Gleanings from Paul
by A. W. Pink
20. Prayer for Discerning Love
The Prayers Of Holy Men are usually the choicest expressions of their souls—the pourings forth of their deepest desires as directed by the Spirit in them. It must be so for where a man’s treasure is, there will his heart be also. The more spiritual a man becomes, the more his soul is engaged with and enraptured by spiritual things, and the more experimental and practical holiness will be his supreme quest. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matthew 12:34). When a spiritually minded person has liberty in prayer he will necessarily seek both for himself and his fellow saints an increased measure of grace, that his and their eyes may perceive more clearly the inestimable value of divine things and have their hearts set upon them more constantly, in order that the fruits of righteousness may abound in their lives. Such were the utterances of the apostle on this occasion.
Many Types of Christians
Variety marks all the works of God. Men’s intellectual endowments are as dissimilar as their countenances. There are many different types of Christians, though broadly speaking they may be grouped under two classes—the intelligent or well instructed, and the affectionate.
The Corinthians were "enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge" (1 Cor. 1:5), yet their love was weak and low. This is implied by the contrast pointed between knowledge and love in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, and is still more plainly intimated where the apostle tells them, "Yet shew I unto you a more excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:31)—which he proceeded to do in the next chapter, where he set forth at length the nature, excellency, and preeminence of spiritual love. The fearful imprecation of 1 Corinthians 16:22—found nowhere else in the New Testament—also illustrates the weakness of the Corinthians’ love.
In sharp contrast with the Corinthians, the Philippian saints were a more plain and less gifted order of Christians. They were warmly devoted to Christ and His people, but they had an inadequate understanding of His mind. Their affection exceeded their knowledge—as is the case with some simple but sincere and ardent Christians today. Generally—and markedly so in Christendom now—those with more light in their heads than love in their hearts have greatly outnumbered the others. Now Paul was far from despising or disparaging the case of the Philippian saints, but he longed for a better balance in their characters. Therefore he prayed (not as most of us need to—that our love may increase in proportion to our light, but) that their intelligence might be commensurate with their affections; that their love might "abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment"; that both knowledge and love might grow and develop together, so they might be well-proportioned Christians. By this means they would more fully conform unto God, who is both "light" (1 John 1:5) and "love" (1 John 4:8).
An Analysis of the Apostle’s Prayer
Let us analyze this prayer. First, its spring: "How greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:8). The apostle’s fervent affection for these brethren prompted his supplication on their behalf. The measure of our love for others can largely be determined by the frequency and earnestness of our prayers for them. Second, its petition, namely, that their love might "abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment" (Phil. 1:9). That was the "one thing" (Ps. 27:4) he "desired" on their behalf, the comprehensive blessing which he requested for them. What follows in verses 10 and 11 we do not regard as additional petitions, but rather as the effects which would result from the granting of his single petition. Thus, we view the contents of verses 10 and 11 as third, its reasons: "That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God."
First, its spring. "For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:8). This was a solemn avowal to the Searcher of hearts of the reality and intensity of Paul’s love for the Philippians. Whether or not they knew or realized it, God did. Having them in his heart, Paul longed for their spiritual welfare. He not only longed after them but did so "greatly"—and not only after a few special favorites among them but "after you all," and that with intense affection and goodwill, and "in the bowels [or ‘compassions’] of Jesus Christ." The Hebrews regarded the "bowels" as the seat of affections and sympathy, as we regard the "heart." This expression, "the compassion of Jesus Christ," is susceptible of a twofold meaning. First, it refers to the personal love which the Redeemer Himself bears for the redeemed. Second, it has reference to that tender compassion for His saints which Christ had infused in the heart of His servant. Paul regarded the Philippians with something of the tenderness which the Lord Jesus had for them. This was the warmest and strongest expression which he could find to denote the ardor of his attachment.
If then Christ had infused such love in the heart of His servant for these saints, what must that love be in its fullness for them in the heart of Christ! If such be the stream, what must the Fountain be like! What a marvelous change had been produced in the apostle! Probably the Holy Spirit here moved him to emphasize this love in order to contrast the transformation which grace had produced in him as against what he was in former days. As Saul of Tarsus, how ferocious and cruel he had been to the followers of Christ! What havoc he had wrought among them by his threatenings and persecutions! What had changed the lion to the lamb? Who had made him so tender and considerate, so solicitous of the welfare of the Philippians? Who had given him such affection for them? The Lord Jesus. "Through the tender mercy of our God" (Luke 1:78) is literally "the bowels of the mercy of our God." And cannot each Christian reader, to some extent at least, join with the apostle in calling God as witness of the blessed change which His grace has wrought in him, so that from being self-centered and ice-cold to God’s people, his heart is now compassionate and warm to them, yearning to promote their welfare!
