The only thing which is really worth calling "religion" is the life of God in the soul-commenced, carried on, and consummated solely by the Holy Spirit. Hence, whatever does not bear the impress of the Spirit's unction, should be rejected by the Christian: for not only can unctionless messages do us no good—but what proceeds not from the Spirit—is of the flesh. Here, then, is the test which God's children ought to apply unto all they hear, and here is the balance in which they should weigh all that they read. True, there are varying degrees of the Spirit's unction. As it is in the natural so it is in the spiritual—there will be a varying amount of wetness from the faintest moisture of dew—as compared to the copious shower. As there had to be "salt" in every sacrifice (Lev. 2:13), so every discourse or article proceeding from the Spirit's aid, is "seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:6). But O how very much today is devoid of spiritual savor and flavor!
Some of God's dear people may suppose that it would be presumptuous to set themselves up as judges of what they hear or read—but that is a serious mistake, being both a false humility, and a shirking of duty. The Apostle rebuked the Hebrews because their senses (spiritual faculties) were not developed so as to discern between good and evil (Hebrews 5:13). With as much reason, might it be termed pride for anyone to pass judgment upon the groceries or meats purchased from the stores. Others may ask, "But how are simple and unlearned souls to distinguish between the different religious publications of the day?" Very simply: in sampling your natural food how do you determine whether or not it be seasoned? By your natural taste, of course. So it is spiritually: the "new man" has a palate too! If the God of creation has given us natural palates for the purpose of distinguishing between wholesome and unwholesome food, the God of grace has furnished His people with a capacity, a spiritual sense, to distinguish between nutritious and unwholesome soul food.
"Just as the mouth tastes food—the ear tests the words it hears" (Job 34:3). Does yours, my reader? Are you as careful about what you take into your mind—as what you take into your stomach? You certainly ought to be, for the former is even more important than the latter. If you eat some material food which is injurious, you can take a purgative and get rid of the same; but if you have devoured mental food which is injurious, it stays with you! "The ear tests the words it hears." Again, we ask, Does yours, dear reader? Are you learning to distinguish between "letter" and "spirit;" between the "form" and the "power;" between that which is of the earth and that which is from Heaven; between that which is lifeless and unctionless and that which is instinct with the breath of God? If the answer is 'No', then you are greatly the loser.
How many of God's dear children listen to the automaton "letter" preachers of today, and yet find nothing suited to the needs of their poor souls! And how many are subscribing for one magazine after another, hoping to find that which will the better furnish them to fight the good fight of faith—only to be disappointed? What they hear and what they read does not penetrate and grip—it has no power—it neither breaks down nor lifts up—it produces neither godly sorrow nor godly joy. The messages they hear or read, fall upon their ear like an idle or twice-told tale—it completely fails to reach their case or minister to their needs. They are no better off after hearing a hundred such "sermons" or reading through a hundred such periodicals, than they were at the beginning! They are no farther from the world—and no nearer unto God!
It is often a long time before God's children are able to account for this. They blame themselves; they are exceedingly loath to say, "This message is not of God." They are afraid to act in the spiritual, as they do in the natural, and condemn and discard that which is worthless. While they feel a lack of power in the sermons they hear, or the articles they read, and while their souls steadily get dried up like a potsherd—they are slow to realize that this is the inevitable effect of the unctionless preaching they listen to, or the unctionless literature they read; and that such dryness and leanness of soul is inevitable—by their association with unhumbled and empty professors. But in due time God opens their eyes, and they see through the flimsy veil and discover that both the sermons they hear, and the literature they read—are only the product of a dead profession!
Ah, it is a great thing when once the Holy Spirit teaches a soul—that it is power which is lacking from the lifeless preaching and lifeless articles of dead professors. It is power which the renewed soul seeks—a message which has power to search his conscience, to pierce him to the quick, to write it upon his heart; a message which has power to bring him to his knees in broken-hearted confession to God; a message which has power to make him feel that he is "vile"; a message which has power to drive him to Christ, for the binding up of his wounds, for Him to pour in "oil and wine," and send him on his way rejoicing. Yes, what the renewed soul longs for (though at first he knows it not) is that Divine message which comes to him "not simply with words—but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction!" (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Sooner or later, every Christian comes to value "power," and to count as worthless, whatever lacks it. It is by Divine power, that he is taught in his own soul, by which he is made to feel acutely his sinnership, his carnality, his beggarliness. It is Divine power working in his heart—the same power which brought Christ again from the dead (Eph. 1:19, 20)—which draws his affections unto things above and makes his soul pant after God "as the deer pants after the water brooks" (Psalm 42:1). It is this Divine power working in him which reveals to his burdened spirit the Throne of Grace, and causes him to implore mercy and to seek grace "to help in time of need." It is this Divine power working in him, which makes him cry "Make me walk along the path of Your commands—for there I find delight" (Psalm 119:35).
Those who are partakers of this Divine power (and they are few in number) can never be satisfied with a powerless ministry, either oral or written.
"Those who live according to the flesh—have their minds set on what the flesh desires," (Romans 8:5). They are charmed with oratorical eloquence, catchy sayings, witty allusions, and amusing illustrations. On just such "husks", do the religious "swine" feed!
But the penitent prodigal can find no nutriment therein! Men "of the world"—and they may be graduates from some "Bible Institute" or possessors of a diploma from some Bible Seminary, now styling themselves "preachers of the Gospel"—will speak of the things of the world and "the world hears them" (1 John 4:5). But those who are seeking to "work out their own salvation with fear and trembling" obtain no help therefrom, yes, they perceive clearly that such sermons and periodicals are "broken cisterns, which can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13).
"Take heed what you hear" and read! More than forty years ago the saintly Adolph Saphir wrote, "I think the fewer books we read—the better. It is like times of cholera, when we should only drink filtered water." What would he say if he were on earth today and glanced over the deadly poison sent forth by the heterodox, and the lifeless rubbish put out by the orthodox? Christian reader, if you value the health of your soul, cease hearing and quit reading all that is lifeless, unctionless, powerless, no matter what prominent or popular name be attached thereto. Life is too short to waste valuable time on that which does not profit. Ninety-nine out of every hundred of the religious books, booklets, and magazines now being published, are not worth the paper on which they are printed!
To turn away from the lifeless preachers and publishers of the day—may involve a real cross. Your motives will be misconstrued, your words perverted, and your actions misinterpreted. The sharp arrows of false report will be directed against you. You will be called proud and self-righteous, because you refuse to fellowship empty professors. You will be termed censorious and bitter—if you condemn in plain speech—the subtle delusions of Satan. You will be dubbed narrow-minded and uncharitable, because you refuse to join in singing the praises of the "great" and "popular" men of the day. More and more, you will be made to painfully realize—that the path which leads unto eternal life is "narrow" and that FEW there are who find it. May the Lord be pleased to grant unto each of us—the hearing ear and obedient heart! "Take heed what you hear" and read!