Living in a western culture that is ever polarising in terms of values, ideas and political views, we get used to division. The sheer multitude of diverse contributions seems to highlight the absence of unity. Divisive rhetoric is the norm in a cacophony of voices and opinions. Christian values are frequently attacked with uncompromising hatred. Reconciliation and harmony seem unthinkable as well as unattainable. The fault lines can sometimes seem so deep that they are compared to a kind of civil war. The Church can also be the battleground of polarising notions and methods. Where we might most expect to see unity, we see division. How can we display the attractiveness of true unity in a world that is more divided than ever?
Anthony Burgess ministered in just such a period of division. He became involved in a project to unite the whole of the British Isles in the same doctrinal standards and church order. It was a unity that prioritised the truth. Besides the Westminster Assembly, he engaged in important defence of vital doctrines such as justification, original sin and the moral law.
In expounding John chapter 17 Burgess emphasises both the spiritual and visible unity that should exist within the Church. It is not a man-made unity that compromises the whole counsel of God. Burgess deals realistically and honestly with the divisions that exist amongst Christ’s people and the reasons for them. He does not accept that lack of unity is inevitable but boldly calls it what it is according to Scripture: sin.
Burgess gives practical counsel in this area in demonstrating the spirit that Christians ought to have one to another. He will not allow us simply to show regret and concern but do nothing about the divisions of the Church. We are under the strongest obligations, not only to ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122:6) but also to do what we can. In the following extract from his sermons on John 17 he shows the attractiveness of unity.
UNITY IS SPIRITUALLY HELPFUL
Unity is necessary, because by this means a serviceable and beneficial helping one another in spiritual things is preserved. The people of God are compared to living stones built up together. While the stones keep in the building, they support one another, but if they are removed, it falls down. They are compared to members in the body. While they are joined together, there is a mutual ministration to each other, but when divided from the body, no part can receive any nourishment.
So it is here. While the people of God are in union, oh the wonderful help they are to one another! They provoke one another to good works and they stir up one another’s graces. But take these coals away from one another, and then the fire goes out!
And this may be the reason why our Savior does not mention the sanctification and holiness of believers, but their unity, because unity is a special means of preserving and increasing holiness. ‘Two are better than one,’ because of heat and of help, says the wise man (Ecclesiastes 4:10). So it is in this work of grace, two are better than one to warm one another. How greatly your zeal might help against another’s lukewarmness, and your faith against another’s diffidence! If it is so great a sin to see your brother in temporal need, and not relieve him, how much more is it a sin to see him in spiritual need, and fail to help him? He is to be restored (Galatians 6:1). Put this bone in joint again.
Experience tells us that where there are divisions and discord, there is no love, no compassion, no watching over one another. If this unity were established, a man would then strive for the growth of grace in others, as in himself. And therefore, observe that the power of godliness greatly abates when differences arise. There is not that heavenly communion, nor hearty concurrence in the ways of holiness, nor that mutual help of one another, as at other times.
Unity amongst the godly is so necessary that God many times permits sad and heavy persecutions to befall them. This is so that their discords and divisions may be removed, and they may be more endeared to one another. Times of prosperity in the church produced the greatest heresies and schisms, but the times of bloody persecution made the godly more united. Thus, the martyrs, some of them in Queen Mary’s days, bewailed their differences and the contests they formerly had with one another, but prison and persecution made them highly prize one another. Joseph’s brethren in their plenty envied and fell out with one another, but in their distress they were glad to cleave together.
If sheep are scattered one from another, when a sudden storm arises, it makes them all huddle together. It may be that although just now the godly are so censorious, so shy, so strange to one another, God may in time work so that they will be glad to enjoy one another, glad to have communion with each other. One godly man’s company may then be worth more to you than the gold of Ophir.
If love and godliness do not unite you, take heed lest God sends some out-ward trouble and affliction to put you together. If you do not embrace one another willingly, He may bind you in His chains together. His promise to Judah and Israel, of making the two sticks one, was after the cruel enmity and opposition which had been amongst them.
