Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 46


The Dispensation of the Spirit

Preached Whitsunday, May 19, 1850

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” - I Corinthians 12:4


According to a view which contains in it a profound truth, the ages of the world are divisible into three dispensations, presided over by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

In the dispensation of the Father, God was known as a Creator; creation manifested His eternal power and Godhead, and the religion of mankind was the religion of nature.

In the dispensation of the Son, God manifested Himself to humanity through man; the Eternal Word spoke, through the inspired and gifted of the human race, to those that were uninspired and ungifted. This was the dispensation of the prophets-its climax was the advent of the Redeemer; it was completed when perfect Humanity manifested God to man. The characteristic of this dispensation was, that God revealed Himself by an authoritative Voice, speaking from without, and the highest manifestation of God whereof man was capable, was a Divine humanity.

The age in which we at present live is the dispensation of the Spirit, in which God has communicated Himself by the highest revelation, and in the most intimate communion, of which man is capable; no longer through creation, no more as an authoritative voice from without, but as a Law within-as a Spirit mingling with a spirit. This is the dispensation of which the prophet said of old, that the time should come when they should no longer teach every man his brother and every man his neighbor, saying, “Know the Lord”-that is, by a will revealed by external authority from other human minds-” for they shall all know Him, from the least of them to the greatest.” This is the dispensation, too, of whose close the Apostle Paul speaks thus: “Then shall the Son also be subject to Him that hath put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.”

The outward humanity is to disappear, that the inward union may be complete. To the same effect, he speaks in another place, “Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet henceforth know we Him no more.” For this reason the ascension was necessary before Pentecost could come: the Spirit was not given, we are told, because Jesus was not yet glorified. It was necessary for the Son to disappear as an outward authority, in order that He might re-appear as an inward principle of life. Our salvation is no longer God manifested in a Christ without us, but as a Christ within us, the hope of glory. To-day is the selected anniversary of that memorable day when the first proof was given to the senses, in the gift of Pentecost, that that spiritual dispensation had begun.

There is a twofold way in which the operations of the Spirit on mankind may be considered-His influence on the Church as a whole, and His influence on individuals; both of these are brought together in the text. It branches, therefore, into a twofold division.


I. Spiritual gifts conferred on individuals.

II. Spiritual union of the Church.


Let us distinguish between the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit: by the Spirit, the apostle meant the vital principle of new life from God, common to all believers-the animating Spirit of the Church of God; by the gifts of the Spirit, he meant the diversities of form in which He operates on individuals; its influence varied according to their respective peculiarities and characteristics. In the twenty-eighth verse of this chapter a full catalogue of gifts is found; looking at them generally, we discover two classes into which they may be divided-the first are natural, the second are supernatural: the first are those capacities which are originally found in human nature-personal endowments of mind, a character elevated and enlarged by the gift of the Spirit; the second are those which were created and called into existence by the sudden approach of the same influence.

Just as if the temperature of this northern hemisphere were raised suddenly, and a mighty tropical river were to pour its fertilizing inundation over the country, the result would be the impartation of a vigorous and gigantic growth to the vegetation already in existence, and at the same time the development of life in seeds and germs which had long lain latent in the soil, incapable of vegetation in the unkindly climate of their birth. Exactly in the same way, the flood of a Divine life, poured suddenly into the souls of men, enlarged and ennobled qualities which had been used already, and at the same time developed powers which never could have become apparent in the cold, low temperature of natural life.

Among the natural gifts, we may instance these: teaching-healing-the power of government. Teaching is a gift, natural or acquired. To know, is one thing; to have the capacity of imparting knowledge, is another.

The physician’s art, again, is no supernatural mystery; long and careful study of physical laws capacitate him for his task. To govern, again, is a natural faculty-it may be acquired by habit, but there are some who never could acquire it. Some men seem born to command: place them in what sphere you will, others acknowledge their secret influence and subordinate themselves to their will. The faculty of organization, the secret of rule, need no supernatural power. They exist among the uninspired. Now the doctrine of the apostle was, that all these are transformed and renovated by the spirit of a new life in such a way as to become almost new powers, or, as he calls them, gifts of the Spirit. A remarkable illustration of this is his view of the human body. If there be any thing common to us by nature, it is the members of our corporeal frame; yet the apostle taught that these, guided by the Spirit as its instruments and obeying a holy will, became transfigured; so that, in his language, the body becomes a temple of the Holy Ghost, and the meanest faculties, the lowest appetites, the humblest organs, are ennobled by the Spirit-mind which guides them. Thus he bids the Romans yield themselves “unto God as those that are alive from the dead, and their members as instruments of righteousness unto God.”

