. The baptized may be divided into jealous and hostile sects, and cease to regard each other as brethren. Each acting for itself and its own interests, the common good is neglected, the one Head is dishonoured. To build up his own sect becomes more important than to build up the Church.

How powerful was brotherly love in the beginning, we see in the records of the early Church: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul . . and had all things common." (Acts iv, 32.) With the loss of this love, the external bonds of unity gradually relaxed. Each man began to look at his own, and not at the things of others. What divisions and strifes prevailed even in the second century, all Church history attests. The early persecutions of the brethren by the heathen rulers, indeed, bound them together for a time in an external unity; but the inward bond being weakened, the divisions soon reappeared, and have continued to increase even down to our day. Those organizations that have been compacted by time, like the Greek and Roman Churches, present, indeed, a show of unity in themselves, but it is not the unity for which the Lord prayed, "that they all may be one "; and this very solidity of partial ecclesiastical organizations is a barrier against its realization. The first step to a true and full reunion of the members of the body is their full reunion with the Head, and this can be only by the regaining of the first love.

Secondly, as to Obedience. The ground of all true obedience to God and to His Son is love. It was so amongst the Jews; only as they loved Jehovah, could they obey His laws. But this is true in a far higher degree in the Christian Church. "If ye love Me, keep My commandments," said the Lord. As His work in humanity was through love, so all that His children can do for him must be through love; and only where there is full love can there be full obedience. The loss of this first or full love was followed by the disobedient and lawless spirit of which St. Paul speaks as seen in his day; and in proportion as love decays does this spirit increase, and His children come to care less and less for God's commands and appointments. The fear of Him may remain with many, and lead to an outward observance of His laws; but the desire to please Him in all things, and do His perfect will, be found only in a few.

Thirdly, as to the Truth. Our Lord said, " I am the Truth." To know the truth we must know Him, as our knowledge of persons must be through our personal communion with- them; otherwise we know of them, but do not know them. This is in the highest sense true of the Divine Persons. We know them only as they reveal themselves to us, and this revelation is as we are able to enter into communion with them. The basis of this communion is love. "Love is of God, and everyone that loveth . . knoweth God." "If any man love me, I will love him, and will manifest myself unto him." Communion with Him who is Himself the Truth, is the surest and speediest way to attain it. The self-manifestation of Christ to us is something far higher than any mere intellectual apprehension of His words, and gives a knowledge of Divine truth in all its relations which it is not possible otherwise to obtain. It was the visions of the risen Lord, not any reasonings or persuasions of the disciples, that made Thomas and afterwards St. Paul believers; and made this Apostle the great teacher of the Church. (2 Cor. xii, 1 —.)

We may thus see how the loss of love brings with it the loss of truth through the loss of communion. As when on the earth it was to the loving, and to them only, that the Lord could make Himself fully known, either as to His person or office; so is it now. No error can be greater than that any man, no matter what his official position in the Church may be, pope, patriarch, or bishop, can cease to be in full personal communion with Him, and yet enter into the fulness of His truth. The Spirit of truth can show the things of Christ only to those who delight to hear them, and who are sanctified through the truth. "It is with the heart that man believeth unto righteousness." "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." As love grows cold, the power to perceive and apprehend Divine truth fades away, our spiritual discernment is blunted; the intellect formulates logical but lifeless systems of doctrine; and theologians, ceasing to dwell in God's presence, and in communion with Him, theology soon becomes a mass of learned disquisitions about the Divine Persons, and heavenly things. Even if they hold to the old Creeds, and walk in the old paths, and count themselves orthodox, yet the Lord cannot use them to lead His people on in the further knowledge of His ways. There can be no true growth in knowledge where there is not growth in love.