Second, its petition. "And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment" or "sense." Paul not only prayed for these saints, but he acquainted them with the particular things he requested for them, so that they might know what they should ask for and earnestly strive after. In like manner, his prayer is placed on permanent record in the Word that saints in all generations might be similarly instructed. If we would ascertain our special spiritual needs, if we would be better informed of the specific things we most need to ask for, then we should pay more than ordinary attention to these prayers of the apostle. We should fix them in our minds, meditating frequently on them, begging God to open to us their spiritual meaning, and to effectually impress our hearts with the same. There is nothing provincial or evanescent about these prayers, for they are suited to and designed for Christians of all ages, places, and cases. There is a wealth of heavenly treasure in them which no expositor can exhaust, and which the Holy Spirit will reveal to humble, earnest, seeking souls.
Those Philippian saints already loved God and His Christ, His cause, and His people, yet the apostle prayed that their love might "abound yet more and more," which illustrates what we pointed out in a previous chapter. The more we discern the grace of God at work in an individual Christian or church, the greater encouragement we have to make request that a still larger measure of it may be communicated to him or them. Goodwin pointed out that the Greek word here used for "abound" is a metaphor taken from the bubbling up and flowing of a spring of water, and showed the force and appropriateness of it. A spring flows naturally and spontaneously, and not by the mechanical efforts of men. Such is divine love in the soul: it operates freely and not by constraint, it works readily, and requires no urging from without. Where Christ is known to the soul, the heart cannot help being drawn out unto Him and delighting in Him. "But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another" (1 Thess. 4:9). No one can be made to love one another, but where there is love it will act freely and readily.
As you take from a fountain, still more comes. As a spring does not keep its water to itself, so love keeps nothing to itself, but it flows out for the use and benefit of others. Love is selfless: its very nature is to give, seeking to promote the glory of God and the good of men. As fountains have their rise in hills, so love is first in God’s heart in heaven. "We love him, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). To the phrase "that your love may yet abound," or spring up and flow forth, the apostle added "yet more and more." God can never have enough of our love, nor us of His grace. If we would receive an enlargement of love we must be more and more engaged with its Object.
"That your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge." As the understanding needs to be enlightened and the conscience informed, so love requires instructing. Love is necessarily connected with knowledge for its inception, continuance, and development. A person must be known by us before we can love him. Christ must become a living reality before the heart is drawn out unto Him. There must be a personal and spiritual acquaintance with divine things before they can be delighted in. Where God is truly known, He is necessarily adored. And as has been pointed out in the last paragraph, if our love for Him is to increase, we must be more occupied and absorbed with His perfections. But love not only needs to be fed and nourished; it also needs to be taught, if it is to act intelligently. Spiritual love should not act by blind impulse, but be scripturally regulated. The Jews had "a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). They sincerely believed they were serving God when they excluded Christians from their synagogues, and later killed them because they supposed those Christians were heretics (John 16:2), yet they erred grievously, and their case has been recorded as a solemn warning for us.
Love to Be Informed and Controlled by the Truth
It is painful to witness sincere and affectionate believers making mistakes and falling into wrong courses through lack of light, yet there are many such cases. A wrongly instructed and injudicious Christian causes trouble among his fellow Christians, and often increases the reproaches of the world. Paul here prayed for an intelligent affection in the saints, for a warmheartedness based upon and flowing from an enlarged perception of divine things, that they might have a clear apprehension of the just claims of God and of their brothers and sisters in Christ. The world says that love is blind, but the love of the Christian should be enlightened, well instructed, and directed in all its exercises, effects, and manifestations by the Scriptures. Unless love is regulated by an enlarged and exact knowledge of the Word, and by that good judgment which is the result of matured discernment and experience, it soon degenerates into fanaticism and unwise exertions. An affectionate regard for our brethren is to be far more than a mere sentiment, namely, "love in the truth" (2 John 1), love informed and controlled by the truth.
Some Christians have a good understanding of the truth yet are considerably carnal in their walk (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Others, though defective in knowledge and unsettled in the faith, are yet warmhearted, having much zeal toward God and His cause, and a considerable command over their passions. God’s people should labor for both. It was love and zeal for Christ which prompted the apostles to say, "Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias [Elijah] did?" when they saw how their Master was slighted. Yet it was misdirected love and zeal, as His "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of" (Luke 9:54-55) showed. Love must be instructed if it is to be placed on legitimate objects and restrained from non permissible ones, if it is to be rightly exercised on all occasions. And the needed instruction can be obtained only from God’s Word. Only as love is regulated by light, and light is accompanied by and infused with love, are we well balanced.