The second class of gifts are supernatural: of these we find two pre-eminent-the gift of tongues, and the gift of prophecy.

It does not appear that the gift of tongues was merely the imparted faculty of speaking foreign languages-it could not be that the highest gift of God to His Church merely made them rivals of the linguist; it would rather seem that the Spirit of God, mingling with the soul of man, supernaturally elevated its aspirations and glorified its conceptions, so that an entranced state of ecstacy was produced, and feelings called into energy, for the expression of which the ordinary forms of speech were found inadequate. Even in a far lower department, when a man becomes possessed of ideas for which his ordinary vocabulary supplies no sufficient expression, his language becomes broken, incoherent, struggling, and almost unnaturally elevated; much more was it to be expected that when divine and new feelings rushed like a flood upon the soul, the language of men would have become strange and extraordinary; but in that supposed case, wild as the expressions might appear to one coldly looking on and not participating in the feelings of the speaker, they would be quite sufficient to convey intelligible meaning to any one affected by the same emotions.

Where perfect sympathy exists, incoherent utterance-a word-a syllable-is quite as efficient as elaborate sentences. Now this is precisely the account given of the phenomenon which attended the gift of tongues. On the day of Pentecost, all who were in the same state of spiritual emotion as those who spoke, understood the speakers; each was as intelligible to all as if he spoke in their several tongues: to those who were coolly and skeptically watching, the effects appeared like those of intoxication. A similar account is given by the Apostle Paul: the voice appeared to unsympathetic ears as that of a barbarian; the uninitiated and unbelieving coming in, heard nothing that was articulate to them, but only what seemed to them the ravings of insanity.

The next was the gift of prophecy. Prophecy has several meanings in Scripture; sometimes it means the power of predicting future events, sometimes an entranced state accompanied with ravings, sometimes it appears to mean only exposition; but prophecy, as the miraculous spiritual gift granted to the early Church, seems to have been a state of communion with the mind of God lower than that which was called the gift of tongues, at least less ecstatic, less rapt into the world to come, more under the guidance of the reason, more within the control of calm consciousness-as we might say, less supernatural.

Upon these gifts we make two observations:

1. Even the highest were not accompanied with spiritual faultlessness. Inspiration was one thing, infallibility another. The gifts of the Spirit were, like the gifts of nature, subordinated to the will-capable of being used for good or evil, sometimes pure, sometimes mixed with human infirmity. The supernaturally gifted man was no mere machine, no automaton ruled in spite of himself by a superior spirit. Disorder, vanity, overweening self-estimation, might accompany these gifts, and the prophetic utterance itself might be degraded to a mere brawling in the Church; therefore St. Paul established laws of control, declared the need of subjection and rule over spiritual gifts: the spirits of the prophets were to be subject to the prophets; if those in the ecstatic state were tempted to break out into utterance and unable to interpret what it meant, those so gifted were to hold their peace.

The prophet poured out the truths supernaturally imparted to his highest spirit, in an inspired and impassioned eloquence which was intelligible even to the unspiritual, and was one of the appointed means of convincing the unconverted. The lesson derivable from this is not obsolete even in the present day. There is nothing perhaps precisely identical in our own day with those gifts of the early Church; but genius and talent are uncommon gifts, which stand in a somewhat analogous relation-in a closer one certainly-than more ordinary endowments. The flights of genius, we know, appear like maniac ravings to minds not elevated to the same spiritual level. Now these are perfectly compatible with misuse, abuse, and moral disorder. The most gifted of our countrymen has left this behind him as his epitaph, “The greatest, wisest, meanest of mankind.” The most glorious gift of poetic insight-itself in a way divine-having something akin to Deity-is too often associated with degraded life and vicious character. Those gifts which elevate us above the rest of our species, whereby we stand aloof and separate from the crowd, convey no moral-nor even mental-infallibility: nay, they have in themselves a peculiar danger, whereas, that gift which is common to us all as brethren, the animating spirit of a divine life, in whose soil the spiritual being of all is rooted, can not make us vain; we can not pride ourselves on that, for it is common to us all.

