IT therefore came to pass, that amongst the |Brethren,| as amongst believers now, there was, as it were, an inner circle of those who lived in constant communion with God, and who were consequently known amongst men by the name which speaks so much -- |The Friends of God.|
Such men owned one another, and found one another out, and took sweet counsel together, even though some were |Brethren,| and some still went by the name of |Catholics.|
It was quite true then, and is true now, that an ignorant Roman Catholic, who is, nevertheless, taught by the Spirit, and therefore trusting to the Blood of Jesus only, may have a constant and blessed communion with God, which the most orthodox Protestant may never have or know of.
But we are not to imagine, on the other hand, that provided a man thus trusts in Jesus, and loves Him truly, it is a matter of indifference whether he is otherwise misled, and ill taught. Even with the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, we suffer loss in our souls from ignorance of any truth that God has revealed. We cannot add to, or take away from, the Word of God, without being beclouded and lamed in our walk with God.
Nevertheless, the Lord, who looks at the heart, will own and bless much love and little light, more than much light and little love. And this little history of the |Friends of God| will not have been written in vain; if it serves as a proof that God answers, in His grace and love, the most ignorant prayer and desire of the heart that believes in His love and longs for communion with Him. And it may perhaps lead us to ask ourselves the solemn question: Have we, in the midst of our light and knowledge, the same thirst for the living God -- the same sweet and constant intercourse with the Lord Jesus -- as some of those who, in past ages of darkness, spake often one to another of Him? And have we in our hearts the same tender love and care for all, however ignorant, however benighted in many ways, to whom the Lord Jesus is precious and lovely?
It is not that mere feeling is the mark of communion with God. We may have our natural hearts touched and melted with the wonderful story of the Saviour. For the hard rock of the natural heart is often covered with a thin layer of the soil of natural feeling, in which the seed which fell from the Hand of Christ will spring up for a while, till the same natural feeling which welcomed it with joy, will shrink from the cross; and the sun of this evil day will scorch the seed, so that it withers away.
And it is a fact very remarkable in the |Friends of God,| that it was not merely feeling and devotion which drew them together, but rather the object of the heart, Jesus, God and Man, the Saviour, the Beloved of their souls.
And thus many a Catholic |Brother,| who had no thought of leaving his Church, or condemning the services and ceremonies to which he had been accustomed, would find himself in full sympathy with the Waldensian |Brother.|
And at last he would find himself, he scarcely knew how, in opposition to his priest or bishop, and whilst still regarding himself as a member of the Roman Church, he might have to give his last testimony in the dungeon, or at the stake.
The |Brethren| were in the habit of marking those who walked after the ensample of the Lord Jesus Christ, and they believed that a man walking with God will learn of God. We find that they were in fact practically and constantly acting upon this truth.
It was not a question with them of this sect or that, but simply whether this or that man had been taught by the Spirit of God. |We must receive the Spirit,| they said, |to dwell in us, before the image of God can be restored in our souls. We learn the way to God by the written Word, and the inner Word, namely, the Spirit, but not by gifts supposed to be handed down in the Church, nor by ordinances and ceremonies. The Church, or the Assembly, is only so far a means of intercourse with God, as it is the possessor and keeper of the written Word, and the habitation of the Holy Ghost.|
Thus they did not believe that a priest was more capable of teaching than another man, nor that he had power imparted to him for the forgiveness of sins, but the power of declaring God's forgiveness was, they said, left to the Church. That is to say, that a man in communion with God, and holding the faith once delivered to the saints, is the true successor of the apostles, and that such persons, meeting together, have authority to exercise discipline in the Church.
Those |Brethren,| who were, properly speaking Waldenses, had no images, and though they had a reverence for the saints of old, they did not worship them. But as they were in the habit of owning as |Brethren| and |Friends of God| any in whom they saw the marks of faith in Christ, and of communion with Him, many were thus included who had not cast off all the false teaching and the delusions and superstitions which they had learnt from Rome. Nicholas of Basle was evidently one of these. How far he was in communication with the Waldensian |Brethren| who stood altogether apart from Rome, we cannot tell. But that he was known and persecuted as a Beghard, and that he was called constantly by the name of |The Friend of God,| which was the usual way of speaking of a Waldensian |Apostle,| confirms the belief that he was commonly regarded as belonging to these heretics.