"That your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment." Something more than bare knowledge, even though it is a knowledge of the Word, is needed if love is to be duly regulated and exercised. That something is here termed "judgment," or in the margin, "sense." That word occurs in the singular number nowhere else in the New Testament, and only once (Heb. 5:14) in its plural form, where it is rendered "senses." In Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible it is defined as "perfection, sense, intelligence.’’ Not only do we need to be thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures. If we are to make proper use of such knowledge, then good judgment is required in the governing of our affections and the ordering of our affairs.
Our Love to Abound in Knowledge
Many are wise in the general principles and in the letter of the Word, but err grievously in the applying of those principles in detail. There is a vast variety of circumstances in our lives. These call for much prudence in dealing with them aright. If our hearts are to be properly governed and our ways suitably ordered, much instruction and considerable experience are required. Besides a knowledge of God’s will, the spirit of discretion is needed. There are times when all lawful things are not expedient, and wisdom is indispensable to determine when those times and where those places are, as well as by which persons they may be used or performed. Indiscretion and folly remain in the best of us. The chief work of our judgment is to perceive what is proper for the time, the place, the company where we are, that we may order our behavior aright (Ps. 50:23); that we may know how to conduct ourselves in all relations civil and sacred, in work or in recreation; that we may conduct ourselves wisely as husbands, fathers, wives, or children; as employers or employees. Love needs to be directed by good judgment in all its exercises and expressions.
How different are the prayers of Scripture from those which we are accustomed to hear in religious gatherings! Who ever heard this petition offered in public: "This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment"! How many would understand its purport if they should hear it? True spirituality, vital godliness, personal piety, has almost become an unknown quantity in Christendom today. How very different is this bold and comprehensive request "may abound yet more and more" from the halting and halfhearted "if it can please Thee to favor us with a sip" of those who seem utterly afraid to ask for anything worthy of such a God as ours! How little can such souls be acquainted with "the God of all grace." Seriously ponder the petitions of Paul and observe that he was not straitened, and therefore he asked for no half measures or scanty portions. Above all, realize that these prayers are recorded for our instruction, for our encouragement, for our emulation.
The Substance of the Apostle’s Prayer
As pointed out, the substance of this petition was that there might be a better balance in these saints, that their love and knowledge might keep pace with each other, that their affections should be intelligently exercised. Paul longed that their warmheartedness should be accompanied and directed by a well-instructed understanding, that they might have spiritual judgment which would cause them to weigh things and enable them to discriminate between the true and the false, that they might perceive what to love and what to hate, what to seek and what to shun. He desired that they should be able at all times to distinguish between duty and sin, and know what was their duty, no matter how dark the times or how difficult their circumstances. The apostle requested, first, that they be granted a better and fuller knowledge—that they be more thoroughly instructed from the Word. Second, he urged that their love be regulated by judgment, or spiritual instinct—and by enlightened perception of the fitness of things. Third, Paul was concerned that they might possess something more than a mere theoretical knowledge obtained by and through "sense." The soul has faculties which correspond to the five senses of the body. "Sense" here has the force of faith, for it is through faith we perceive, know, and understand spiritual things.
"Sense" also means experience—something distinct from and following faith. In Romans 5, after declaring that we are justified by faith and have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the apostle went on to show how faith is educated and added to through God’s dealings with us: "Tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience." By means of the trials which faith encounters and the disciplines of daily life, we are taught humble submission to God and, notwithstanding obstacles and failures, to persevere in the path of duty. As we do so, God graciously supports the soul and communicates His consolations, and faith is strengthened to meet the next trial. We obtain a personal experience of God’s goodness and faithfulness, as well as of our frailty and sinfulness. We acquire a first hand acquaintance with the reality of the snares against which His Word warns us and of the veracity of His promises by which He cheers us. This experience breeds hope (Rom. 5:1-4), a steady confidence and growing expectation that God will not allow us to abandon our profession and make shipwreck of the faith, but will continue ministering to us, delivering us from our foes, and finally bringing us safely through to glory.
The Faithfulness of Our God
This experience is an acquired knowledge in spiritual matters, founded on sense. It is a personal realization of the mercy, power, longsuffering, and grace of God. The Christian starts out with bare faith in the veracity of God, in the certainty of His promises. He does not doubt that in due course God will make them good to him. But later, as God performs one promise after another, there is a sense of experience added to his faith, which deepens his assurance and enables him to face the future with still greater confidence in God. "By this I know that thou favourest me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me" (Ps. 41:11). The young Christian, believing that his Father is a prayer-hearing God from the declarations of His Word, has no doubt about it. But in process of time he has occasion to say, "I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplication" (Ps. 116:1), for he now has sensible proof, visible demonstration of the fact.
