What’s New About the New Church, Part 4; New Ministers of the Spirit

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper

Our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2CO 3:5,6)

Our text, from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, was selected because it briefly and clearly states the essential doctrine of the New Church regarding our understanding of the Sacred Scripture. The central theme of the Old Testament is the Covenant between God and His people, His promise of protection and safety for those who obey His commandments. In our text, Paul identifies the new ideas taught by Jesus Christ as the “new covenant,” and further states that as Christians we are to become ministers of this new covenant, not serving the letter, but serving and teaching the spirit contained within, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (text).

A tenet of the Christian faith is the reverence for the Sacred Scripture, but there is a great division among Christians as to how they should regard the Word. In some denominations they hold that every word and phrase is literally true. Others hold to the view that while the Bible is “true,” there are places that are recognized as being symbolic, rather than strictly, literally true. And there are groups who regard themselves as Christians, yet still disregard most of the Bible as being a collection of ancient folk tales that are both internally inconsistent and essentially irrelevant to life in the modern world.

The reason there is such a diversity of views is because there is a basic misunderstanding of the structure of the Word — but that is not really surprising when we think that the Word was actually written in the way it was to hide and protect its true nature until the human race had reached sufficient maturity for the truth about the Word to be revealed.

The Old Testament is harsh, full of threats and punishments, and especially the command, “Thou Shalt Not!” It reads like a father or mother speaking sharply to a naughty child, and it is not too difficult for us to see that in those days, the human race was in its childhood.

But just as the stern father must take a new approach as his children become young adults and begin to lead them through their developing moral sense, so God presented Himself to mankind quite differently in the New Testament — appealing to their innate desire for fairness, and a spirit of justice in their dealings with others. Jesus speaks to this when He said,

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (MAT 5:27,28).

There are many other examples like this, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. The point He was trying to make was that the Jewish Church had known the commandments, and had, at least in their own minds, kept to the letter of the agreement, but they had not really turned away from the evil, as they continued to enjoy it in their fantasies and imagination.

Just as He once taught the Jews that sacrifice was not enough, that He required obedience to His laws (1SA 15:22), He was now giving further instruction to a more mature audience, that it was no longer enough just to obey the letter of the law, but that the spirit of the law had to be obeyed as well. This is an important concept, because when the sacred books of the Old Testament were merged with the gospels and the epistles of the New to create our Bible some 600 years ago, the new work was filled with apparent contradictions in the letter. The Old Testament teaches the doctrine of revenge (eye for eye, and tooth for tooth, [EXO 21:24-25, LEV 24:19,20]) while the New Testament teaches forgiveness (seventy times seven [MAT 18:22]). The Old Testament says, Happy shall he be who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock (PSA 137:9), while the New Testament teaches, Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish (MAT 18:14). The Old and New Testaments were written in different times for different kinds of people, and therefore, in the literal sense, they seem to contradict each other in a number of ways.

There is the additional problem that there are things in Scripture that are impossible to reconcile with our understanding of the nature of the universe: the creation of the universe in six days some 6000 years ago is one example; the idea that the stars could fall to earth (as described in the book of Revelation) is another.

A final problem with the letter of scripture is that there are a number of people who want to follow God’s Word as presented in the Bible, but who also find it very difficult to understand how the lists of dietary regulations for the ancient Hebrews are going to help them cope with life in the modern world.

The heavenly doctrines of the New Church help us to see beyond these external considerations, beyond the husk to the kernel of spiritual truth hidden within. The fact is that the Word has been written so that many things in the sense of the letter of the Word are appearances of truth, which conceal within them genuine truths (TCR 257).

We all know that the rising of the sun each morning is an appearance of truth, based on the early idea that the earth was the center of the universe and that all else moved around it. But there is nothing wrong with us referring to this common misconception as a manner of speaking–as long as we all recognize that it is not literally true. The problem arises when we read in the Word that the sun rises, and therefore, out of a sense of loyalty to the holiness of the Word, try to use passages from scripture to prove that scientific observations must be wrong because the Word says that the sun rises. To use the truths of the Word in this way weaken them and destroy them. (See TCR 257).

In the New Church, we believe that the Word has been Divinely inspired, and every verse of Scripture contains within it truths about the Lord, and about His kingdom in heaven and on the earth, but we also believe that these truths have been hidden within the literal sense in such a way that anyone who seeks them in humility can find them, while those who are skeptics, and who would use the Word for evil purposes cannot find them at all.

The spiritual sense is not the sense that shines forth from the sense of the letter of the Word when one is studying it and so construing it as to confirm some dogma of the church. That may be called the literal and ecclesiastical sense of the Word. The spiritual sense is not apparent in the sense of the letter; it is interiorly within it as the soul is in the body, as the thought of the understanding is in the eyes, or the love’s affection in the face. It is that sense chiefly that makes the Word spiritual, not only for men but for angels also; and therefore by means of that sense the Word has communication with the heavens.

As the Word is inwardly spiritual it was written purely by correspondences; and because it was written by correspondences in its outmost sense it was written in a style like that of the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Apocalypse, which, although commonplace in appearance, still conceals within it Divine wisdom and all angelic wisdom. (TCR 194)

When the Lord came into the world, one of the things He did was to reveal the inner meaning, or moral spirit of the Old Testament. Mankind had reached a point where they could learn and understand more of what He had to say, and yet, it was not enough. There was so much more that He wanted to say, but there had to be time for the things He had already said to be absorbed, and understood. He said, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now (JOH 16:12), and promised that He would return to explain further, When … the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth (JOH 16:13).

