The Principles that Produce Laodiceanism

by Edward Irving, The Epistle to Laodicea, from The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 1832
In these remarkable paragraphs, Edward Irving lays out the problem with the Laodicean church, as mentioned in the book of Revelation. Laodicea is the seventh and last church, and represents the condition of the religious world in our time. Irving comes to the root of the problem, showing that the Laodicean does not have Christ really living in him, he only thinks he does. The false gospel that props up Laodiceanism teaches that Christ had a different flesh than ours, and that therefore perfect holiness in this flesh is not possible to us. He exposes these lies in a clear way. Such clarity was not to be seen again until the same message came to the Seventh-day Adventist church in 1888, about 50 years later.

Revelation 3
15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I would you were cold or hot.
16 So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.

The exact force of this figurative mode of speech, is contained in the exhortation,

19 …be zealous therefore, and repent.

The thing of which they are called to repent, is lack of zeal; for which I believe the words “lukewarm,” and “neither cold nor hot,” are equivalent expressions.

They are taken from a fact universally known, that meats or drinks in the middle state between hot and cold, are not palatable, and even in some cases nauseous. So that when physicians wish to increase nausea, and produce vomiting, they make use of lukewarm water. And no good housewife ever yet produced meat in this state of being neither cold nor hot, without apologizing to her guest, and giving some sufficient reason for such a trespass against the rules of hospitality.

This well-known fact, Christ takes advantage of, in order to represent a corresponding state in the moral world; the state of indifference to truth and falsehood, to God and mammon, to Christ and Belial. And be keeps up the figure by threatening to “spew them out of his mouth;” in which manner we are inclined to reject such ill-prepared meats. And as a man would naturally say over such victuals, he says over these lukewarm Laodiceans, “I would you were either cold or hot.” This is the origin of the figurative language, and now what is the religious state which he would express by it.

This will be best discovered by explaining the two opposites, between which it lies as the point of indifference. To be hot, is “to be zealously affected” in the good cause of Christ, to receive him with all our heart, to make our boast in him, to take up arms for him, and in his strength to overcome all the power of the enemy. This is what he so much commands and requires in the Gospel, in words like these:

Luke 9
62 No man having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
23 If a man come after me, let him deny himself, and take up bis cross daily and follow me.

Matthew 10
37 He that loves Father or mother, more than me, is not worthy of me.

These, and the kindred expressions of the Gospels, call for the surrender of the whole heart and soul and strength and mind to the service of the Lord; indicating, as I understand it, the state expressed in the text, by the word “hot.”

It is not zealotry, which is expressly forbidden in these words, “Charity is not rash” [Gr.: zeals not, or is no zealot] (1 Corinthians 13:5).

But to be “hot” means entire devotedness, warm love, steady attachment to Christ. It answers nearly to the state of mind recommended in these words:

Romans 12
11 Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord.

And in these other words,

Ecclesiastes 9
10 Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.

As heat in the natural world is that influence through means of which all things grow, and increase, and bear fruit; in the absence of which the earth returns to its barrenness, and all nature is unclothed of its beauty; so in the spiritual world does it express that condition of the soul when it becomes prolific of generous thoughts, strong impulses, and noble undertakings for the glory of God and the good of man.

Therefore they speak of the fire of patriotism, fervid piety, warm devotion, and burning love; the heat of action, the thoughts that melt, the words that burn. And yet this condition is as far removed from the fever of passion and zeal, as is the genial heat of summer and autumn to the scorching wind of the desert. The body is not fit for any of its functions, save when it glows with natural warmth, and pours out a continual stream of heat; which departing, behold what paleness, what livid hues, what morbid symptoms, what inactivity, what torpor, what death comes over it. And so it is with the soul, when it ceases to be kindled and lighted up with the holy flames of love, its beauty, its enjoyment, its utterance, its energy, and its action, all depart away. And not till it is fostered, and cherished, and warmed, by the love of God, does it begin to fulfil its proper function and office again.

