A Voice from the Past:
Among other important parts of Scripture, that which teaches and illustrates the discipline which God maintains in His own house, and His jealous care over the purity of the Church, is often overlooked and misunderstood. Apart from the doctrine of Scripture, no inconsiderable portion of the history and narratives contained in the Old and New Testaments are practical lessons on these subjects, though their value is, in many instances, lost to us by the two-fold error of treating sin, when it is judged, as a proof that the person committing it was unregenerate; and regarding salvation by grace as excluding the exercise of discipline. We thus lose the warning which the faithful record is designed to enforce upon believers, and the instruction which it is designed to afford regarding the method of God's dealing with His children.
The Holy Spirit has, with perfect impartiality, recorded the sins and failures which marred the earthly lives of the most eminent saints; not to perpetuate the memory of sins which God has forgiven, but to show over how great evils grace triumphs; and to warn believers of the necessity of sleepless vigilance, and of abiding dependence on Him whose strength is made perfect in weakness. The Holy Spirit also honors the holiness of our Heavenly Father by showing us that His love is not blind to the faults of His children, nor lax in the government of His family; and thus, much that would otherwise be inexplicable in our own experience as well as in the history of our brethren is made plain.
Distinct from the discipline of His children, yet allied to it, is the jealous love which He manifested over the purity of His Church and the honor of His ordinances, while the Church stood in its divine order and unity. The mistakes to which we have alluded are therefore well illustrated by the prevailing impressions regarding the case of Simon: that his sin proved that he was not a believer; and that Peter, in rebuking the sin, was simply unmasking a hypocrite. This conclusion is unhesitatingly embraced, in the face of the divine testimony that Simon believed, by men who are daily dishonoring the name which they bear by their flagrant inconsistencies, and who still claim that they are not hypocrites, and who do not despair of their own salvation. Whatever difficulty there may be in determining the comparative enormity of sins committed by individuals in circumstances so various, it will at least be safe to avoid an undue leniency in judging ourselves.
Without anticipating any decision in the case before us, let us take the whole account of it, and endeavor to give its proper force to the inspired language, so that we may not substitute our own impressions for the testimony of the Spirit of God. An inquiry into the moral condition of Samaria when Philip arrived there, would no doubt magnify the grace which so signally triumphed amid darkness and delusion; but we must, for the present, leave it unnoticed except to say that the readiness with which the people of that city had acknowledged the high pretensions of Simon, the influence which he wielded among them, and the divine honor which they paid him, are important considerations in estimating the subsequent particulars of his case.
The general result of Philip's visit is thus stated: "And when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women." This general statement, it may be claimed, does not exclude the possibility of instances of false profession and hypocrisy. But if there were such instances, the next statement seems to exclude the thought that Simon might be reckoned among them; for language could not be more explicit: "Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done." This special mention of his conversion is apparently a testimony to the grace which abounded toward this great leader of iniquity, and to the power which brought an arrogant pretender to the place of a lowly disciple, waiting upon the teaching of the missionary of the cross. On the understanding that he did believe as is recorded, his wondering contemplation of the miracles and signs stands as a striking testimony to their true character, from one who had sounded the depths of imposture and sorcery. Those who regard Simon as a hypocrite must own that, on the supposition that he was a true believer, it would have been impossible to state it more plainly than in the language of the passage, which records not merely the fact of his public profession of the faith, followed by the natural evidence of his sincerity, but the express testimony, "Simon himself believed also." We shall see as we advance whether there is any thing in the narrative inconsistent with this statement in its plain import.
When the report of these signal triumphs of the Word of God reached the Apostles at Jerusalem, they sent Peter and John, partly, it may be, to inquire into the truth of the report, and then, in the event of finding that these things were so, to communicate spiritual gifts to the believers. The result of this apostolic visitation was much more than a human recognition of the reality of the work of grace in Samaria, it received the manifest sanction of God; for when the Apostles laid their hands on those who believed, "they received the Holy Ghost." Thus far there is no reason to suppose that Simon did not participate in the common seal and sanction of the faith. On the contrary, there is every reason to conclude that he was not excepted from the enjoyment of the gift, however it may have been manifested, especially since we find that, in his subsequent application to the Apostles, he did not ask for that which was common to believers, but for a superior privilege, to which it seems incredible that he should have aspired had he not received that which other believers had received.
For let us notice precisely what was the proposal which called forth the apostolic rebuke: "When he saw that through laying on of the hands of the apostles, the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost." He had looked on with wonder when he saw Philip, in the power of the Holy Ghost, performing miracles, the true character of which was probably more strikingly apparent to him in contrast with the sorceries by which he had bewitched the people. But here was a farther wonder: that power which he had seen as an attestation of the messenger of God he now finds might be communicated to those who believed the message. The communication of the gift was through laying on of the hands of the Apostles: even Philip could exercise no such power as this. The distinction was one which naturally presented extraordinary incentives to the ambition of one who had occupied the position which he had recently abandoned. We do not excuse the unhallowed desire when we suggest how naturally it fell in with the current of his previous life. Not only was the ambition itself impious, but the means by which he sought to accomplish it were base and most insulting, both to the Apostles and to Him whom they served.
