Seeking to Comprehend the Love of Christ by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Unsearchable Riches of Christ.” The sermon was preached at Westminster Chapel, London, in 1956 and first published in 1979 and reprinted in 2004.
`May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height.’
It remains for us now to consider the very practical and direct question as to how we can attain to this knowledge. I assume that we are now eager and anxious to know it and to experience it. I am sure that when we arrive in heaven and in the glory we shall be amazed; not only at what we shall then see and realize, but still more at our blindness while we were here on earth. Then we shall see clearly what might have been the case with us. We shall see what we might have enjoyed. We shall see how we wasted our time. We shall see how we allowed other things to come between us and the most marvellous and blessed experience that can be the lot of any man or woman in this world. And for this reason I am pressing this matter so urgently upon your consideration.
I have New Testament authority for saying that it is possible for Christian people to know something of a sense of shame when they see Him as He is. The Apostle John in his First Epistle exhorts the early Christians to press forward in these respects so that they may `not be ashamed before him at his coming’. There is clear teaching of a judgment involving rewards among believers, so we must consider this matter in the light of that teaching. The man, who thinks that as long as he is forgiven, as long as he is saved, and as long as he knows that he is going to heaven, all is well, will discover that in adopting such an attitude he has been rejecting his Lord’s teaching. The Lord meant him to enjoy so much more, and to use him to help others, and to use him as a pattern and an example. So, apart from personal considerations, we must look at this question from the standpoint that the extent to which we are failing to conform to this pattern, is the extent to which we are failing our blessed Lord Himself.
The picture often given is that the New Testament is that God is our Father, and that as an earthly father is proud of his children, and likes to look upon them with favour, and to smile at them, and desires everyone to think well of them, so God as our Father in heaven delights in us and desires to show us as `patterns and examples of His handiwork’. He wants to show His grace to others through us, and by means of us, as we saw when we were studying verse 10. For all these reasons it behoves us to discover how we, with all saints, may come to know this love of Christ which passeth knowledge. There is abundant teaching with respect to this in the New Testament. There is a sense in which the remainder of this Ephesian Epistle deals with this very subject. The Apostle proceeds in the following chapters to deal in detail with a number of matters concerned with conduct and behaviour, and that is one of the best ways of teaching how to attain to this knowledge of the love of Christ.
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We can summarize this teaching in a number of principles. The first is to issue a negative, but extremely important warning. This matter must never be thought of in mechanical terms. By this I mean that it must never be assumed that, as long as we do certain things, then, inevitably and automatically, we shall enjoy the blessing. That supposition is never true in the spiritual life. To use an obvious illustration: there is nothing of the slot-machine mechanism in connection with the spiritual life. The cults, on the other hand, are all characterized by that very teaching. They all say in effect that you have but, as it were, to put your coin in the slot and pull out the little drawer, and you will have your piece of chocolate or whatever it is. Such a teaching is foreign to the New Testament, and if we begin to think about these things in such a mechanical manner we are doomed to disappointment.
I must elaborate this because, speaking from my own experience, I know this very danger, and know it to be a snare of the devil. It sometimes works in the following manner. You may be reading the biography of some great saint, for example, one of the people from whose works I have been quoting. There you just read about a man who had been a Christian for years but who had never known this love of Christ, and who then tells you how he came to know it. It may have happened in one of many ways. Perhaps he had been seeking for years with nothing happening; then one day, as he was reading a book, almost casually, the whole page seemed to be illumined and he realized that God speaking to him directly, and he came to know this love of Christ which passeth knowledge. The temptation that comes at that point is to try to discover which book he was reading and then to begin to read that same book, persuading yourself as you do so, that what happened to him is bound to happen to you. So you just read the page, but it seems quite dead! The fallacy was to hold a mechanical view. The saint was doing this when he obtained the blessing; so if I do the same I also will obtain the blessing!
Or you read of men who testify that they had read their Bible many times without ever seeing these things, but suddenly and unexpectedly as they were reading a given chapter the illumination came. But it does not come to you as you read the chapter. The fallacy behind that wrong approach is to forget that we are dealing with personal relationships, and that in the realm of personal relationships mechanical methods not only do not count, but they can even be the greatest possible hindrance. We are not dealing with some `it’ or an experience as such; we are talking about knowing `the love of Christ which passeth knowledge’. We realize instinctively concerning the love of a human being that it is intensely personal and direct, so we must realize the same here.