We may thus understand why there have been such almost endless disputes as to the higher truths — the Trinity, the Incarnation, the work of Christ; and in general, as to the purpose of God in man. Because the right knowledge of His own Person is the key to the Divine purpose, He said when about to send the Spirit of Truth: "He shall glorify Me, for He shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you." His disciples had been gradually growing into a larger knowledge of His Person from the time He first met them on the Jordan till the day He ascended. Ascending, He entered into a new condition of being, was glorified, and made Head over all to the Church. Now will He through the Spirit reveal Himself as thus exalted, and the Church come to a further and higher knowledge of His Person as the Heavenly Man, and so be able to bear a clear and distinct witness to Him. But if hindered in this revelation of Himself from heaven through the spiritual incapacity of the disciples to receive it, they must fall back on the records of His earthly life, and find in this its lower stage the proof that He is the Son of God to be given to the world.* The true witness is to Him as He is; and this witness can be borne only by the Holy Ghost through His Church abiding in full communion with Him.

Fourthly, as to the desire for the return of the Lord, and for the perfected union with Him in the new life of immortality and glory. This was most ardent in the beginning when love was most ardent. Nor was it merely a natural desire for His personal presence, such as pupils might feel for a beloved teacher; but a spiritual longing for His return because it would bring to them that perfect and holy likeness to Him, and that higher communion with God through Him, for which they prayed.

* It need not be said that a knowledge of the earthly life of the Lord is necessary to understand aright His present heavenly life; but as every later stage in a Divine work illustrates and confirms the earlier, so is it here. The life on earth gave the basis for the life in heaven, but the continuity of the two must be proved by the last; and from the present we look back, and judge the past. Thus the gospels can be rightly read only in the light of the Lord's present heavenly life. If this life be denied or ignored, the Lord's words recorded in them become in many points unintelligible, the true significance of His works is not seen. Criticism, however learned and acute, seeing only the earthly life cannot comprehend it, or enter into the largeness of its meaning as the initial stage of a work which embraces the whole redemptive age. As the full-grown oak shows what was hidden in the acorn, so is it the Heavenly Man who fully reveals the powers hidden in the Babe of Bethlehem, and only partially manifested in the Man of Galilee. The living man is always his own witness that he lives; and the Lord in heaven will be His own witness, unless hindered, as at Nazareth, by the unbelief of His people.

Then also would His prayer be answered that "they might be with Him, and behold His Glory." He spoke of the Church under the figure of a widow during His absence, who prayed day and night for His return. (Luke xviii, 1—.) But this feeling of widowhood was only of brief duration, and with its decay came purposes and plans in which His return, and the higher glory of His kingdom, had little or no place. The first love failing, the spirit of self-sacrifice grew weak, His honour, His interests, ceased to be paramount. The Church was puffed up by the honour which the world gave her, and pleased that she should be flattered and caressed by the great ones of the earth. She became willing that the day of the marriage should be put off into the distant future. The Holy Ghost could not work that internal and spiritual transformation which is necessary before the change in the twinkling of an eye from the mortal to the immortal, can take place. (1 Cor. xv, 51-2.) The groaning in spirit for " the redemption of our body," for perfect deliverance from sin and death, and the longing for the heavenly inheritance, in great measure ceased; and "the little while" of His absence has lengthened into long centuries. (Rom. viii, 23; John xvi, 16—.)

We have thus spoken in some detail of the peculiar relation of the Church to Christ as His body, partaking of His life, and so one with Him; of the falling away as a spiritual separation from Him; and of the root of this separation, the loss of the first love. We have seen that while the union of life cannot be dissolved, and He cannot cease to be the Head of the Church, the union of love may be; and that the loss of the first love on her part brought about an estrangement, and in a measure a separation from Him, which has been felt in all her subsequent history. As her strength was in union with Him, so her weakness was in disunion. Ceasing to be one with Him in the unity of love, her members soon ceased to be one in the same unity. With the loss of love came disobedience, and the mystery of lawlessness. She failed to attain to the full truth, and to the unity of the faith, and lost more and more the desire for His return. This estrangement from the Head, thus early begun, reaches its full measure in the last days, when as He declared," lawlessness shall abound, and the love of the many shall wax cold." (Matt, xxiv, 12, E. V.)