2. Again, the gifts which were higher in one sense were lower in another; as supernatural gifts they would rank thus-the gift of tongues before prophecy, and prophecy before teaching; but as blessings to be desired, this order is reversed: rather than the gift of tongues, St. Paul bids the Corinthians desire that they might prophesy. Inferior, again, to prophecy was the quite simple, and as we should say, lower faculty of explaining truth. Now the principle upon which that was tried was that of utility-not utility in the low sense of the utilitarian, who measures the value of a thing by its susceptibility of application to the purpose of this present life, but a utility whose measure was love, charity. The apostle considered that gift most desirable by which men might most edify one another. And hence that noble declaration of one of the most gifted of mankind-“I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”

Our estimate is almost the reverse of this: we value a gift in proportion to its rarity, its distinctive character, separating its possessor from the rest of his fellow-men; whereas, in truth, those gifts which leave us in lonely majesty apart from our species, useless to them, benefiting ourselves alone, are not the most Godlike, but the least so; because they are dissevered from that beneficent charity which is the very being of God. Your lofty incommunicable thoughts, your ecstasies, and aspirations, and contemplative raptures-in virtue of which you have estimated yourself as the porcelain of the earth, of another nature altogether than the clay of common spirits-tried by the test of charity, what is there grand in these if they can not be applied as blessings to those that are beneath you? One of our countrymen has achieved for himself extraordinary scientific renown; he pierced the mysteries of nature, he analyzed her processes, he gave new elements to the world. The same man applied his rare intellect to the construction of a simple and very common instrument-that well-known lamp which has been the guardian of the miner’s life from the explosion of fire. His discoveries are his nobility in this world, his trifling invention gives him rank in the world to come. By the former he shines as one of the brightest luminaries in the firmament of science, by the latter, evincing a spirit animated and directed by Christian love, he takes his place as one of the Church of God.

And such is ever the true order of rank which graces occupy in reference to gifts. The most trifling act which is marked by usefulness to others is nobler in God’s sight than the most brilliant accomplishment of genius. To teach a few Sunday-school children, week after week, commonplace, simple truths-persevering in spite of dullness and mean capacities-is a more glorious occupation than the highest meditations or creations of genius which edify or instruct only our own solitary soul.


II. The spiritual unity of the Church- “the same Spirit.”

Men have formed to themselves two ideas of unity: the first is a sameness of form-of expression; the second an identity of spirit. Some of the best of mankind have fondly hoped to realize an unity for the Church of Christ which should be manifested by uniform expressions in every thing; their imaginations have loved to paint, as the ideal of a Christian Church, a state in which the same liturgy should be used throughout the world, the same ecclesiastical government, even the same vestments, the same canonical hours, the same form of architecture. They could conceive nothing more entirely one than a Church so constituted that the same prayers, in the very same expressions, at the very same moment, should be ascending to the Eternal Ear.

There are others who have thrown aside entirely this idea as chimerical; who have not only ceased to hope it, but even to wish it; who, if it could be realized, would consider it a matter of regret; who feel that the minds of men are various-their modes and habits of thought, their original capacities and acquired associations, infinitely diverse; and who, perceiving that the law of the universal system is manifoldness in unity, have ceased to expect any other oneness for the Church of Christ than that of a sameness of spirit, showing itself through diversities of gifts. Among these last was the Apostle Paul: his large and glorious mind rejoiced in the contemplation of the countless manifestations of spiritual nature beneath which he detected one and the same pervading Mind. Now let us look at this matter somewhat more closely.

1. All real unity is manifold. Feelings in themselves identical find countless forms of expression; for instance, sorrow is the same feeling throughout the human race; but the Oriental prostrates himself upon the ground, throws dust upon his head, tears his garments, is not ashamed to break out into the most violent lamentations. In the north, we rule our grief in public; suffer not even a quiver to be seen upon the lip or brow, and consider calmness as the appropriate expression of manly grief. Nay, two sisters of different temperament will show their grief diversely; one will love to dwell upon the theme of the qualities of the departed, the other feels it a sacred sorrow, on which the lips are sealed forever; yet would it not be idle to ask which of them has the truest affection? Are they not both in their own way true? In the same East, men take off their sandals in devotion; we exactly reverse the procedure, and uncover the head. The Oriental prostrates himself in the dust before his sovereign; even before his God the Briton only kneels; yet would it not again be idle to ask which is the essential and proper form of reverence? Is not true reverence in all cases modified by the individualities of temperament and education? Should we not say, in all these forms worketh one and the same spirit of reverence?