We have to start by realizing that this is something which is entirely in God’s hands, that He dispenses His blessings as He wills, and when and where, and in His own way. You can guarantee nothing in these matters. I mean that you cannot give any kind of guarantee that if you do `this’ then `that’ must follow. We know that in ordinary human relationships such ideas break down completely. The moment we sense that we are being bribed, or that someone is trying to manipulate us, at once every emotion and every real affection is quelled. This is equally true in the spiritual realm with which we are dealing. That is why it can be said that, while books and manuals on the devout and devotional life are of help and value up to a certain point, they can also be extremely dangerous. The devil can use them to introduce the mechanical notion, and we shall end by being further away from the One whom we are seeking.
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Turning to the positive, we find that certain things are taught plainly and clearly in the Scriptures. The first is that there is such a thing as putting yourself in the way of a blessing. We cannot command blessings or `claim’ them. God in His own sovereign will and grace dispenses His blessings. But though we cannot command them, we can do what blind Bartimaeus did. We read that Bartimaeus had heard that the Lord Jesus Christ was going to pass along a certain road, and that he was wise enough to take up his pitch by the side of that road. That is what all of us can do. The Lord walks along certain roads; it is His custom and His habit to pass in certain directions. So all I can do is to tell you how to take up your position along the side of these roads. Put yourself in the way of blessings. I cannot guarantee anything; but I do know that the Scripture exhorts us to do certain things. I also know that every saint who has ever come to the knowledge of Christ’s love, in this intimate and personal sense, has generally conformed to these things.
The first step is the one that Paul himself has already mentioned in verse 16. We must pray for ourselves without ceasing, as the Apostle prayed for the Ephesians, that God might `grant us according to the riches of his glory to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man’. That is an absolute essential. It is essential—I must repeat myself because we are so prone to forget it—because of the greatness of the knowledge of His love. It is so great that it can almost shatter the human frame, so glorious that one can scarcely contain it. We remember the experiences of the young Isaiah, and the Apostle John on the isle of Patmos. But we also need it for this further reason, that as certainly as we set out in this endeavour we shall become the targets of the concentrated and unusual attacks of the devil.
This again is the universal experience of the saints. No one has ever been tempted in this world by the devil as the Son of God was tempted; and the closer we get to Him the more shall we be tried and tempted. The devil at first does his utmost to prevent anyone from becoming a Christian; but if he fails and we become Christian, his whole endeavour then will be to keep us as babes in Christ, to keep us at the stage of the first principles only, to keep us satisfied with the outermost circle of this realm. The moment we begin to grow and to develop, the devil becomes concerned, because we then become better recommendations for Christ. It we become men, and adult, the devil’s kingdom is threatened, so he does his utmost to keep us back, and trains his agents and his powers upon us.
Let me quote the words of one who was a great authority on these matters. In a wonderful phrase he said, `Baptismal moments are always followed by a temptation in the wilderness’. He refers, of course, to what happened to our Lord Himself when He was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, and was setting out upon His public ministry to do His work as the Messiah. The Holy Ghost descended upon Him in the form of a dove. He is now equipped. He is sealed by the Father, He has been anointed by the Spirit to preach and to carry on the work of redemption. But we read that immediately afterwards He was led of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil for forty days. `Baptismal moments are always followed by a temptation in the wilderness’. Anyone who has ever endeavoured to walk this road will know how true that is. The more we seek the Lord’s face and the knowledge of His love, the more shall we become acquainted with `the wiles of the devil’ and `the fiery darts of the wicked one’. The devil thereby pays us a great compliment; but we must remember that he is powerful and mighty, and if we go in our own strength and power he will certainly defeat us. We must therefore pray that we may be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, and also, as the Apostle expresses it in the last chapter of this Epistle, we must `put on the whole armour of God’. Without it we are doomed to failure. If you seek to be near to Christ the devil will bring out all his reserves against you, and you will become aware of the depths of Satan in a manner you have never even imagined.
Christian people who do not know what it is to be subjected to an onslaught of Satan or to a Satanic attack are but babes in Christ. He has no need to deal in this manner with the babes; but the moment you begin to grow and become a `young man’, the moment you become strong and know Christ and His love increasingly, you can expect temptation. Thus you find in the lives of all the greatest saints, that side by side with their glorious experiences of the love of Christ there is an awareness at times of a conflict, as if hell were let loose round and about them. It should be clear, therefore, that we are in a realm which is altogether different from the mechanical realm to which the teaching of all the cults belongs, as does all superficial evangelical teaching which assures us that `it is quite simple’. As the Apostle says later in chapter 6, `We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies’ (6:12). We are following in His footsteps who was tempted of the devil in a manner so severe that it is impossible for us to conceive it.