The things of God are first recognized and apprehended by faith, and then by experience—by personal contact and more intimate acquaintance with them. By God’s effectual working in them that believe (1 Thess. 2:13), the saints find that what the Word affirms of them is true. This experimental knowledge of the Lord is spoken of as a "tasting" of Him. (1 Pet. 2:3)—which is something even more convincing and satisfying than sight. To taste His goodness, to feel His power, to experience His tender compassion, is to have real proof within ourselves. The human side of this is presented in Hebrews 5:14: "those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." As we discover what foods agree or disagree with us by eating and drinking, so we learn what things and persons are helpful or harmful to us by the exercise of our graces. As we become proficient scholars by our studies at school, so we become proficient believers by experimental knowledge—gained by exercising the faculties of our souls.
"Sense" also signifies deep and glorious impressions on the soul, over and above the light of faith or knowledge by ordinary experiences. And such impressions are truly more sense than knowledge, as all find that enjoy them. They are therefore said to pass knowledge (Eph. 3:19). Have you received fulfillment of this promise: "They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures" (Ps. 36:8)?
Paul longed to see the affections of these Philippian saints intelligently directed in order that they might "approve things that are excellent"; that they might "be sincere"; that they should be "without offense till the day of Christ"; and that they should be "filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God." Those were the reasons why he asked for them that particular blessing. How they serve to emphasize the great importance and value of love being enlightened! How much depends upon having our affections educated by spiritual knowledge and controlled by spiritual sensibility! How the walk of a well balanced Christian will honor his Lord! What blessed consequences follow when heavenly wisdom and mature experience guide the actions of a heart that is warm toward Christ and His redeemed! Then let us strive diligently after such.
"That ye may approve things that are excellent." Here again there is a fullness in the Greek terms which is difficult to translate adequately by any single equivalent in English, the margin giving us the alternative "that ye may try things that differ." However, in this instance the two renderings come to much the same thing. Following our usual custom, we will put the reader in possession of the main facts, so that he can check our exposition and draw his own conclusions. The Greek word here, rendered "try" in the margin, denotes that kind of trial to which metals are subjected when their nature and genuineness are being tested. Thus, when the apostle says, "That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:7), the resemblance is that of the goldsmith submitting the ore to a process of proof in his crucible. All is not gold that glistens! The uninstructed eye is not able to distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit: the metal must be properly examined and tested to ascertain beyond doubt whether it is precious or worthless.
The Necessity of Proving Our Profession
Elsewhere the Apostle Paul frequently made use of this same metaphor. "To prove the sincerity of your love" (2 Cor. 8:8) denotes to give opportunity to attest the genuineness of your love. "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves" (2 Cor. 13:5). Take nothing for granted, but honestly and diligently examine your hearts and lives, and ascertain whether your profession is a valid one. "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21). In the preceding verse he had said "despise not prophesyings," which, though they proceeded from gifted men, were not infallible, and therefore needed to be carefully pondered and weighed. In each passage (as also Galatians 6:4; 1 Timothy 3:10, etc.) the same Greek word (dokimazo) is used as the one rendered "try" and "approve" in our text. The reader needs to realize that before he is capable of attesting the genuineness of his love, verifying the validity of his profession, or proving the worth or worthlessness of the preaching he hears or reads—whether that teaching relates to doctrine or practice—his love must be warm and enlightened by knowledge and directed by good judgment, otherwise he is likely to be deceived by what is erroneous.
But the Greek word also signifies "an approving or judgment of what is good, a savoring, a relishing, closing with and cleaving to the goodness of it as good and best." A love which is directed by an enlightened mind and a holy heart not only has the capacity to detect counterfeits but sweetly realizes the excellence of divine things and delights in them. Thus in Romans 12:2, "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God," the Greek word for "prove" is the same as that rendered "approve" in our text. In the preceding verse, Christian duty as a whole is viewed in reference to God Himself; but in verse 2 it is contemplated in connection with that system of things seen and temporal, amid which we live our lives day by day. Both of the inoperatives are in the present tense, denoting a process. There is to be an ever widening gulf between the character and conduct of the world and that of the saint, and an ever growing conformity to Christ, not only outwardly but inwardly. The saint’s thoughts and affections are to be more and more set upon things above—the "mind" here being the equivalent of the whole soul.
Regeneration, or the communication of spiritual life, is a divine act, once for all, in which we are wholly passive. But "renewing," as the tense denotes, is continuous. This too is a divine work, as Titus 3:5 and 2 Corinthians 4:16 inform us; yet it is also one in which we are called upon to be active, in which we are required to cooperate, as Romans 12:2 and Ephesians 4:23 clearly show. "Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" is the human responsibility correlative of "that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment." "Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" is accompanied by our responding to or making use of the light which God has given us—which is the necessary condition of our obtaining further light from Him. That light has to a considerable extent already dispelled from our understandings and hearts the mists of self-love, and has revealed to us infinitely worthier objects and pursuits, and if those objects have the supreme place in our affections and those pursuits become the dominant quest of our energies, those mists will be still further cleared away and we shall perceive yet more clearly the excellence and desirability of divine and spiritual things, and we shall become more absorbed in and satisfied with them.