Of the state signified by being hot I take the Ephesian church, or the church in the state of its first love, to be the example among the seven. And by being exemplified in it rather than any of the rest, I do perceive this great lesson to be taught, that it is the first estate of a converted soul; as it were the love and the longings with which Christ is conceived in us, the hope of glory.

And because that which is the first in time, becomes ever afterwards the fountain-head of action, and the nourishment of all succeeding graces, it is to be believed that love in the soul is the mother-affection of the Christian; love to God, and the Lord Jesus Christ; love to all the creatures of God, and to all the members of Christ. When this love is present in the soul, there is great warmth of devotion, zeal of obedience, glowing of desire; such as are expressed in divers parts of the Song of Songs which is Solomon’s:

Song of Solomon 1
7 Tell me, O you whom my soul loves, where you feed, where you make your flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turns aside by the flocks of your companions?

It seems to me as if I were told by that Ephesian epistle standing at the head of all the seven, what is in these words so divinely expressed:

Song of Solomon 2
3 As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
5 Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
6 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand does embrace me.
7 I charge you, O you daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that you stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.

And now when he is cast out of his own house, and suing and entreating to be readmitted again, he comes at length to the Laodiceans, and speaks to them on this wise:

Song of Solomon 5
2 I sleep, but my heart wakes: it is the voice of my beloved that knocks, saying, “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.”

And wherefore is it that this love declines in the heart of his well-beloved and betrothed spouse? Let the Lord himself declare:

Matthew 24
12 And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

It is our iniquity, our departure from the ways of godliness which makes us to fall out with our dear and precious Husband; whom thereafter we seek and cannot find; and, then, behold what sadness and desolation ensues:

Song of Solomon 5
6 I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.

And now we prove what it is to be a widow indeed, by meeting with a widow’s painful trial:

7 The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.

I seem to have the kindlings of God awakened within me towards the desolate church. I see her desolation, I pity her forlornness. If she open not now to her Bridegroom knocking at the gate, what will become of her, it pains and grieves me at the heart to think upon Christ at this moment, in his faithful members, is crying aloud for love, put forth from his own house, and knocking for readmission. Every where the faithful are separated, and put out from the pale even of nature, not to speak of the church. Let them, like Christ, stand at the door and knock. It is our calling, our high calling, to suffer patiently: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow his steps.

With respect to the estate of coldness, it is the opposite of the former, and appears, as I take it, in the angel of the church of Sardis, of whom it is said that he was dead:

Revelation 3
1 …you have a name that you live, and are dead.

This is exemplified in the condition in which the church lay till the founders of the religious world arose; and in which those shall remain who have kept aloof from the religious world; namely, the High Church with its prelates in England, the Moderate party with their ecclesiastical courts in Scotland, and the Dissenters with their cold and dry orthodoxy, ever verging towards Socinianism; until, I say, this new spirit of Laodiceanism breathed, and the religious world arose.

To know what coldness means I need only refer to the state of the orthodox preachers and their flocks in England, of the Moderate party in Scotland. What coldness, pure formality, rigid order, heartless service, lifeless obedience. Oh but it is dull work, and the clergy retire from it with such zest to their snug fire-sides, and comfortable dinners, when the weary work is done. The prayers are, to the letter and word of a form; the sermon written out and spelled, with every jot and tittle in its proper place; and every office of baptism, of marriage, and the supper of the Lord, the old tale oft told again. What a dead letter it is all! The heart is so glad when it is all over. Such joyful salutations as the church dismisses; such extra comforts of the Sunday meal, to make up for that self-denying ordinance of public worship. What a bondage, to be sure, that high-churchmanship and religious formality is! Surely there is no more taste in it than that in the white of an egg. This is not the state of the Laodiceans, but of the Sardians; being that which the Lord would rather have had the Laodiceans to be in, bad as it was, than in that state of lukewarmness in which they rested, neither cold nor hot: “I would that ye were either cold or hot.”