The next vital matter which we must emphasize is that we must learn to seek the Lord Himself. I mean that we must not be content with ideas concerning Him, or with propositions about Him. Once more it is essential that we should emphasize that while doctrines and theology and understanding are absolutely vital to the Christian, it is always wrong to stop at these alone. We must go beyond them and realize that the purpose of all knowledge of doctrine is to bring us to a knowledge of the Person of Christ. As we have seen, `That I might know Him and the power of His resurrection’ was the ambition of the greatest doctrinal, theological teacher and preacher the Church has ever known. Without knowledge of doctrine we may become victims of a false mysticism, or simply remain babes in Christ. In order to be strong, and grow, and become virile and powerful, an understanding of truth is essential to us. But that should lead us to seek a knowledge of the Person Himself.
This is a very subtle matter. All who have ever been concerned about these matters know what snares are at hand. Sometimes a man, in correcting a false subjectivism, goes right over to the other extreme and becomes so entirely objective that he finds his soul and spirit have become dry. But extremes are wrong. The glory of the gospel is that it takes up the whole man, his mind, his heart, his will, indeed, the entire personality. If any one aspect is lacking there is a lack of balance. I emphasize this great danger of being content with ideas and truths about the Lord Jesus Christ instead of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. You become enamoured of the thoughts, the principles, and the concepts; and you can become so entranced by them that they may come between you and the Person. The very doctrine concerning Him may hide Him from your eyes. Nothing is more tragic than that! Many of us must confess to having been in that condition for years. It is a terrible snare; beware of it. It is as dangerous as false mysticism; it is as dangerous as remaining a babe in Christ.
Again, let me stress that we are to seek the Lord Himself, and not merely experiences which come to us in a general manner in the Christian life. Thank God for experiences of enjoying the reading or the preaching of the Word, experiences that come in meetings for prayer, experiences that come while singing a hymn, or the experiences we know in Christian fellowship, and in many other respects. Thank God for all such general Christian experiences. But while we thank God for them in this particular realm with which we are dealing, we have to realize that even they can be dangerous. This should not discourage us. It is true to say of every level in the Christian life that it has its own peculiar problems. There are many people who have no spiritual experience whatsoever; they have simply accepted certain things with their minds. Clearly that is totally inadequate, but having said that, we proceed to say that we have to be careful about experience. That there are special problems at each stage is true in our ordinary life in this world. The problems of childhood are not identical with the problems of adolescence, and the problems of adolescence are not identical with the problems of middle age; and the problems of middle age are not the problems of old age. On the surface, the teaching appears to be contradicting itself. But that is not so; as we grow older, we are in a different realm, we have arrived at a different stage, and we may have to do something at one stage which appears to be a blank contradiction of what we had to do at an earlier stage. It is precisely the same in the Christian life.
Let me put it yet more simply and directly. Many Christian’s people live on `meetings’ and not on the Lord Jesus Christ. They may feel disturbed or unhappy in their spiritual experience, and that may well mean that the Holy Spirit is dealing with them. But instead of doing what we are told here, and seeking this knowledge of the Lord, and this love of Him that passeth knowledge, they go to endless rounds of meetings. In the meetings they are made to feel happy, and they go home feeling that all is well. Again they feel miserable; then go to another meeting and the experience is repeated. They may go out every night in the week to some meeting or other, in order to keep themselves in a happy condition. What is happening is that they are living on meetings!
This is not only true in connection with meetings; it can happen also with books. I again plead guilty to this. It is possible to live a kind of second-hand spiritual life on books. It happens in the following manner. Feeling dissatisfied and disturbed, and having a consciousness within that our life is not what it should be, and that there is something much greater possible, we begin to read certain books, for example, the biography of a saint or a book which deals with the higher reaches of the Christian life. We greatly enjoy doing so and we are moved. Though we have not had the experience itself of which we are reading, we feel happier and better. We may do this for years without realizing that we are living on books instead of living on Christ. We can live on other people’s experiences which we may hear in a meeting, or read of in books, but have no experience of our own. Because we have a comfortable feeling, and feel a little happier, we are content, and we do not go on to seek the Lord Himself.
Indeed, it is possible for us so to misuse the means of grace as to live on them instead of going on through them to discover the
Giver of all grace. How subtle all this is! And it is so because we are still not perfect, and because of the wiles of the devil. The great rule which must never be forgotten is: Seek the Lord Himself. Seek the Person. The Christian life is not simply a matter of adopting a number of ideas; Christianity is not a philosophy, not a collection of thoughts and concepts. Its special glory, and what makes it unique, is that it not only teaches us to apply a teaching, but to get to know a Person, and to walk with Him in the light. It is personal, it is individual. The essence of success in this matter is to keep that ever in the forefront. We must not allow anything, however good and beneficial it may be in itself, to satisfy us in our spiritual life until we can really say, I know Christ Himself.