As "be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" is the counterpart of "that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment," so "that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" is parallel with "that ye may approve things that are excellent." Just in proportion as we disdain and reject the principles, policies, and practices of the world (which may be summed up in self-love and self-pleasing) and earnestly endeavor to be governed by the precepts and promises of God, seeking to please and glorify Him, delighting ourselves in Him and being more assimilated to His holy image, do we acquire the capacity to prove for ourselves the excellence of His will. As by a spiritual touchstone, we perceive and realize the immeasurable superiority of the divine will to self-will, and joyfully surrender ourselves to it. In other words, as our spiritual love to God and to His people is regulated by the knowledge of His Word and is confirmed by our spiritual sensibilities, we discover for ourselves that Wisdom’s "ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace" (Prov. 3:1-7). We learn by experience what peace and joy there are in being conformed to God’s will.
God’s Commandments "Not Grievous"
There is a vast difference between a theoretical conviction that God’s will is "good, and acceptable, and perfect" and actually proving it to be so for ourselves, yet that is what we do, just so far as we heed the injunction "Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds." Just so far as we render a willing and more constant obedience to this exhortation, we not only prove for ourselves that God’s commandments "are not grievous’’ (1 John 5:3) but we discover that "in keeping of them there is great reward" (Ps. 19:11), that is, in this life. Then it is that we "sing in the ways of the LORD" (Ps. 138:5). Then it is that we obtain a personal acquaintance, an experimental realization of the goodness, the acceptableness, and perfection of the divine will. We determine for ourselves both by inward relish and outward practice the excellence of His will. We both prove and approve that it is designed for our "good," for our being acceptable, or pleasing, to God, for our being "perfect." We prove that God’s will contains everything necessary to make us spiritually complete and to be all that we ought to be. How much we lose when we allow ourselves to follow the dictates of self-will and be in any degree conformed to this evil world—the ways of the ungodly!
How far, to what extent, have you and I proved for ourselves, by actual experience, by rendering obedience to God, the goodness, acceptableness, and perfection of His will? That is the question which each one of us should seriously put to himself. How far have we perceived the will of God in all the latitude and excellence of it, and how far have our heart and actions approved the same? A great variety and a vast number of sins are forbidden. Many duties are commanded. To what extent have we discerned the spiritual part of them, to what degree do we really relish them? Do we cherish His precepts? Do we hold fast to them amid a perverse generation, which universally despises and flouts them? Are all of our ways ordered by them? Can we truly say with the Psalmist, "Therefore I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold. Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way" (Ps. 119:127-128)? For it is in God’s commandments and precepts that His will is made known. Only so are we really "approving things that are excellent" as Paul requested in this prayer.
The connection between the clause we have been considering and the one preceding it is therefore clear and simple. Where there is an increasing love which is directed by spiritual knowledge and holy sensibility, there is an enlarged capacity in the understanding to judge and discriminate: both to discern and detest what is injurious and to recognize and cherish what is beneficial. Or, to invert the order of thought: the apostle longed that these saints should "approve things that are excellent"—that they choose them, cleave to them, delight in them, and be regulated by them. But in order to do so, their love must both abound and be educated, so that they might have a true judgment and sense of the real worth of the different objects which competed for their hearts, and be suitably affected by the same. And that could only be obtained by trying these things. Love is not to be exercised indiscriminately. Objects must be esteemed only according to their nature and worth, and that worth is experimentally ascertained by an actual acquaintance with them. As the sweetness of honey is best known by the eating of it, so the preciousness of divine and spiritual things is realized in proportion as the soul is actually and actively engaged with them.
Note the twofold meaning of "try things that differ" and "approve things that are excellent." The attentive reader will observe how this twofoldness of thought meets us at every turn. First, the apostle had prayed that the love of these saints "might abound yet more and more in  knowledge and  judgment." Next we saw that the Greek word rendered "judgment" also carries in it the meaning of "sense," and as it is "all sense," therefore the meaning is "senses" as in Hebrews 5:14. Then we pointed out that the effect of that petition being answered would be their being enabled to "try" and "approve" things. That twofold significance of dokimazo corresponds to and is in perfect apposition with the two things prayed for in the previous verse "knowledge" being needed in order to test and try, and spiritual "senses" to prove and approve. And now we find that the objects of those actions may be translated "things that differ" and/or "things that are excellent"—the former linking with the verb "try" and the latter fitting better with "approve." Diaphero is rendered "one star differeth from another star in glory" in 1 Corinthians 15:41 and "ye are of more value than many sparrows" in Matthew 10:31.