Unity confirms and establishes the church. The old rule is that strength united is stronger. Sunbeams united together send out greater heat. It is union in an army, in a nation, in any society, that preserves it. As a wise man said, public societies are immortal, if they do not kill themselves by division. Our Savior confirmed this, when He said, ‘No kingdom divided against itself can stand’ (Matthew 12:25). He brings this in as an argument to show that He did not cast out devils by the help of devils, but by the Spirit of God. Thus, if the people of God cast out error and profaneness by God’s Spirit, then they will not entertain error and profaneness themselves; for this would be to set a kingdom at variance within itself. The old rule is, ‘Divide and conquer.’
It was a unique providence that Christ’s bones should not be broken, to demonstrate by this (some say) that though Christ died, yet He did not lose His strength. We must justly fear that God has some heavy scourge on the godly when they are first divided. If their bones are broken, their strength is weakened, but their evil and misery will not stop there.
Thus, it is a very foolish and weak thing in the godly to continue in their divisions. Do they not have mighty and numberless enemies? Does not the whole world hate them? Is not the world as wolves to the godly, who are as sheep? Now if not only the wolf and the fox, but also one sheep shall devour another, must not this bring utter ruin? The apostle Paul speaks fully of this danger (Galatians 5:15). Observe the notable expression, ‘biting and devouring one another.’ How unnatural this is to sheep! It is dogs that do this! And further, by this means you will consume one another. What the devils of hell, and all your wicked adversaries could not do, you will do to one another. Do not look not on your differences as mere sins, but as heavy omens of God’s wrath. When the veil in the temple rent in pieces, this was a presage of the destruction of the temple.
UNITY IS BEAUTIFUL
Unity is a most comely and beautiful thing to see. It is a ravishing thing to behold such a harmony amongst the godly! Therefore, its completeness will be in heaven. There those many thousands will all have one heart and one tongue to praise God. There will be no difference. One shall not have one way of seeing God, and another, another way. There will be no censuring, such as using reproachful terms one against another. Now the nearer the people of God come to this on earth, the more similar they are to glorified saints in heaven, and to those innumerable companies of angels that do God’s will. The angels have no jarring and contests, one angel is not of one opinion, and another of another. We ought to do God’s will as the angels do it, not only in respect of zeal and purity, but unity also.
One of the Songs of Degrees is entirely in praise of unity (Psalm 133). Unity is compared to the precious ointment that was to be composed so carefully that no one was permitted to presume to make similar oil. It was only to be poured on the high priest. The psalmist also compares unity to the fruitful and pleasant dew on the mountains. The whole psalm is remarkable:
(a) Unity is for us to ‘behold’. The psalm begins with ‘behold’ to draw others to admire it. As if to say, ‘You have seen by bitter experience what disputes and differences produce, now look at this!’
(b) ‘It is good and pleasant.’ Profit and pleasure win everyone. By this we can see our aversion to such unity, that we need those low arguments to draw us. The psalmist does not say it is just, holy and acceptable to God, but simply that it is good and pleasant.
(c) It is ‘for brethren.’ He does not say men but rather ‘brethren’, because sinful discord is apt to creep in amongst them.
(d) It is ‘together.’ He does not speak togetherness of location but of soul. The sweetness of this unity is represented by the oil that was poured on Aaron and then ran down. It must be a peace grounded on Christ our Head and High Priest, which then should diffuse itself to others. Its profitableness is described by the dew. It is from heaven and so sanctifies the barren ground. This concord is God’s gift only and if received it wonderfully blesses the church.
Who would not have rejoiced to live in the days when all believers were of one heart and one soul? What a comfort it would have been, to hear no grudging or repining at one another! But the devil (that envious one) quickly sowed tares amongst them. Ulcers and sores appeared on that body, which once was as beautiful as Absalom’s body. So the apostles urge so greatly that all things should be done in charity, that they fulfill the royal law by loving, that they do not even grudge one another. This unity and peace is so glorious that the apostle makes it a goal. ‘Study (or be ambitious) to be quiet’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11). There is a great deal of carnal and worldly ambition after things that are fading and transitory. Here is godly and spiritual ambition, to be a peacemaker. To be a peace-preserver is the greatest glory God puts on us.
This article has been drawn from the new book Advancing Christian Unity by Anthony Burgess. It is lightly edited and in the Puritan Treasures for Today series. Burgess speaks of how union and communion with Christ and His people are “the life and comfort of believers.” Giving careful consideration of what Christian unity should look like, Burgess excels at uncovering common causes of division and promoting means to advance unity among God’s people.
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