That he was in full sympathy on most points with the |Brethren,| is quite as evident as the fact that he was in some respects blinded by the superstitions of Rome. Little by little the scales appear to have fallen from his eyes. But he is more remarkable as a converted man, truly devoted to his Saviour, than as an enlightened teacher. His aim was rather to save souls, than to examine how far the teaching of Rome was accordant with Scripture. He did not remark the want of light, nearly as much as the coldness of the love, of those who professed a belief in Jesus. Amongst the German |Brethren,| there were many such, still called Catholics -- still saying masses, and imagining that they could gain help from the prayers of departed saints, but yet having the life of God in their souls, and knowing Christ in their inmost hearts, as |the chiefest amongst ten thousand and altogether lovely.|
The enlightened Waldenses taught that no man has any merit before God, and they denied that any who died, having a simple faith in the Blood of Christ, had any purgatory after death. And amongst the less enlightened Catholic |Brethren,| we find that in spite of the articles of their faith, thus they felt and spoke.
The Waldensian |Brethren| made a great distinction between the world and the Church. By the Church they meant those who had known the love of God, who therefore loved Him in return, and who were known by the mark that they loved the children of God.
On the other hand, there were many |Catholic Brethren,| who, in spite of their ignorance and superstition, felt in their inmost hearts that they had a common faith with the Waldensian |Brethren,| and loved them with the love which God sheds abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost that is given us.
When they saw the wars and strifes carried on, not only by emperors and kings, but by popes and priests; when they were sickened by the vice and selfishness, and worldliness of the clergy of Rome, and when by the Pope himself their services were stopped, and their churches shut up, then |those that feared the Lord spake often one to another,| and the Catholic |Friend of God| would welcome the Waldensian |Brother,| and they would |comfort themselves together, and edify one another,| and forget all but Christ.
It may be that the Waldensian |Friends of God| did not see distinctly how offensive to God were the superstitions and ceremonies of their Catholic brethren. They were so much in the habit of making nothing of external things, and regarding them simply as symbols of the unseen, that the mass did not appear to them, as it really is, an act of idolatry, but merely an unfit way of expressing the thought so dear to themselves also, that Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us. They had not |known the depths of Satan,| and they were so deeply concerned about the work of God in the soul, that they perhaps thought too little of the doctrine expressed as a matter of form by the lips, not seeing that the belief of the truth lies at the root of right feeling and practice.
The ceremonies which in England strike us the more from their novelty to us, were such an everyday sight to them, that they regarded them not. They were not reformers of doctrine, or of manners of worship, but they were seekers after the sheep of God, who had been scattered upon the mountains in the cloudy and dark day.
There are two pitfalls, one on each side of the narrow way. We may earnestly contend for the faith, and try those who say they are apostles and are not, and find them liars, and at the same time the first deep love to Christ, and tender affection to every member of His Body, may grow cold in our hearts. And instead of having compassion on the ignorant, and on them who are out of the way, we may despise and spurn them.
On the other hand, we may put the members in the first place, and Christ in the second, and think lightly, rather than sorrowfully, of false beliefs and strange worship, if only the love of God is in the heart of the one who is thus wandering from His path.
Into the first of these pitfalls did the Church fall at the beginning, and thus the apostasy began. For where love has waxed cold, the power is lost which might have won back the wandering feet. |I have somewhat against thee| -- are the solemn words of the Lord spoken to the Church which was the first to fall, and spoken for this reason only.
It would be well for us to take earnest heed to this warning, needful for us, as well as for the Church of Ephesus.
In our days we find the people of God falling into both these pitfalls -- perhaps more commonly into the last. But the Lord, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, who is jealous for every word of His truth, has never spurned the ignorant and the foolish who have turned to Him; if He did, where would the wisest of us be? He loves, He nourishes and cherishes all who in simple faith cast themselves upon Him and Him alone. It was this simple faith which Rome would have trodden down. It was for this reason that the |Friends of God,| even if Catholics, were persecuted and slain. To Rome it was a question of obedience to the Pope -- to the |Friends of God| it was a question of the rights of Christ to the obedience and love of His redeemed. It probably never occurred to the Catholic |Brethren| that it was possible for them to belong to any other communion than that of Rome. When they sighed and cried over the abominations that were done in the midst of the Church they owned, they do not seem to have discovered that the root of the evil was in the false beliefs which had crept in amongst them. Or rather they did not dare to think so. They compared the practice of their Catholic neighbours with the life and words of the Lord Jesus -- and they owned the sin, lying low in the dust before God. But the bright light which God has shed forth in these latter days, was darkened then by the clouds which to us are cleared away. They would accuse their own hearts, their own minds, but they would not allow themselves to think that the Church they revered and loved had lost the truth the Lord had committed to her trust, and had turned away from Him.