The main challenge to this vision of a holy church is the church’s own sinfulness…Luther’s understanding of the church as simul justus et peccatore, or “simultaneously justified and a sinner,” is helpful for describing the paradox of the church’s “now and not yet” struggle with sin. Luther’s perspective affirms the reality of the sin of the church, yet also allows that God’s sanctification is in fact at work and progressively enacting real change in the hearts, minds, and actions of those who allow the Holy Spirit’s work to continue unhindered in their lives; i.e. those who are working with and not against God’s plan of redemption for the world. The Holy Spirit, with and in spite of the sinfulness of humans, is leading the church to be remade from within into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, presenting all that we are as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God as an act of love and worship (Rom 12:1-2). (excerpted from James Tower’s blog Stretch Marks )
Perhaps Luther’s words “affirm the reality of the sin of the church,” but neither he nor those who have followed in his footsteps have demonstrated a church that has overcome the gates of hell. During certain seasons, the house built on the sand functions as well as any other. But storms will come, which reveal our foundation. In 1943, Lewis Benson wrote:
…the church is again facing a major crisis. This crisis has resulted from the church’s failure to remain firmly grounded on Truth while striving to adjust to a rapidly changing world. Now that evil forces are sweeping over the earth the church finds it difficult to prove that she is really able to prevail against the gates of hell…The church has become increasingly aware of what her work is in the world…Nevertheless, there remains a wide gulf between what the church knows she should be and what…she is.
The cause of this is to be found in the limitations that are inherent in both Protestantism and Catholicism. Catholicism places the ground of authority in the church…Protestantism tends to view the Bible as the final word of authority. (Prophetic Quakerism, in New Foundation publications, No. 5, The Truth Is Christ, 1981, p. 9)
Because the early Quakers also lived during a time of crisis, their response to crisis can be profitably compared to that of the 20th century church. Benson continued:
The Quakers went directly to the guiding light of the living Christ for their authority. (ibid. pp. 1-10)
So why bother about this? Why not adopt the “if it works for you, great” attitude?
Because if there is a power that can raise up a pure, undefiled people to stand as light, salt, and example of liberation from the gates of Hell, then the news of this power is of vital importance. Benson stated:
[The early Quakers] believed that they had rediscovered the only adequate foundation for Christian truth and, building on this foundation, they were enabled to carry forward to successful demonstration the pattern of Christian community which had been proclaimed and exhibited by the early church. (ibid. p.10)
In 1666, Isaac Penington wrote:
…What a miserable APOSTASY from the TRUTH hath overspread and covered the Earth for many Ages and Generations…
This was directed at both Catholics and those Protestants who
…had not waited on the Lord, for him, in his wisdom and power, to rear up his own building, but had ventured to build of themselves, and so had reared up Churches in the same spirit of error, darkness, and apostasy, which they seemed to depart from… (Concerning The Church or of The Church State Under the Gospel…, )
Edward Burrough demonstrated this apostasy and how to escape from it in his introduction to the Works of Fox, Vol. III.
It is…about seven years since the Lord raised us up in the north of England…what we were before in our religion, profession, and practices is well known…we were men of the strictest sect, and of the greatest zeal in the performance of outward righteousness, and went through and tried all sorts of teachers, and run from mountain to mountain, and from man to man, and from one form to another…And such we were…that sought the Lord, and desired the knowledge of his ways more than any thing beside…(Works of Fox, Vol. III, p.11)
This is a picture of the sincerity of much of Christianity today. But Burrough’s narrative marks a change, not just in procedure, but in the foundation from which all else flowed. The apostasy is from the life and power of God. Turning to the guiding light of Christ within, not sincerity, is the only antidote.
And after our long seeking the Lord appeared to us…First the Lord brought us…to know and understand, and see perfectly, that God had given to us, every one of us in particular, a light from himself shining in our hearts and consciences; which light, Christ his son, the saviour of the world, had lighted every man withal…(ibid. pp.11-12)
Where Catholic turned to the Pope and Protestant turned to the Bible to discern good and right from evil and wrong, the early Quakers experienced the light of Christ within reproving them for evil and teaching them how to walk in righteousness before God. This experience came with the power and authority to obey the command of God, which was lacking in their previous experience and lacking in both Catholicism and Protestantism in general. With this inward experience came the understanding of “all things concerning man and his redemption needful to know.” (ibid. p.12)
Then Burrough sums up all that was distinctive between the life of the early Quakers and that of the rest of Christendom.
And we found this light to be a sufficient teacher, to lead us to Christ, from whence this light came, and thereby it gave us to receive Christ, and to witness him to dwell in us; and through it the new covenant we came to enter into, to be made heirs of life and salvation. And in all things we found the light which we were enlightened withal, (which is Christ,) to be alone and only sufficient to bring to life and eternal salvation; and that all who did own the light in them which Christ hath enlightened every man withal, they needed no man to teach them, but the Lord was their teacher, by his light in their own consciences, and they received the holy anointing. (ibid. pp.12-13)
Having described the foundation, Burrough described the building.
And so we ceased from the teachings of all men,…their words,…their worships,…their temples, and all their baptisms and churches; and we ceased from our own words, and professions, and practices in religion…And by this light of Christ in us were we led out of all false ways, and false preachings, and from false ministers, and we met together often, and waited upon the Lord in pure silence from our own words, and all men’s words, and hearkened to the voice of the Lord, and felt his word in our hearts, to burn up and beat down all that was contrary to God… (ibid. p.13)
There is a false church with false ministers, false preachings, and false ways. This church included those of the strictest sect, the greatest zeal in the performance of outward righteousness: things the light of Christ led the early Quakers out of.
And while waiting upon the Lord in silence…with our minds and hearts toward him, being staid in the light of Christ within us…we received often the pouring down of the spirit upon us…our hearts were made glad,…our tongues loosed, and our mouths opened…as the Lord gave us utterance…And to us hereby were the deep things of God revealed, and things unutterable were known and made manifest;…and then began we to sing praises to the Lord God Almighty, and to the Lamb for ever, who had redeemed us to God, and brought us out of the captivity and bondage of the world, and put an end to sin and death; and all this was by and through, and in the light of Christ within us. (ibid. p.13)
James Tower postulates a sinful church slowly being remade into the image of Christ: a process that seems never to bear fruit. Edward Burrough stated “After this manner was our birth or bringing forth” (ibid. p.14): a church made into the image of Christ from its inception.
The early Quakers demonstrated liberty from the gates of Hell. Today the church faces those same gates. Where the same strategies of liberation are used as portrayed by Catholicism and Protestantism, we will continue to see a church in captivity. However, anywhere people come to know and experience the light of Christ to teach them what is right and wrong and to empower them to live according to what is right, anywhere people turn to the power of the living Christ within them and to live by that same power (and by no other), there you will see the gates of hell shattered and lying in ruins. The distinction between these two churches is that the one is made free by the presence and activity of Christ ruling in and among those who will receive his enlightenment.