And is it possible that any thing can be worse than the slate of coldness just described, as existing in the bulk and body of the church, the mass of the population of England and of Scotland? I answer, yes. And what is that? The Laodicean state of the religious world. This will require some exposition at large; and, after all the exposition, will be hard to believe. But mine is to tread out the corn, eat it who may: and to labor in hope, that I also may be partaker of the fruits of the harvest.

The state of coldness is brought about by the power of the flesh, and is indeed the manifestation of the flesh in religious matters. Now the carnal mind, though it be enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be, is yet not devoid of honorable and noble qualities, which it retains from its creation; particularly the conscience of good, which it has no less than the consciousness of evil. For the true definition of a fallen man is this,

Genesis 3
22 The Lord God said, “The man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil.”

The natural man, cold though he be, and incapable of pleasing God, has in him the sense of truth, and honor, and virtue, and benevolence; and self-denial, together with all other forms of the Divine mind, in whose image he was created: whereby it comes to pass that God is able to express himself in terms of natural speech, and needs no artificial terms, such as the theologians have coined, to express himself.

They have coined their language to meet and gainsay the perverseness and ingenuity of error; and being so used, it is used well; but when any ambassador from God would use it for telling out his message to God’s creatures, he does betray his faithfulness to the word of God, who needs no assessors of the schools to help him out, but has chosen a language intelligible to every true heart, when it beats in tune with nature, and has not been practised in the deceptions of the world, and of the schools.

Jesus looked upon the young rich man and loved him, though he shrunk from following him into the kingdom; and I think there is one of the Apostles who speaks of loving a certain one both in the flesh and in the spirit. And Paul earnestly exhorts the Philippians to practice those things which were well reported, and reported of in the world:

Philippians 4
8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Now it does often, yea, and most generally happen, that the cold and formal religion which I have stated above as still lingering in parts, of this land, where the religious world has not reached, does co-exist with all the natural principles of honesty and charity, and chastity and kindness; and is indeed nothing else than the bringing of them under the restraint of the law of God, so far as the natural will can go.

It is in truth an earnest, and commonly well-meant, endeavor to do our utmost to please God, and serve him; and though it belong not to the kingdom of heaven, is clearly the best thing upon the earth. What it lacks is the life of God, the information of the mind of Christ, to make it into Christianity; which does not make a new system of the creation, but informs the old system of creation with the life of God by the Holy Ghost: for as it is the same body which shall arise in the resurrection, with the same, and the same number of members, so it is the same soul which exists after regeneration, with the same and the same number of affections and faculties. It is God’s creature informed with God’s life, after it has made shipwreck of its own. The organ is not added to in any of its pipes or stops; but the breath of heaven comes over it, and the harmony is all of love.

Those who are following nature, are not following God, it is most true; neither are they following the devil, but have the law written on their hearts, and are not without a witness of God. It was because the heathen did not choose to retain God in their remembrance, that God gave them up to their wicked courses. No man wants a witness of God in his heart; nor yet in the providence of his outward life.

And from this it comes to pass, that the religion of natural conscience, though cold, is not without a certain truth and loveliness, honesty, and honor about it, which are not so displeasing unto God, as that other state of the Laodiceans, which is neither natural nor supernatural, neither of the conscience nor of Christ, but half-way between the two, and an attempt to mingle them both. The Pharisees were much worse than the Publicans and the Harlots, not to speak of the good Samaritan.

And if we look at this thing a little more nearly, and attempt, like a minister of truth, to do even-handed justice among men, we will find that this Sardian state of coldness, into which the Reformed churches had fallen, when what is called the Evangelical style of it arose, was the dying out of an excellent and comparatively complete state both of doctrine and practice.

