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individualism – Going to Damascus

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This excerpt is taken from The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2: Systematic Theology, Chapter 23.

This progression (of sanctification) has respect, not only to the individual, but also to the church in its unity and solidarity as the body of Christ. In reality the growth of the individual does not take place except in the fellowship of the church as the fellowship of the Spirit. Believers have never existed as independent units. In God’s eternal counsel they were chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:14); in the accomplishment of their redemption they were in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Ephesians 1:17); in the application of redemption they are ushered into the fellowship of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9). And sanctification itself is a process that moves to a consummation which will not be realized for the individual until the whole body of Christ is complete and presented in its totality faultless and without blemish. This points up the necessity of cultivating and promoting the sanctification of the whole body, and the practical implications for responsibility, privilege, and opportunity become apparent.

If the individual is indifferent to the sanctification of others, and does not seek to promote their growth in grace, love, faith, knowledge, obedience and holiness, this interferes with his own sanctification in at least two respects. 1) His lack of concern for others is itself a vice that gnaws at the root of spiritual growth. If we are not concerned with, or vigilant in respect of the fruit of the Spirit in others, then it is because we do not burn with holy zeal for the honor of Christ himself. All shortcoming and sin in us dishonors Christ, and a believer betrays the coldness of his love to Christ when he fails to bemoan the defects of those who are members of Christ’s body. 2) His indifference to the interests of others means the absence of the ministry which he should have afforded others. This absence results in the impoverishment of these others to the extent of his failure, and this impoverishment reacts upon himself, because these others are not able to minister to him to the full extent of the support, encouragement, instruction, edification and exhortation which they owe to him.

We see, therefore, the endless respects in which interaction and intercommunication within the fellowship of the saints are brought to bear upon the progressive sanctification of the people of God. “If one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it; and if one member is honored, all the others rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). The truth of our inter-dependence within the solidarity of the body of Christ exposes the peril and contradiction of exclusive absorption in our own individual sanctification. How eloquent of the virtue which is the antonym of independence and aloofness are the words of the apostle: “And he (Christ) gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the edifying of the body of Christ; until we all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”! (Ephesians 4:11-13; Romans 12:4ff.; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff.; Colossians 2:19).

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this…We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 1938


The great Prince of Preachers Charles Spurgeon once said, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” At the time Spurgeon was addressing a new attitude cropping up in the seminaries, where students thought themselves able to avoid the study of saints in Church history simply because they (the students) had the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

I’d like to open up Spurgeon’s line of thought and apply it to the church today: It seems odd that the church of the 21st century thinks so highly of what the Holy Spirit has taught us that she (the church) thinks so little of what the Holy Spirit had to say to the church throughout history*. Spurgeon’s thoughts here remind us of a very important truth: the Holy Spirit is not an individual gift. The Holy Spirit is a gift to the body of Christ, and he has taught others throughout history and continues to teach us today**.

Unfortunately for many Evangelicals the personal aspect of the Holy Spirit today is continually given more and more emphasis. This over-emphasis is now landing entire churches and denominations in terrible error. For many, their understanding of God’s Spirit is that since he leads us into all truth, they don’t need the church. For others still, they believe that they can easily refute historic church doctrines simply because “the Spirit told me so.” Their personal understanding of the Holy Spirit conveniently allows them to use all sorts of excuses like “that isn’t what this text means to me” or “I have the Spirit so I don’t need to go to church.” When the personal experience of the Holy Spirit is emphasized above the experience of being brought into the body of Christ, that person will always talk about “I” and “me” but never about “we.”

We would do well to catch ourselves in this error while we have a chance before it runs even more rampant than it already has. The result of this personal emphasis of the Holy Spirit is not only unbiblical practices, but an identity build on rugged individualism and proud separatism. This identity can never lead to Christian love.

The working of the Holy Spirit is not primarily a personal category, it is first-of-all a Body-of-Christ category. The gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t about you. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to the church. Scripture tells us that God’s Spirit belongs to him and is a gift to his people:

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” – Galatians 4:6

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. –  2 Corinthians 3:18

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:16-17

The church corporate is being conformed to the image of Christ. Ephesians 1:18 tells us that the saints (read: the church) are Christ’s inheritance. There is one body and one Spirit; we can no longer think of ourselves as individuals (Ephesians 4:4). One way the Bible speaks to this is by means of our adoption. The Westminster Longer Catechism describes our adoption this way:

Adoption is an act of the free grace of God, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, whereby all those that are justified are received into the number of his children, have his name put upon them, the Spirit of his Son given to them, are under his fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow-heirs with Christ in glory.

While we were formerly individuals and lost in our sin, we do not remain that way when we are brought into the family of God:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12–13.

The role of the Holy Spirit is to point us to Christ, and when we are guided to Christ our concern should always become about the church body and not us as individuals. Within the body of Christ, we are intended to love one another. Love is the reflection of what we have received from God through Jesus Christ; this love is the vital reflection and unity of the church. This is why Paul routinely speaks out against individualism in his epistles. Love is not individualistic or proudly separate, but always concerned above all-else with the body and not the individual. This love is inspired by the example and self-surrender of Christ and therefore it is specifically and distinctly Christian.


* Thanks to Dr. Nichols from Ligonier’s “5 Minutes in Church History” for this elaboration.

** Let me first say that I am grateful that we even have a personal understanding of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly important for us to understand that the Holy Spirit does work in the individual and brings individual sinners towards understanding, faith and repentance. The Holy Spirit does train us in righteousness through the Word of God. He does give us the power to resist sin and the devil, as well as the strength and heart to pursue Christ. I am not, and would never deny any of those things (as well as others like equipping the church by the distribution of gifts, etc.).