The proposal, altogether, betrayed an arrogance and a debasement which were the natural results of his life of imposture. There is no palliation of it. But before we conclude that it is utterly inconsistent with the plain testimony of the Spirit that he believed, we might inquire if the sin is without parallel among ourselves. Is there no such thing as self-seeking in the desire for spiritual gifts, or in the discharge of spiritual functions? No unholy ambition or rivalries in the Church of God? If there be, then it is difficult to see how the single act of a man emerging from such a life as that of Simon had been, and so little instructed in the truth of God as he then was, must be taken as outweighing the plain statement that he believed, while we recognize men as Christians who, after enjoying so much higher advantages, must confess before God that a whole life of service has been marred by the mingling of unworthy motives. There is, indeed, no longer a present apostle, whose office requires vindication against the arrogance of men, though we have men who seem to approach Simon's sin in their claims to apostolic succession. It may be that this accounts for the prompt judgment with which Simon's sin was visited; but it does not sustain the conclusion which men have been in haste to pronounce against the reality of his faith.
But instead of attempting to estimate the guilt of the proposal, let us listen to Peter's rebuke of it: "But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money." If this word "perish" is equivalent to the second death, then indeed all question is at end, however difficult it would still be to dispose of the statement that "Simon himself believed also." But then is it not evident that the "second death" is a doom which his money could not share with him? If his money and he were to perish together, the word cannot be stretched beyond a temporal calamity. The language is no stronger than that which is used in other passages of Scripture with reference to acknowledged believers. Nay, it is the very word that expresses the fatal consequences of leading the brethren of Christ to dishonor Him by eating things offered to idols. "Through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish" (1 Cor 8:11). The meaning of this warning is explained by the parallel passage (Rom 14:21): "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak." To illustrate the meaning of the Apostle's rebuke, we might farther quote passages in which temporal death and temporal loss are clearly shown to be the consequences of the sin of believers.
The gift of God, which Simon thought might be purchased with money, was, as he expressed it, "the power, that on whomsoever I lay my hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost." It is of this the Apostle was speaking when he added, "Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter." The connection is evident, though it has been common to sever these words from that to which they relate, and to quote them as an appalling intimation that Simon had neither part nor lot in the common salvation. The very matter in question was the distinguishing apostolic prerogative of communicating the Holy Ghost by laying their hands on believers. And the desire to possess it, as well as the means by which Simon sought to obtain it, abundantly justify the conclusion, "Thy heart is not right in the sight of God."
But let us see whether the counsel which Peter gives to this greatly erring man is such as he would give to an unbeliever convinced of sin: "Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee." The first clause, it may be claimed, might be addressed either to a believer who had fallen into sin, or to an impenitent man; though we question whether the Word of God sanctions such an address to an impenitent man in which a single sinful act is thus held up to view. But without insisting on this, we may ask if there is, in the New Testament, anything that at all resembles this addressed to the impenitent, "Pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee"? Is this the Gospel to the perishing: "pray" and "perhaps"? Is there only a "perhaps" to be held out to the sinner as the alternative of everlasting condemnation? My soul! It was not thus that the message of the grace of God met thee at that hour of brooding despair, but with the unfettered certainty of the divine announcement, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." And we entreat our brethren to bethink themselves ere, by their hasty inferences in Simon's case, they lend the sanction of an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ to Satan's most cunning device against the peace of convicted sinners—"pray" and "perhaps"—instead of God's sure word, "Believe, and live."
But some one may allege that it is only confusion worse confounded to apply such language to a believer, as though there could be any uncertainty about the forgiveness of his sins. The weight of the objection would depend upon the scope of the word "forgive." So far as the guilt and condemnation of sin in the sight of God is concerned, the Word of God testifies that the believer is justified from all things; he cannot be brought into the position even of an accused person, "For who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect?" Yet, as a child of God, he is subject to discipline; and his sins may often be visited with fatherly chastisements, such as temporal sufferings, bodily sickness, or death, as in the case of the Corinthians who perverted the Lord's Supper: "For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep." Now in the case of such a judgment, believers are encouraged to pray for its remission: "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and He shall give him life for them that sin not unto death." Here it is supposed that a brother may commit sin which God will judge by sickness or even by death, and the forgiveness of it in certain circumstances is promised as an answer of prayer. So James says, also, with reference to acknowledged believers, "The prayer of faith shall save the sick; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." The sickness may or may not be God's judgment against sin; if it is, the removal of the sickness is the forgiveness intended.
