“Written Not With Ink” by T. Austin-Sparks
24 February 1957 at Taichung, Taiwan.
I am going to say a little more to you this afternoon on the matter which we were thinking about this morning. I think we will read the Scripture again, it is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in chapter 3: “Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.”
Now I would like to keep that open before you because we shall probably go to another thing in it as we go. This morning we began by noting that a far greater part of our New Testament is composed of personal letters. They are not books written on subjects, they are the letters of men of God. Now here we have the Apostle Paul telling us that we Christians are letters, and the Holy Spirit is the writer of the letters. Of course the Holy Spirit inspired the writing in the New Testament, but here the Apostle tells us that the Holy Spirit writes other kinds of letters. The Holy Spirit is a great letter writer, but He is a great letter writer in another way, and what these words say is that the letter of the Holy Spirit is people. They are not written with ink on paper or stone. The Holy Spirit writes letters in human hearts. So we begin to realize in this that the Holy Spirit Himself is engaged in writing letters, and you and I as believers are supposed to be the letters that the Holy Spirit is writing. Perhaps you have never thought of that before, perhaps it is a new idea that you are a letter and that the Holy Spirit is writing you as a letter.
Entering Into the Heart
Well, you know that is the first thing about the Christian life. The very first thing about the Christian life is that the Holy Spirit comes into the heart. The Christian life is not something that you and I take up ourselves. It is not some system of teaching which we accept, it is not so many statements with which we agree, it is not that we decide that we are going to be Christians. The very first thing about the Christian life is that the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts. That is an important word for anybody who is not clear as to what the Christian life is.
It might just be possible that there is someone in this meeting this afternoon who does not know the Lord. You may be very interested in this matter, you may be hearing a lot of things said to you about it, but I do want to make this very clear to you. If you are going to be a true Christian, it will not be because you decide to become a Christian, it will be because you open your heart to the Holy Spirit of God to come in. You see, you can agree to all that is said, you may say, “Yes, I am very interested and I would like to be a Christian” and you may be very honest about it. But you can be in all that and yet you may not be a true Christian. If ever you do become a true Christian, one of the difficulties that you will meet is this: you will find that you meet a lot of people who profess to be Christians, who know all about it, but they have not got that something inside. Now I want to put that quite straight in the beginning. A true Christian is one who has opened his or her heart and asked the Holy Spirit to come into his or her heart.
There was a great teacher once, who lived long before Jesus came into this world, and he said a very true thing, and this is what he said, “A good teacher does not write his message in ink that will fade, he finds a disciple and sows the seed of his message in the man.” Now that might almost be in the Bible, it is so true to the principle of the Bible. Indeed, that is exactly what Paul is saying in this chapter, “not on tables of stone, written by ink, but by the Holy Spirit in the heart.” So the beginning of the Christian life is the Holy Spirit coming into the heart to abide there.
Forming Christ in the Heart
What is the second thing about the Christian life, that is, what does the Holy Spirit begin to do when He comes inside? The Holy Spirit has only one work that He wants to do. He does it in many ways, but He only has one work, and that one work is the meaning of the Christian life. It is always very helpful to be able to bring all that Christianity is, down to one single thing. If you want to know what it is all about, what does all this mean about being a Christian, there is only one thing and that is the one thing that the Holy Spirit has come to do. The Holy Spirit has come to form Jesus Christ inside of us. That is the first thing that He begins to do when He gets inside. He is the Spirit of Christ, He is called the Spirit of Jesus and when He comes inside, He begins to form Jesus in the life.
Now, if you look at this chapter again, you will see what Paul said about that there. You will read what Paul said as to how this is done. First of all he said that God reveals His Son in us. He refers to the whole creation and takes an illustration from it. He said “God who at the beginning said, Let there be light, has now shone in our hearts.” In effect, he said, “Let there be Light in us, and let Him shine in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of Jesus” and that is a good statement. But it simply means this: that by the Holy Spirit you and I have begun to see Jesus. The Holy Spirit has begun to make us know what Jesus is like. And then the Apostle said another thing about that.