Take, for example, the Prayer-book for devotion, the Homilies for doctrine, and the Whole Duty of Man for the details of life (I speak not here of its Arminian spirit); and you have an exemplification of that form of doctrine and discipline which belonged to the Reformed church.

And look now upon the respectable religious people of the old school, in both lands, and you have the cold outline, and, as it were, the lifeless skeleton of that noble form of life; which is more acceptable in its old age unto God, than this Laodicean state is in its prime. Because, with all its coldness, it is the form of a temple stately and beautiful, unto which kings and queens, and martyrs, and saints of God, once did reverence.

For my own part, I feel nowise offended in the midst of that magnificent form of religion, whereby everything, and every person, had his proper place and office appointed of God under the Lord Jesus Christ. All that I have to do is, to seek the Spirit of God to incline my heart to fulfill all their holy appointments. It is in the state of coldness, but still it contains a picture, a statuary representation of the true thing. It is still-life; but still though it be, it is the true and faithful representation of the very life.

And better have this than a false representation, better have this than a base substitute for religion. How long this may live, and what service it may do the world, let the Church of England testify by her excellent ordinances, and the Church of Scotland by her excellent persons; the one filling the world with her works of beneficence, the other, with her men of perseverance and understanding.

Therefore God can see, in this state of coldness, something on account of which to recommend it to these Laodiceans, rather than that which they were in: “I would that ye were either cold or hot.”

And now, to come to particulars, let us a little explain this Laodicean state, continually halting between two: hypocritical, and not following the light; not zealous for God, nor yet zealous for nature; neither in the condition of hotness nor of coldness.

The root of it is false doctrine concerning the flesh and the Spirit; as if they did both live, and might and ought both to live in the saints, and keep fighting against one another to the end.

Whereas the true doctrine is, that he who is born of the Spirit does not sin, neither can sin; and that his flesh is buried with Christ, his old man crucified in Christ’s crucifixion, and the body of the sin of the flesh laid in Christ’s tomb, thence never to arise again.

Yet it is most true, that a certain Manichaean notion has ever lived in the church, and now lives in its strength, as if the flesh of the regeneration were not to be utterly impotent, but only to be opposed by the faith and hope of the Spirit within him. How many there be, who think they are in a good way, when they are in a state of warfare between flesh and Spirit; whereas the truth is, they are in a very bad way, which if they will not know and repent of, they must speedily perish.

It is not true that religion consists in having the faith and hope of holiness against the resurrection in the world to come, but in having it now, “in being now delivered from the law of sin and death,” in being now made free from sin, and fulfilling the righteousness of the law; by walking not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

And yet it is a thing of verity, that among the heads of the religious world, the state of doubt in the conscience, and of conflict in the members, is upheld as the most common experience of the child of God; and that though holiness be a thing to set before him, it is a thing to be believed as unattainable. And to save all comes in their panacea of atonement, which they present as the evidence that God never expected anything like perfect holiness in his people.

Therefore be of good courage, go on as you are going, sigh and lament over your sins, and confess them, and be ever comforted in the atonement. How many souls through eternity will have to damn this system of sin-indulgences! Oh! for some Luther to expose those modern vendors of indulgences.

Now the truth of atonement is, that thereby we have liberty of access into God’s presence at all times, through the blood of Christ, and boldness at his throne, and faith to ask what we please, and it shall be done unto us.

  • And shall we not ask for grace to help us, and for strength to be perfected in our weakness?
  • And asking through the merits of Christ, shall we not receive?
  • And receiving, shall we not use the Holy Ghost, which every one that asks receives?
  • And Him receiving, shall we not be able to conquer the flesh and be righteous, even as Christ is righteous?

The atonement opens the door, and keeps open the door into the chamber of Omnipotency; the atonement is the floor upon which the petitioner stands, and does the work of the temple of God; which is holiness, and not a mixture of the holy and the unholy.