That these cases are parallel with the case of Simon is evident, not only from the connection of prayer with his deliverance from the threatened consequences of his sin, but also from the appeal which Simon makes to the Apostle: "Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me." This surely is not the language of a convicted sinner seeking salvation. But it is perfectly intelligible as the language of one who, saved by grace, sees with shame the sin into which he has fallen, and seeks, if it be consistent with the honor of Him whom he has insulted, to be delivered from the chastisement which he owns to be just. "None of these things which ye have spoken," he says, and what had they said? "Thy money perish with thee "—the solemn vindication of the authority and purity of the Apostles, and above all the judgment of God on the insulting thought that the gift of God might be purchased with money.
Even the uncertainty of the issue of prayer—"if perhaps"—is perfectly in accordance with what is elsewhere taught regarding prayer for the remission of judgment on the sin of a believer. For in the passage already quoted, from 1 John 5:16, the same thing is implied. The whole passage is: "If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and He shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it." The word rendered "pray" in the last clause is not the word rendered "ask" in the former part of the verse. There the word aitesei means "he shall ask or pray," but in the last clause the word erotesei signifies "he shall inquire into," with which the negative should be joined, so that the clause reads, "I say he shall not inquire into that." The question might arise, How may we know when a sin is unto death? This last clause is the Apostle's answer. As Dr. Bonar paraphrases the verse: "If any one see his brother in Christ sin a sin, and see him also laid upon a bed of sickness as a consequence of this, he shall pray for the sick brother; and if the sin be one of which the punishment is disease and not death, the sick man shall be raised up; for all sins that lead to sickness do not necessarily lead to death; and as to the difficulty, How shall we know when the sin is one which merely infers sickness, and when it is one which infers death? I say this, Ask no questions on this point, but pray and leave the case with God." Here is precisely where "if perhaps" comes in. Even among men, when the law has pronounced sentence on a criminal, his entreaties are not to set aside the sentence. But the objects of family discipline may often be best secured by listening to the cry of an erring child, or to the cry of the other children on his behalf. The principle underlying the administration of law is entirely different from the principle which underlies family discipline. What was the issue in the case of Simon we are not informed, but the silence of the record would rather favor the supposition that prayer was heard on his behalf.
Thus far it would seem that the Apostle addresses Simon and deals with him as one who believed. And there remains to be considered only the Apostle's judgment regarding the moral state of Simon, or his frame of mind. "For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity." Strong language indeed! but does it necessarily mean that he was still dead in trespasses and sins? Is it consistent with the fact that Simon believed also? There is no question that they were believers whom the Apostle charged to look diligently "lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled." It is the same word which is used in an exhortation to the saints at Ephesus: "Let all bitterness," etc., "be put away from you." The word commonly means harshness or austerity of temper; but taking it in the widest sense that can be given to it, these warnings and exhortations to believers plainly intimate that the root is there. Sin in the flesh—the flesh that lusteth against the Spirit—demands their ceaseless vigilance, that it may not reign in their mortal body. In Simon that root had sprung up in God-insulting sin, and the Apostle saw, probably, as he spoke to the offender, that the rebuke had only irritated him.
We would be careful not to weaken the force of the expression, "bond of iniquity," in contemplating the humiliation of a believer yielding to the tyrant from which he had been set free. It is not unmeaning language which the Apostle uses in his exhortation: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof." Simon, alas! had obeyed it, even after grace had made him free. We do not palliate sin, and least of all the sins of believers. In man's estimate it might seem a light thing that Simon should aspire to the gift of an apostle, and approach an apostle with a bribe. But the Apostle saw in it a fresh outbreak of the fountain which had poured its poisoned stream over the life of the sorcerer; a return to the beggarly elements to which he had so long been enslaved. And now it was the very love which had met him in the depths of degradation and had raised him up to a place among the children, that made him a subject of discipline. A Father's displeasure must be manifested against the attempt to introduce the principles of the world into the relations of the Church: making the highest gifts the objects of unhallowed ambition and the subjects of corrupt traffic; yet, taking it in its connection and according to the use of the words in other passages, "I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity," describes not the state in which Simon committed the sin, but the mood in which he received the rebuke; for "bitterness" elsewhere evidently means irritation or displeasure, and the gall of bitterness would signify the heat of displeasure which brought the scowl upon his countenance, and showed that the influence under which he had sinned was not yet dissolved. If so, then may we not understand that these words brought the wanderer to himself, and that he expressed his humiliation and penitence when he entreated the Apostle to pray for him?