First of all he said, “God has shined into our hearts, and in our hearts has shown us His Son, Jesus Christ” and then if you look to the end of the chapter, you have these words in verse 18: “We all with unveiled faces, reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Spirit of the Lord.” First of all the Holy Spirit shines into our hearts and shows us Jesus, and that is the Holy Spirit’s side of the work. Now there is the other side, “We behold Him,” that is only another way of saying we are being occupied with the Lord Jesus, we are changed into His image. We begin by seeing Him, and then we become like Him by being occupied by Him.
We become like that with which we are occupied. If we have a friend and that friend is very precious to us, we think a lot of that friend, we want to live with that friend, we so admire that friend that we are always watching him or her. What happens after some time? Well, when people see us, they see us behaving like that friend of ours. They say “he has become so taken with him that he has become like him”. And that is what the Apostle is saying here. The Holy Spirit goes on to His work of making us like Christ. We must be occupied with the Lord Jesus. We must not be occupied with ourselves. Do you so admire yourself that you want to be like that? I think most people who really do know themselves would like to be like someone else. I sometimes feel I would like to be like anybody but myself! I am the last person that I want to be like.
Of course, you may think a great deal of yourself, you may think you are one of the most wonderful people in the world, and you all the time try to be like yourself. But I want to say this: if the Holy Spirit has come to your heart, then the last person that you like to be is yourself. The Holy Spirit will just show you what kind of a person you are. You may begin to ask what makes us think like that? It is not only because we have come to see ourselves, but we have come to see the Lord Jesus, and then we see what poor creatures we are! And yet how many people are occupied with themselves! I have to deal with a great many Christians in my life, but a great very many Christians have come to see me in their difficulties and I think I would be speaking the truth that nine out of every ten men have troubles with themselves. They have been looking at themselves. They have been turning their eyes inward on their own selves and these are the most miserable people that you can meet. Now then, the Apostle said that beholding Jesus we are changed. We must not be beholding ourselves.
And then there are a lot of people who are in trouble because they are always looking at other people. Perhaps they are looking at other Christians and they see all the faults in other Christians, and that is a very miserable kind of life. You will never be out of work if that is what you are trying to do. There is no end to the faults of other people. Perhaps, if you behold them you may become like them. Now, we must not be beholding other people any more than ourselves. The word here is “beholding the glory of the Lord!” In that way, we are changed into the same image.
Now we come to the third thing. The Apostle goes on to say that this is what makes Christian ministry. You know that Christian ministry has become a professional thing in our days. A certain class of people call themselves “ministers”. I think perhaps “missionary” is another word for “minister”. It means a certain class of people who give their life to doing Christian work, perhaps to teaching the Bible or preaching sermons. These are called “the minister”. Now Paul’s idea of the minister was not that. If you look at the second letter to the Corinthians, you will find that the apostle is speaking about ministers, and in these third and fourth chapters he tells us what the minister is. What is the minister according to these words of Paul? He makes it a very simple thing. He said the minister is the outshining of what is inside. God has shined in our hearts, and now the shining comes out again, and people see Christ by His shining out of our hearts. That shining may come out through our faces. There is a great ministry of the shining of the face, so may the Lord keep your faces shining! There is a wonderful testimony in a shining face, I mean the shining face of a true Christian.
Well, people of the world can laugh and they can laugh very heartily because they are enjoying themselves in a way, but there is nothing behind it, for if you take away their pleasures then they stop their laughing. You bring illness upon them, and they stop laughing. You bring sorrow into their lives, and they stop laughing. There is nothing behind their shining faces. But the Apostle is speaking about another thing here. He said, “We have this Treasure in earthen vessels.” And what does he mean by that? In the original Greek the description is better. It says we have this Treasure in a vessel that is very fragile, a vessel that is easily broken. The vessel in itself is weak. It is not a vessel in itself that is very strong and wonderful, it is a vessel that is weak and despised. The chief virtue of this vessel is that is can be broken. Now, if we have a vessel, we are very careful that it will not be broken, and we are upset if our precious vessel is broken. But you see what Paul is saying is that the real value of this vessel is that it can be broken; and when it is broken, it begins its service. That is strange kind of talk, but you notice what Paul goes on to say. He gives a list of troubles that come to Christians; all those things which go to make up the breaking of the vessel. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels… we are pressed on every side, we are perplexed, we are pursued, we are smitten and we are always carrying around the dying of Jesus…” that is a lot of trouble, and all that is the breaking of the vessel.
