Christ's Preaching to the Spirits in Prison: Part 10

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(1 Peter 3:18-21.)
There is another work1 to be noticed before I bring this paper to a close, because it seeks to yoke our text with the general bearing of the unholy scheme of universalism. Not that there is anything intrinsically which calls for a notice, but that the work bears witness to the prevalence of infidel thought now put forth without a blush by professing ministers of Christ and spread far and wide by those regarded as respectable publishers. The usual guarantees of orthodoxy fast vanish away.
“That even as to the saints, the intermediate state between death and the resurrection will be one of progression I firmly believe, and on that point I shall have something more to say in my next sermon. But what of those who die in either utter ignorance of the truth as it is in Jesus or in conscious rejection of it? If ultimately all things are to be reconciled to God; if the kingdom of Christ is to eventuate in the restoration of all things, then it is evident in regard to those who are not saved from sin and brought to God in this life, there must be some provision for their rectification and restoration in an after state of existence. Let it be admitted that holy scripture does most clearly and distinctly teach that all things in heaven and earth are to be gathered up again into one in Christ, and that by Him everything is to be brought into subjection to God, that in His name everything is to bend and every tongue to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father; let this be admitted, and I do not see how the inference can be escaped, that, even though there were no specific revelation on the point, there must be some provision hereafter for the reconciliation and restoration of those who in this life have not been reconciled and restored:” (Pages 135, 136.)
It need surprise none that in his next sermon Mr. S. has not one word to prove the alleged progression of saints in the intermediate state. “The life then (says he) of the sainted dead, we may believe, is one of blessed hope and holy expectation; and if, as before said, if be one also of nearer communion with God and Christ, we may believe it to be a life of progress and development,” &c. (Page 150.) But supposing we believe nothing of the sort without scripture, what has he to say? Nothing. The idea of growth then is wholly unwarranted by revelation, and contrary to every instinct of the believer, who weighs the force of what scripture does say of our sojourn here below as the place of growth, exercise, and testimony. I turn however to what is of even graver concern, the perversion of the scriptures which speak of reconciling and restoring all things, to draw a similar conclusion as to the impenitent and unbelieving in the teeth of the plainest and most solemn warnings of God. Every believer must feel the utter fallacy of such arguments.
Then, on the one hand, Col. 1 distinguishes between “you hath he reconciled” and reconciling of all things. But even so they are only the things on the earth and the things in the heavens; not a word about the things infernal, not to speak of persons who are nowhere before us in this reconciliation of all things. It is a question of the universe; not of men, but contradistinguished from the saints who are already and expressly said to be reconciled, whereas the reconciliation of all things is of course future.
On the other hand, when the Spirit of God treats the subjection of every creature to the Lord, infernal beings are just as distinctly added to those heavenly and earthly (Phil. 2), because the point there is the compulsory bowing of every knee and the confession of every tongue. Reconciliation is carefully avoided here; for judgment is just as certainly a means God the Father will use to enforce the honor of His Son on the unbelieving (John 5), as the gift of eternal life bows the heart of the believer now before His glory and His love.
Eph. 1 quite confirms this evident and important truth. For though we are there shown the mystery of God's will, according to the good pleasure which He purposed in Himself for the administration of the fullness of the times, to gather up together (or, head up) all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth; we see, first, that infernal things are quite left out of this blessed gathering under His headship; and, secondly, that the saints, or the church, do not form a part of all things, in heaven or earth, but are associated with Christ in His inheritance over them all. Compare not only verse 11 but also 22, and indeed scripture in general. It is the universe distinguished from those who reign with Christ over it all.
Thus the awful revelation of the unending punishment of the ungodly and unbelieving remains intact and unqualified; and the mischievous and wicked folly is exposed of such as would distort the disclosures of the regeneration of creation, or “restitution of all things” into a spurious hope for the final recovery of the lost. Not a hint of such expectations appears in scripture. The alleged passages refer to the inheritance or to the judgment, not to the heirs or to salvation. To the deliverance of the groaning creation of which Paul speaks in Rom. 8, the prophets bear witness, not one, not a single shred of the New Testament, to the reconciliation and restoration of those who in this life have not been reconciled and restored. With this falls all possibility of such inference.
But Mr. S. thinks that there is a sort of direct intimation in the passage before us, wherein Peter tells us how Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. His short paraphrase however is quite wrong; and he only adds to the number of those he characterizes as trying to make the text mean almost anything but what it does mean, if taken in the simple literality of its words. I utterly deny for reasons already given that it means or speaks of a preaching to spirits in another state of existence. A superficial glance might infer so, not a careful or exact examination of what is said.
“Suffering death (says Mr. S., p. 138) as far as the flesh was concerned, his body being put to death upon the cross, but continuing to live in respect of his spirit, which did not die, but passed from the body on its dying, and descended into hell, that is, hades, the place of disembodied spirits, ‘in which also,' says the apostle, that is, in his spirit, ‘He went and preached to the spirits in prison.'“
Now this paraphrase is manifestly and hopelessly inaccurate. “Continuing to live” is a false rendering of ζωυποιηθείς, which is the less excusable as the Authorized Version in every hand gives the only correct translation. Again, “in respect of His Spirit” is ignorance or neglect of the true text, which has no article in the Greek; if “His Spirit” were meant, the idiom would require it. As it is, the Holy Spirit is intended, though this rather as a characteristic state than drawing attention to the person who so wrought in power. Compare Timothy 3:16, where, as here, it is hard in our language to avoid the article; but it is the Spirit that is meant, certainly not His spirit. Lastly, the interpretation of the clause is false; for as a whole it points to our Lord's resurrection, not to His spirit's passing from the body on His dying, to say nothing of foisting in here a descent into hell or hades, of which the passage says not a word, but “in which also” (that is, Spirit) He went and preached to the spirits in prison. That is, Christ in Spirit went and preached to them. Not a word intimates that the disembodied spirit of Christ went there; not a word that He went and preached in the prison, disembodied or not; not a word that, when preached to, they were spirits in prison. There would be precise phrases in the Greek tongue for expressing any of these ideas, which the paraphrase assumes; as they are not employed, the only fair and sound inference is that they were not meant, and that the paraphrase departs from the simple literality of the words, which I am quite content to take as they are, refusing every sense save that which flows from their precise grammatical import.