But behold how otherwise it is used as the encouragement of indolence, the pillow of contentment, the maker-up of deficiencies, the general indulgence, into which all who will cleave unto the Laodiceans have ready admission.

And what is the consequence, but universal confession of sins, and universal abiding in them; words for works, penances for performances. But the conscience of man is not so pliable as his social principle. The spirit of the religious world soon teaches him to prate as they do, and to speak as they do; but the conscience will not acquit him, and he has no assurance, and will hear of none: he will not take to himself the guilt of believing that he has done a good work, or can do one, but will plentifully expatiate over his evil deeds and shortcomings, and contentedly continue in them; because of what other use is the doctrine of atonement, but to make all scores clean, and all obligations straight?

I know what horror these words will awaken. Oh! that I could make them tenfold stronger, in order to reach this root of all bitterness in the religious world: their false views of atonement supporting and supported by their false views of the flesh and of the Spirit—in which indulging, through the natural desires of the flesh and of the mind, behold what a confusion of truth and falsehood, of holiness and unholiness, they have produced by it.

I am advocating the doctrine, that the Holy Ghost, in the soul of a regenerate man, can and ever ought to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil combined against him; can and ever ought to take the members of our being out of their hands, and make them to serve God; can and ever ought to love with all the heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and serve with all the members the living and true God: that this is a life of godliness, is the life of God in us, is holy and acceptable to God, is our reasonable service, is the proving of the good, and the perfect will of God: and that no sin, original or actual, defiles such a work as that it should need atonement; though such a work will never be done otherwise than in the faith of Christ, as our atonement both for original and actual sin.

And I further declare, that until the soul will and truly does believe, that the Holy Ghost does work such good, holy, and acceptable works in us, does make us to bear such fruits as glorify the Father, that soul will be full of vileness and doubtfulness, and wickedness, cram it with evangelical doctrines as you may.

Yet, true it is, and of verity, as every honest man, who is conversant with this subject, will bear me witness, that in the religious world, it is the daily doctrine that no good works can we do by any power of Christ; and that original and actual sin cleaves to the best of them, and makes them to be exceeding vile. It is not true, it is a lie:

1 John 3
7 Little children, let no man deceive you: he that does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.

Now, this state of uncertainty, of ungodliness, of error; this mixed state between the words of holiness and the works of holiness; this feeling of a demand for what it is impossible to perform, has brought the church into the Laodicean state in which they are, out of which there is but one way of bringing them: which is to show them that holiness is really attainable in flesh, and ought never to be absent from the flesh of the regenerate man, and is the very condition of his being.

And this cannot be taught from any other instance but that of Christ Jesus, who alone did holiness in flesh; and who has received power over all flesh to do the same in every one whom the Father bestows upon him; who has set us an example that we should follow his steps.

When the enemy is pressed with the instance of Christ as the proof positive, that righteousness can be brought out of our flesh, his schismatical spirit immediately divides his manhood from us, saying,

“But his flesh was not such as ours in its properties and propensities; otherwise he were a sinner, both original and actual, as we are.”

By which declaration the glory of God in bringing his will out of his creation, the glory of Christ in becoming our brother, to do this, and the glory of the Holy Ghost to serve him in the doing of it, are all subverted; and pure Manichaeism is introduced, the doctrine of a good and an evil principle flowing side by side in the church—the one incapable of putting the other down, and therefore both having equal origin and authority; and holiness in our flesh is declared to be impossible, because Christ’s flesh had to be changed in order to work it; and unholiness is sanctified; and to overcome the flesh is declared to be impracticable; and God is dethroned, and Christ is unmanned, and the Holy Ghost is set at nought; and the devil is enthroned, and sin has an omnipotency, and poor mortals must sin on to the end.

Such are the principles that produce the Laodiceanism, and keep it up. The Lord is striking a blow at the root of it, by maintaining the true flesh of Christ: whether the church will give heed to him, or to the fables of the doctors, God only knows.