This is particularly true in the matter of prayer. Prayer really means talking to God, listening to God, and having communion with God. That obviously involves personal relationship. What do we really know of true prayer? We can so easily delude ourselves into thinking that if we get on our knees and think certain good thoughts, or certain good thoughts pass through our minds concerning God, that we are praying. I believe that God in His mercy is prepared even to accept that; but it is not true prayer. `Our fellowship’, says John, `is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ’. By `fellowship’ he means knowing and walking with Them.
George Muller of Bristol knew more about prayer than most Christians; and you will find that the first thing he always did when he prayed was to make sure of a realization of the presence of God. He did not present his petitions until he had realized God’s presence. This was the secret of that great man of prayer. We talk about Muller’s great faith, and of course it was great faith; but the real secret of George Muller was not his great faith but the fact that he knew God and spoke to God as one who knew Him. Realization of the presence of God! You cannot know the love of Christ until you know Christ. That is why the Apostle tells the Philippians that his greatest ambition was `that I may know him’ (3:10). The first thing we have to do is to realize the presence of the Person, to seek the Lord Himself—not His blessings, not thoughts or teachings concerning Him. These things are excellent and we must continue to seek them; but we must not stop at them. We must go through them and use them to seek the blessed Person Himself.
The next principle in connection with this teaching, follows from that in an inevitable manner; it is that we must ever remind ourselves that the Lord Jesus Christ is to dwell with us: being `strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith’. What we need to do at this point is to realize that He Himself has said, `Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me’ (Rev 3:20). When that becomes a fact, Christ is within us. I sometimes think that the realization of this is the most transforming event that can happen to anyone. It is the essence and the secret of sanctification. It is not a matter of trying to obtain something, it is not simply striving to live on a certain moral level; the secret of it all is to realize that He dwells within us, that He is in our hearts. The Apostle not only teaches this about our Lord but also about the Holy Spirit.
How slow we are to learn the great lessons of Scripture! In the sixth chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle deals with the very practical problem of sinning in the body. `Flee fornication’, he says (v. 18). But in showing how this is to be done he does not indulge in some vague moral teaching or give a lecture on the medical consequences of sin, or make some general appeal. His method is very different. He says, `What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s’ (vv. 19-20). The way to overcome sin is to realize that the Holy Ghost is dwelling in you, and that your bodies are His temple. The Holy Ghost is involved, as it were, in whatever you do with your body. `What!’ The whole secret of sanctification, in a sense, is to know how to utter that word `What!‘ So when you are next tempted, when the devil comes and tempts you to sin in any shape or form, stop and say, `What?’ It is unthinkable! It is impossible! The Holy Ghost dwells within me; my body is His temple. Christ is in me.
We must talk to ourselves in that manner and apply the truth to ourselves. It is because we fail to do this that we are as we are, and what we are. We are to go on seeking this Person, and we must realize that He is within us. His Word is true and cannot be broken. I therefore am to live as a man who believes that the Lord Christ dwells within, indeed, who is fully persuaded that He dwells within. `I am not my own’; He has come to dwell within me. My whole outlook and attitude will be determined by this realization.
Finally, having taken these steps, we must positively and actively seek His love. The Apostle is praying that these Christians may come to know it in its breadth and length and depth and height. Having realized the truth concerning glorious possibility, we must now seek the Lord Himself, to know His love, and apply to Him for this knowledge. I say again, that this has been the universal practice of all those have ever been able to testify that they have truly known this love. We find it stressed, not only in the New Testament, but in the Old. For instance, a deep longing and desire for the knowledge of God is expressed in many of the Psalms, for example, Psalms 42, 63 and 84; `As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, 0 God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?(42:1-2); ‘Thy loving kindness is better than life'(63:3). And again, `I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness’ (84:10). This same is expressed well in a hymn in Welsh by William Williams translated thus:
Tell me Thou art mine, 0 Saviour;
Grant me an assurance clear;
Banish all my dark misgivings,
Still my doubting, calm my fear.
Were we but to apply in the spiritual life what we know so well and do, in the natural life, our spiritual condition would be very different. There is nothing that we desire more than to be told that those whom we love, love us. Actions are not sufficient, we like to be told in words. So let us plead with Him to let us know of a surety that He has loved us individually with an everlasting love. [264-264]