But what happens when a Christian is really in trouble? You begin to see the glory coming out. There is something behind their shining face. There is something inside which only comes out in the times of trouble. It is like that. You remember that in the first martyr of the Christian church. Stephen was really a wonderful young man. I fully believe that Stephen would have been just as great a man as Paul, but there he is, just a young man with a great education and a great future before him; a real life of ministry, and he is being stoned to death. Look at his face and what do you see in his face? Is Stephen saying, “Well I ought not to die so young, this is throwing all my education away, this means the end of all my life’s work”? No, it said they looked at his face and it was as the face of an angel. Here is the shining out of a broken vessel, and Paul calls that the ministry.
You see, dear friends, our ministry is fulfilled when we have a bad time. When Christians are suffering it is then that the glory comes out. The world depends upon its worldly pleasures for its face to smile, but a Christian is altogether different from that. The thing that impresses many people is this: they say to Christians, “You don’t go to the pictures, you don’t go to the dances, you don’t do any of these things that we do and yet you seem to be quite happy. We don’t understand that!” And sometimes, if they are quite honest, they say, “You have got something that we have not got…” and that is the truth. But it is not “something” that we have got, it is Someone that we have got. God has shined into our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Before I close, when the Holy Spirit writes letters like this, it just comes out by itself. You don’t have to decide that you are going to do it, the glory comes out, the testimony of Jesus just comes out. You see, that is really what it means to have the Spirit. This is put in different ways in the Bible, it is sometimes spoken of as a river, and it is said that when we receive the Holy Spirit, rivers of living water flow out. You see, it just flows out of us, we are so full that it comes out by itself. You cannot keep it in. Now that is what Paul is saying is the ministry. It is not something that you get down to and say, “Now I must get something ready, I must work to try and find something for these people.” No, it just flows out. The Holy Spirit takes charge. There is a story that I would like to pass on to you which illustrates this. Many years ago, a great book was written. I believe it has been translated into Chinese, but possibly very few of you have read it. I will soon tell by looking at your faces. That book was called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and I imagine that our brother has never read that. That book was written by a woman in America and it is said that that book had more influence in the great liberation of the slaves in America than any other works have done. It was the story of the condition of the lives of the slaves in the old days. Three hundred thousand copies were sold in the first year. That book had a tremendous influence in the emancipation of the slaves.
Now, a great many people have tried to honour the writer of that book. Great statesmen said that it was a wonderful book and they always put it like this, “Harriet B. Stone wrote one of the most wonderful books that has ever been written.” But when she heard what they were saying, she was amazed. She said, “I wrote that book? I never wrote that book, that book wrote me. I couldn’t stop when I started writing that book. It just carried me on and I couldn’t stop until it was finished.” She would take no honour for writing the book. She said that the book got hold of her and made her write. Do you see, that is exactly what Paul is saying! He said that the ministry of the Spirit is something that we don’t do. We are not told to do this thing. He said, “Who is sufficient for doing this?” Our sufficiency is of God, and all the glory is to God.
Well, you will see that is what the Holy Spirit is doing. He wants to bring this testimony out that God may be glorified! Now you know what a living letter ought to be. You know what a letter written by the Holy Spirit is like, and the Apostle said that everybody should be a letter like that. So you can all go into the ministry if the Holy Spirit is in you! And if He is having His way in you, what He will do is to bring out from you the glory of the Lord Jesus, and that is the ministry of the Christian life. It all begins and ends with the glory of Jesus in our hearts.