The Apostle’s Burden
The apostle longed that their love might be so informed and their understanding so guided by spiritual judgment and sense that on all occasions they would be able to distinguish between truth and error in doctrine. He prayed that on controverted points (where there is often aptness to mislead and deceive by means of resemblance or likeness) when each side of the case had been presented, they might weigh both and be able to know which was the truth, and to approve of it. Paul was burdened that, in all matters of practice, in cases of conscience or where courses of duty were concerned, amid all the vicissitudes and perplexities of life, they might be able to rightly discern and judge, and that they might know this clearly so as not to be mistaken or deluded, but be able to act in comfort and confidence, assured that they were doing the will of God. Thus it was predicted of Christ: "The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom and understanding." And this should "make him of quick understanding ["scent," margin] in the fear of the LORD" (Isa. 11:2-3), that is, quick-sighted and keen-sensed to discern the difference of things. And in his measure, each Christian is endued with "the Spirit of Christ" (Rom. 8:9).
Paul also desired that their judgment would be so equipped that their hearts would approve or taste the goodness and relish the excellence of things spiritual according to the several degrees of their worth as was best for them. It was important that they would value Christ and all His perfections high above all worldly things and persons, so as to count them but dung in comparison with the excellence of the knowledge of Christ, as the apostle himself did (Phil. 3:8).
The children of disobedience despise and reject Christ, seeing in Him no beauty that they should desire Him; but to those who believe, He is precious (1 Pet. 2:7), and should become increasingly so. So too the "saints"—rather than the famous, wealthy, and mighty—should be esteemed as "the excellent" of the earth, as they were by David (Ps. 16:3) and Christ. Likewise, the things of God’s law are excellent, and should be prized by us above silver and gold. Relatively, we should distinguish and approve among things spiritual those that are most excellent, as "meat" surpasses "milk" (Heb. 5:12-14). Thus we should not only be able to distinguish between one Christian and another who is more spiritual and Christlike, and seek his fellowship, but between one company of professing Christians and another, cleaving to those who keep nearest to the Word and walk closest to God.
The Meaning of Sincerity
We turn now to examine the second reason why the apostle prayed that the love of the saints should abound yet more and more in knowledge and all judgment, or sense, namely, "that ye may be sincere." The Greek word used here occurs nowhere else in the New Testament except in 2 Peter 3:1, where it is rendered "I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance." The noun form is found in 1 Corinthians 5:8, 2 Corinthians 1:12 and 2:17, where in each instance it is rendered "sincerity." Sincerity is the opposite of counterfeit and dishonesty, of pretense and imposture. To be sincere is to be genuine, to be in reality what we are in appearance—frank, true, unfeigned, conscientious. It is one of the characteristic marks which distinguish the regenerate from empty professors. The latter, though they may have much light in their heads, make no conscience of the integrity of their hearts and are little exercised about the uprightness of their daily walk. The Christian needs to be constantly on his guard against dissembling; he must judge unsparingly everything in and of himself which savors of unreality. Christ warned His disciples (and us), "When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites," whose religion is a pose to obtain the high regard of men.
The Greek word for sincerity in our text properly means "that which is judged in the sunshine, that which is clear and manifest." As a rule we attach little importance to the derivation of Hebrew and Greek words (many of which are most uncertain), preferring to ascertain their significance from the manner and connections in which they are used in Holy Writ. But in this instance the etymology of eilikrines is borne out by its force in 2 Corinthians 1:12, "For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world." "Godly sincerity" is really "the sincerity of God." The "sincerity of God" means the sincerity of which He is not only the Giver and Author but also the Witness, which may be brought to Him and held up before Him for His scrutiny. The idea expressed is that of John 3:21: "He that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God."
Our English word sincere is derived from the Latin sine cera, which means "without wax," and the origin of that Latin expression approximates very closely the etymology of the Greek word. The ancient Romans had a very delicate and valuable porcelain, exceedingly fragile, and only with much trouble could it be fired without being cracked. Dishonest dealers were in the habit of filling in the cracks that appeared with a special white wax, but when their ware was held up to the light the wax was evident, being darker in color than the porcelain. Thus it came about that honest dealers marked their ware sine cera, "without wax," having sun-tested it. Hence this grace of spiritual sincerity is the opposite of not only false pretense but unholy mixture. As the apostle said of himself and his companion ministers, "We are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ" (2 Cor. 2:17), where the words "which corrupt" literally mean "which huckster" (which deceitfully mingle false and worthless articles among the genuine).