In view of the whole case, we ask an impartial verdict; nay rather—for we are not made judges here—we claim that you may not tamper with the statement of inspiration, "Simon himself believed also." Had the circumstances of the case required that you should get rid of that statement, it is not easy to see how you could have disposed of it except by a point-blank denial of its truth. Men have indeed quoted as parallel to it John 2:23, "Many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did;" and John 6:14, "Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world." In these cases "believed" means "believed;" but then what they believed about Him was not the truth. They believed in Him on grounds and in a character which He could not recognize. They supposed that they saw in Him powers which might serve the purposes of a carnal life, and minister to their comfort, ambition, indolence, or avarice. They said, "This is that prophet;" but what their idea of that prophet was, is manifest by their purpose "to take Him by force, to make Him a king." They believed in Him as the Messiah of their own carnal expectations.1 But it was very different with Simon. The word "also" in the statement links Simon's faith with that of the Samaritans; and they, we read, "believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ." And if you explain away that as other than saving faith, you make the Gospel itself of no effect and undermine the whole foundation of faith. Of what value are any of the promises to faith or any of the records of faith, if the testimony before us does not mean that Simon believed to the saving of his soul?
We scarcely fear that one to whom the Word of God is precious will ask, Why spend so much time in this inquiry? Of what consequence is it to us whether Simon was a believer whose sin was judged, or an unbeliever whose doom was sealed? It can never be a trifling thing to us whether a man, even living at so remote a period and in so distant a land, was saved or lost. But this is not the great point before us. The determination of this question affects the import of the whole narrative. If the facts prove that Simon was not a believer, then the record yields no great practical lessons to believers, and it would be difficult to see any important use to be served by preserving it in the volume of Scripture. But it is very different if we take the testimony of the Spirit to the fact that he "believed also" in its plain and unsophisticated import. Then we see not only into what a believer may be betrayed through the deceitfulness of sin, we see also with what holy severity God chastises sin in His children, and just because they are His children. This is an important point; and so far as we can understand the Scriptures, it was the very fact that Simon was a believer that brought upon him that judgment, "Thy money perish with thee." The heathen philosophers might deride, and the heathen mob might rage against all these things unscathed—it only furnishes new opportunities for the divine forbearance. The unbelieving Jews and Gentiles might unite, not only to insult the Apostles of Christ and load them with contumely, but to inflict upon them a death of ignominy and torture, like that from the midst of which their Master said, "Father, forgive them." But when a believer only comes to offer them money for a spiritual power, with what righteous severity is he at once met! And why this difference? Ah brethren! the presence of God, the temple of the living God, is a holy place. And do we know any thing of the holy fear that becomes it? From amidst the idle pomps, the carnal display, the luxurious equipments, the polished entertainments, the flippant levities of our so-called worshipping assemblies, we may do well to look back to the lowly gatherings in the name of Jesus, where even the unbelieving were constrained to own that God was in them of a truth, and where He came forth to vindicate and defend the purity of His dwelling-place in such ways that "great fear came upon all the church," and "of the rest durst no man join himself unto them."
Again, Why this difference? Is it that God treats the sins of the world with indifference, and, like some earthly fathers, is only exacting and stern within the limits of His own house? Perish the thought! Nay, brethren, but those who are now despising the riches of His goodness and forbearance and long-suffering, will find that after their hardness and impenitent heart they are treasuring up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. And then as to His own children—who will tell the measure of His love even in those chastisements which attest the holiness of Him with whom we have to do? It is not that He is lenient with the world and exacting in His own house; but "when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world."
We might profitably inquire why it is that the levity of these assemblies where fashion flaunts its vanities, intellect wins its laurels, and carnal art mimics the grand realities of the spiritual temple, is never arrested by the solemn judgment of an insulted God, and the assemblies scattered in terror from the sight of their impious entertainers, stricken dead in the very act. But for the present we only accept the fact that it is not so. They are as safe as the crowds who thronged heathen temples to regale their fancies with artistic ceremonials which charmed the wanton eye and ear. Yet, so far as the individual believer is concerned, it remains unalterably true that, "Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." But alas! how often we miss the blessing He designs, and fail to recognize His hand! He chastens for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness. There are two words with which we would close a subject on which much remains unsaid. One is, "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, neither faint when thou art rebuked of Him;" and the other is, "If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged."
*This article originally appeared just two years after the American Civil War in the periodical Waymarks in the Wilderness, 5 (1867): 35-50. The editor, James Inglis, was most likely the author. Our uncertainty is due to the nineteenth century custom of certain evangelical writers to remain anonymous in order to avoid undue praise or recognition.
1Ed. note: Another interpretation views these individuals as actual believers in Christ. See, for example, Zane C. Hodges, "Untrustworthy Believers-John 2:23-25" Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (1978): 139-52. A review of this article appears on pp. 89-90 of this issue of the Journal.