Again, in the world as God has made it, one law shows itself under diverse, even opposite manifestations; lead sinks in water, wood floats upon the surface. In former times men assigned these different results to different forces, laws, and gods. A knowledge of nature has demonstrated that they are expressions of one and the same law; and the great difference between the educated and the uneducated man is this-the uneducated sees in this world nothing but an infinite collection of unconnected facts-a broken, distorted, and fragmentary system, which his mind can by no means reduce to order. The educated man, in proportion to his education, sees the number of laws diminished-beholds in the manifold appearances of nature the expression of a few laws, by degrees fewer, till at last it becomes possible to his conception that they are all reducible to one, and that that which lies beneath the innumerable phenomena of nature is the One Spirit-God.

2. All living unity is spiritual, not formal; not sameness, but manifoldness. You may have a unity shown in identity of form; but it is a lifeless unity. There is a sameness on the sea-beach-that unity which the ocean waves have produced by curling and forcibly destroying the angularities of individual form, so that every stone presents the same monotony of aspect, and you must fracture each again in order to distinguish whether you hold in your hand a mass of flint or a fragment of basalt. There is no life in unity such as this.

But as soon as you arrive at a unity that is living, the form becomes more complex, and you search in vain for uniformity. In the parts, it must be found, if found at all, in the sameness of the pervading life. The illustration given by the apostle is that of the human body-a higher unity, he says, by being composed of many members, than if every member were but a repetition of a single type. It is conceivable that God might have moulded such a form for human life; it is conceivable that every cause, instead of producing in different nerves a variety of sensations, should have affected every one in a mode precisely similar; that instead of producing a sensation of sound-a sensation of color-a sensation of taste-the outward causes of nature, be they what they may, should have given but one unvaried feeling to every sense, and that the whole universe should have been light or sound.

That would have been unity; if sameness be unity; but, says the apostle, “if the whole body were seeing, where were the hearing?” That uniformity would have been irreparable loss-the loss of every part, what was merged into the one. What is the body’s unity? Is it not this? The unity of a living consciousness which marvelously animates every separate atom of the frame, and reduces each to the performance of a function fitted to the welfare of the whole-its own, not another’s: so that the inner spirit can say of the remotest, and in form most unlike, member, “That, too, is myself.”

3. None but a spiritual unity can preserve the rights both of the individual and the Church. All other systems of unity, except the apostolic, either sacrifice the Church to the individual, or the individual to the Church.

Some have claimed the right of private judgment in such a way that every individual opinion becomes truth, and every utterance of private conscience right: thus the Church is sacrificed to the individual; and the universal conscience, the common faith, becomes as nothing; the spirits of the prophets are not subject to the prophets. Again, there are others, who, like the Church of Rome, would surrender the conscience of each man to the conscience of the Church, and coerce the particulars of faith into exact coincidence with a formal creed. Spiritual unity saves the right of both in God’s system. The Church exists for the individual, just as truly as the individual for the Church. The Church is then most perfect when all its powers converge, and are concentrated on the formation and protection of individual character; and the individual is then most complete-that is, most a Christian-when he has practically learned that his life is not his own, but owed to others-“that no man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.”

Now, spiritual unity respects the sanctity of the individual conscience. How reverently the Apostle Paul considered its claims, and how tenderly! When once it became a matter of conscience, this was his principle laid down in matters of dispute: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” The belief of the whole world can not make that thing true to me which to me seems false. The conscience of the whole world can not make a thing right to me, if I in my heart believe it wrong. You may coerce the conscience, you may control men’s belief, and you may produce a unity by so doing; but it is the unity of pebbles on the sea-shore-a lifeless identity of outward form with no cohesion between the parts-a dead sea-beach on which nothing grows, and where the very sea-weed dies.

Lastly, it respected the sanctity of individual character. Out of eight hundred millions of the human race, a few features diversify themselves into so many forms of countenance, that scarcely two could be mistaken for each other. There are no two leaves on the same tree alike; nor two sides of the same leaf unless you cut and kill it. There is a sacredness in individuality of character; each one born into this world is a fresh new soul intended by his Maker to develop himself in a new fresh way; we are what we are; we can not be truly other than ourselves. We reach perfection not by copying, much less by aiming at originality; but by consistently and steadily working out the life which is common to us all, according to the character which God has given us.

And thus will the Church of God be one at last-will present an unity like that of heaven. There is one universe, in which each separate star differs from another in glory; one Church, in which a single Spirit, the Life of God, pervades each separate soul; and just in proportion as that Life becomes exalted does it enable every one to shine forth in the distinctness of his own separate individuality, like the stars of heaven.