Sincerity is opposed to mixture: of truth and error, of godliness and worldliness, of loveliness and sin. A sincere person has not assumed Christianity as a mask, but his motives are disinterested and pure, his conduct is free from double-dealing and cunning, his words express the real sentiments of his heart. He is one who can bear to have the light turned upon him, the springs of his actions scrutinized by God Himself. He is of one piece through and through, and not a hypocrite who vainly attempts to serve two masters and make the best of both worlds. He is not afraid to be tested by the Word, for he is without guile or sham and is straightforward and honest in all his dealings. As we have seen, in 2 Corinthians 1:12, "sincerity" is joined with "simplicity," which is expressed by "if... thine eye be single" (Matthew 6:22), where the same word is used. The one with a "single" eye refuses to mix fleshly craftiness with spirituality: he aims solely at pleasing and glorifying God. Hence, a sincere heart is a true heart (Heb. 10:22), a heart genuinely holy, true to God, faithful in all things. A sincere heart is a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:22).
The Origin of Sincerity
Now the springs from which sincerity flows are the three things mentioned by Paul in his petition. First, it arises from love to God—which consists not only of the understanding and the affections adoring His perfections but also of the will’s esteeming His will as it is made known in His commandments. Therefore the apostle prayed that their love might abound yet more and more. Second, sincerity proceeds from knowledge, for the more the understanding is divinely enlightened and the heart awed by an apprehension of God’s ineffable majesty, the more careful we are to approach Him with a true heart and the more fearful we are of acting hypocritically before Him. It is spiritual ignorance of the true and living God which causes the unregenerate to suppose they can impose upon Him with mere external performances and bodily postures, while their hearts are alienated from Him; hence the apostle prayed that love might abound "in knowledge." Third, sincerity issues from that sense of taste which the believer has of the blessedness of walking with God and communing with Him, and from proving for himself the excellence and sweetness of His Word, so that he declares, "O how love I thy law." Thus the apostle prayed that their love might abound in knowledge and in "all judgment."
As 2 Corinthians 1:12 intimates, sincerity has special reference to the eyes of the heart being fixed upon God in all that we do. David referred to such sincerity or soundness of spirit when he said, "Judge me, O LORD; for I have walked in mine integrity" (Ps. 26:1). The Lord referred to the same when He said to Solomon, "If thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom" (1 Kings 9:4-5). David had declared, "I have inclined my heart to perform thy statutes alway, even unto the end" (Ps. 119:112). In just such an inclining of the heart, constant to the divine precepts, sincerity lies. Job claimed sincerity of heart (Job 27:5-6). That patriarch was not referring, as has been so commonly misunderstood, to his acceptance with God on the ground of his works but to the purity of his motives and the sincerity of his heart before God. He knew he was no hypocrite, and could appeal to the Searcher of hearts in proof.
Such sincerity as has been described above constitutes one of the radical differences between the truly regenerate and the pretender, for, as John Newton well pointed out in his piece on simplicity and sincerity, "It is an essential part of the Christian character." The religionist may be very diligent and regular in performing his devotions and very careful in making clean "the outside of the cup and of the platter," but he takes no stock of what passes within himself. A slave may do just as much for his master as the child of that master does for his dear father; in fact, because of his superior strength and skill, the former may do much more than the latter; yet there is a vast difference as to the affection with which and the end for which those two work—but they are inward and invisible! So is the service rendered by an unregenerate employee and another possessing godly sincerity: the latter will heed that injunction "Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ [serving Him in it]; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart" (Eph. 6:5-6)—as appointed by Him and performed conscientiously unto Him.
Things Wherein Vital Godliness Consists
Sincerity is found principally in the will: in respect to sin, in refusing evil: in respect to holiness, in choosing the good. Where the will is savingly sanctified, it gives God the preeminence, making ease, credit, pleasures, profits, honors, relations, aspirations, all stoop to Him. It is much, very much, when we can solemnly claim this grace before God Himself. That is what Hezekiah did when (in those little-understood words of his) he said, "I beseech thee, O LORD, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth [reality, knowing Thine eye was ever upon me] and with a perfect [upright, or sincere] heart" (2 Kings 20:3). When we are not afraid to come to the light and have our innermost desires and designs examined by the holy One, we may know that we have responded to His just call and claim. Peter, despite his terrible fall, after his sincere repentance could unhesitatingly say to the Searcher of hearts, "Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee" (John 21:17). That was not a presumptuous boast but a plain statement of fact.