Nor is it allowable to Mr. S. to cite the late Dean Alford for what these words mean, for he expressly declares that they do not mean “universal restitution” (Mr. S.'s hypothesis), any more than the Romanist dream of purgatory. “It is not purgatory, it is not universal restitution; but it is one which throws blessed light on one of the darkest enigmas of the divine justice: the cases where the final doom seems infinitely out of proportion to the lapse which incurred it.” Did the Dean realize his own thought? In my opinion he did not; for the real difficulty to speculating benevolence is not God's visiting the antediluvian rejecters of Noah's preaching in the destruction of the deluge, but the everlasting punishment of all unbelievers. There is no darkening of divine justice in the former, any more than a ray of light cast on the latter in this passage. It is implied indeed that besides perishing by the deluge their spirits are kept shut up for the day of judgment; but I can hardly imagine that this is the “blessed light” Dean A. cherished in His lively and poetical mind. It is certain at least that he explicitly denies that the word means that universal restitution which Mr. S. would draw from them: what he himself inferred is left, purposely or not, in the utmost vagueness. So it is apt to be where we have not consciously the known truth of God. He even throws out the hint, of which Mr. S. does not fail to avail himself, consistently enough on the scheme of universalism; most inconsistently on Dean A.'s, if indeed he had anything definite before his mind. “And as we cannot say to what other cases this κήρυγμα may have applied, so it would be presumption in us to limit its occurrence or its efficacy. The reason of mentioning here these sinners, above other sinners, appears to be, their connection with the type of baptism which follows. If so, who shall say that the blessed act was confined to them?” (Com. in loco.) To me the real presumption seems the fancy of an efficacy which the context disproves, and the hinting at an enlargement of its occurrence without the smallest evidence. Undoubtedly that the Spirit of Christ preached to those spirits in prison was a “blessed act.” All we know of the result for those preached to is that they were “disobedient,” and suffered its consequences in being kept” shut up (as Dean Alford says) “in the place of the departed awaiting the final judgment:” a description which in no way suits the departed saints, who are with Christ in Paradise and come not into judgment. One may boldly say that the “blessed act” Dean A. fancies of our Lord's preaching in hades to the disembodied unbelievers of Noah's day not only was not repeated to any other class but has no warrant from scripture in the case reasoned on. It never once was a fact.
It is useless after these remarks to quote all the argument of Mr. S. in which he enlarges for his own purposes the words thus rashly flung out by the late Dean of Canterbury. But the reader will learn how things grow worse and worse in this line from his conclusion (p. 139): “Yet it is these notable sinners who are especially mentioned as having been preached to by Christ on his descent into hades. If to these, then surely to all, may we believe, was the announcement made,” &c.
Nor am I disposed to give the least weight to the reasoning Mr. S. reproduces from Professor Plumptre's sermon. It is absurd to argue, as he and some of the Fathers do, from Eph. 4:9, 10. Not a word connects the spirits of the departed with the lower parts of the earth. Nor is it the reverence of believers to God and His word to quit revelation for analogy and human reasons, whatever one may use for stopping the mouth of an infidel, if we can.
Once committed to the uncertain guesses of the mind, how can one avoid being tossed as waves and carried about by every wind of teaching? “May we not be permitted to indulge the thought (says Mr. S., p. 142) that as the Lord Jesus in his spirit went, in the interval between his death and resurrection and preached to the spirits in prison, so possibly this may form part of the blessed occupation of the saints in hades? They rest, indeed, we are told, from their labors, so far as weariness is connected with them, and yet their works do follow them. May it not be that the work in which they delighted here, that of winning souls, shall follow them there? If, it has been well observed [in Professor Plumptre's sermon, if the future is to be the development and continuation of the present, if we are not to pass from a life of ever varying relations with our fellow-men, each bringing with it opportunities for self-discipline and for serving God to an absolute isolation, may we not so get one step further and believe, as some did in the earliest ages of the church, and as others have thought of late, that those whose joy it has been in life to be fellow-workers with Christ, in leading many to righteousness, may continue to be fellow-workers there, and so share the life of angels in their work of services as in their ministries of praise? The manifestations of God's righteous judgment and of His changeless love may thus, using men and angels as His instruments, help to renew throughout His universe all who are capable of renewal!”
Thus sadly is it our lot to see in these last days a fallen but no longer slumbering Christendom, that the anile fables of early legend-mongers find ready acceptance among those who turn away their ears from the truth. The Holy Spirit has prepared us for these and all other aberrations. For as surely as the wise virgins have obeyed the midnight cry, “Behold, the bridegroom: go forth to meet him,” the foolish are going hither and thither to buy that “unction from the Holy One,” the lack of which no religious truth, no sentimental activity, can disguise from consciences still unpurged, from hearts which have never found rest in Christ the Lord. As we wait for new heavens and a new earth, may we be diligent to be found of Him in peace without spot and blameless, and account the long suffering of our Lord's salvation! Whether it be the Epistles of Peter or of Paul, the untaught and ill-established wrest them, as also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.
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