Sincerity eyes the omniscience of God and, knowing that He cannot be imposed upon, acts accordingly. It is exercised and manifested in various ways. The sincere soul shuns sinful thoughts and imaginations, which, though hidden from the sight of our fellows, are "naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do" (Heb. 4:13). Therefore a sincere or upright soul prays and strives against them, mourns over and confesses the same. If the reader is a stranger to such experiences, then his religion is worthless and his profession empty. The sincere soul will not allow himself secret sins. Although the thickest curtains of night and darkness may be drawn about him, he dare not, for he knows that "the eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good" (Prov. 15:3). And when his lusts gain a temporary mastery, far from excusing himself, he abhors himself, and with a broken heart acknowledges his faults before God. The sincere soul will guard against performing holy duties coldly and mechanically, afraid to mock the omniscient One with empty words and with the feigned reverence of outward postures.
It is in just such things as we have mentioned above that vital godliness chiefly consists: in the things of the heart. Alas that the great majority of God’s own people receive no instruction on such matters today, from either the pulpit or the religious magazines. Alas that there is now so little to search out and expose an empty profession. Instead, nominal Christians are bolstered up with the idea that so long as they are orthodox in their beliefs, attend to their church duties, and lead respectable lives, all is well with them, no matter what may be the state of their hearts in the sight of God. A sincere soul is not occupied with how much time he spends in prayer, but how real and genuine his prayer is. He is concerned about the spirituality of his worship. Thus Paul said, "God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit" (Rom. 1:9)—not in mere external rites. To the hypocrites Christ said, "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me"; and therefore He added, "In vain they do worship me" (Matthew 15:8-9). For He looks on the heart. Sincerity is conscientious about the inward part of worship and service. Sincerity is the salt which alone savors any sacrifices: where that is lacking, they are an offense to God, because of our play-acting.
To Walk "Without Offence"
We must pass on now to the third reason by which the apostle supported his request: "That ye may be sincere, and without offense till the day of Christ." The Greek word here rendered "offense" means to walk without stumbling. Thus, as "sincerity" has reference to the integrity of the heart, "offense" looks principally to the external conduct. Goodwin defines the term as signifying "the errings, mistreadings, stumblings, and bruisings of the feet in walking." How may we walk without offense? First, to walk without offense is to carefully avoid those ways and works before believers that might induce them to sin, or such which we know would prove an occasion of stumbling to others, or that would strengthen and confirm the wicked in their corruption. The same word is used in this manner in 1 Corinthians 10:32, "Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God." That which occasioned scandal must be sedulously avoided. We must never by our example invite others to follow us in evil.
Second, to walk without offense is to abstain from every action which would be contrary to the light which the Christian has received from God and the principles which he professes before others. A case of failure in this particular respect is found in Peter’s withdrawing and separating himself from the Gentile saints, "fearing them which were of the circumcision" (Gal. 2:12). Such conduct was reprehensible, and Paul "withstood him to the face," for "they walked not uprightly" (Gal. 2:14). Literally, the Greek means "They walked not with a right foot": their walk did not square with the rule God had given, and therefore was "not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel." Peter had been the first to receive a divine revelation, by means of a vision from heaven (Acts 10), that he must not regard the Gentile saints as unclean, and refuse to eat with them. But the fear of man brought a snare and caused him to walk contrary to the light God had vouchsafed him. Thereby he stumbled the Gentile believers—the very reverse of being without offense. Peter’s failure here is recorded as a case for us to solemnly take to heart.
Third, to walk without offense goes even further than the maintaining of a blameless conversation or conduct before men, including as it does a blameless conscience before God. This is clear from Acts 24:16 where the apostle again used the same term: "Herein do I exercise myself, to have a conscience void of offense toward God, and men." He resolved that there should be nothing in his behavior which could occasion accusation of conscience before God. Paul’s conscience had received more light than any man’s then living in the world, and therefore he had the hardest task to walk up to that light, and needed to give more thought and diligence in managing every action and the circumstances of it. He endeavored to so conduct himself that there might not be a single dark spot on his conscience, that there might be no act of spirit converse to that light which had shined in his soul, nothing that would cast any shadow upon it. That he succeeded therein is clear from 2 Corinthians 1:12, and that he prayed for the same experience in the saints is evident from our text. Therefore we should be satisfied with nothing short of that.
To live without offense does not mean to be sinless—for that would contradict James 3:2 and 1 John 1:8; but it means to refrain from everything which causes others to sin, to do no action contrary to the light we have received from God, and to avoid everything which would issue in a guilty conscience before Him. That is indeed a high standard of conduct, yet we must aim at nothing short of it. It is the highest realization in this life, approximating to perfection outwardly. That it is, by the grace of God, attainable, appears from the case of the parents of John the Baptist: "They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless"—though not sinless (Luke 1:6). The Apostle Paul declared, "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day" (Acts 23:1). As Goodwin says, "If a holy man is often kept from such sins a week, a month, a year, then it is also possible, in this state of frailty, to be kept all his lifetime."