Throughout His life in the world, the Lord taught people about the spiritual world, but the concept was so alien to them, that He had to compare it to things that were familiar to them, farms, vineyards, marriage feasts, and the like. Teaching in this way is known as teaching by parable, and the Word tells us that without a parable He did not speak to them (MAR 4:34, MAT 13:34). It is our belief that for us to truly understand the nature of the Lord’s Word, we need to understand that the whole of it, both the Old and the New Testaments, is a parable, a story that has an inner meaning, a moral, a spirit. All that was needed was for the Lord to reveal a key that would unlock the parables of scripture and reveal the glories hidden within.

Unless the spiritual sense were at some time opened, the Word as to this and all other things in the Revelation would be so completely closed that at last no one would know wherein its Divine holiness lies. (WORD 12)

Eventually the human race reached the point where they could receive the key that would open the Word, that would reveal that the Sacred Scriptures are completely consistent from beginning to end when regarded from their spirit, or inner meaning, to demonstrate the truth of Paul’s statement that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (text).

Just as each of the other books of the Scripture had been written by a prophet who had been specifically inspired to write in a certain way so that the words he chose would carry a hidden, spiritual meaning within them, so once again the Lord called on a man to write down His message to mankind. Emanuel Swedenborg was called by the Lord to write down a new revelation that would provide the key to understanding the message that God had put in the Word from the beginning, but that mankind was only now prepared to understand.

This new revelation had to take place in a new way, because it was aimed at a new kind of mind. The prophets of the Old Testament were simply told what to write. The gospel writers at least had the opportunity to know Jesus personally so their works, although inspired as to every word, yet reflect something of their own character and interest — Matthew wrote for the Jews and so repeatedly showed how Jesus was fulfilling the prophecies, while Luke wrote as the educated man he was, and told the story from Mary’s point of view because he knew her well. Swedenborg was called because the new revelation was to be for the new man who lived after the so-called “Age of Enlightenment,” a man who was a student of both religion and science, and who demanded that his world view be consistent, that his religion and his science must each compliment each other to form a non-contradictory view of both matter and spirit.

After accepting the Lord’s call, Swedenborg spent the next twenty-seven years recording the things that were revealed to him out of heaven by the Lord. These Writings, which form the doctrinal basis of the New Church, demonstrate how the spiritual sense of the Word can be systematically drawn out of the letter in such a way as to provide a beautiful, consistent message of hope and love from any part of the Bible, a message that has immediate relevance to the struggles we face in our daily lives. The Writings do not change the Bible, nor do they add to it. They simply serve as the key, which the Lord Himself promised to send, that will unlock the spirit of truth that will lead to all truth (JOH 16:13).

For example, the science of Correspondences revealed in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg reveal that the main subject of the Word is the spiritual, not the natural, and so when we read of the seven days of creation in Genesis, we are not to wonder how there could be light on the first day, and plants on the third when the sun and moon and stars were not created until the fourth. Instead, we can see a beautiful description of the creation of the human mind from its first consciousness (the separation of light from darkness on the first day) through various stages of learning and developing maturity (days two through six), until, reaching heaven, it finds the rest of the seventh day.

As we learn the keys to understanding the message hidden within the sacred scripture, the message that will help us find our way to heaven, we can see that the letter, taken by itself with its contradictions and strange historical references, kills, while the spirit, the Divine Truth within, leads us to heaven, and thus brings us eternal, spiritual life. AMEN.

LESSONS: 1SA 15:13-23, MAT 5:38-48, WORD 18

Word 18. iii. From the spiritual sense it is that the Word is divinely inspired, and is holy in every word. It is said in the church that the Word is holy, and this because Jehovah God spoke it; but as its holiness is not apparent from the letter alone, he who on this account once doubts its holiness, afterwards confirms his doubt when reading the Word by many things in it, for he then thinks, Can this be holy? can this be Divine? Therefore lest such a thought should flow in with many, and should afterwards prevail, and thereby the conjunction of the Lord with the church, in which is the Word, should perish, it has now pleased the Lord to reveal the spiritual sense, in order that it may be known where in the Word this holiness lies hid. [2] This again may be illustrated by examples. The Word treats sometimes of Egypt, sometimes of Asshur, sometimes of Edom, of Moab, of the sons of Ammon, of Tyre and Sidon, of Gog; and one who does not know that these names signify things of heaven and the church may be led into the error that the Word treats much of nations and peoples, and but little of heaven and the church; thus much of earthly, and little of heavenly things. But when he knows what is signified by them, or by their names, he can come out of error into truth.

Copyright © 1982 – 2005 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009


Does Love Justify Evil?

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, Sept. 28, 2008

And He said to [the Pharisees], “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” (LUK 16:15)


With these clear and powerful words, the Lord put forth the fundamental issue that we face during our lives on earth: the fact that our nature is such that many of the things that we seek after are just those things that are most harmful to our spiritual lives. And to make it worse, we use our rationality, the part of our minds that was specifically created by God to help us rise above our evil desires, to twist and turn the truth until we are able to convince ourselves, if not others, that our evils are actually good.

We like to think that we’re “okay,” that while we might have a few flaws to work on, for the most part, we’re essentially, good, honest people. We like to think that because it makes us comfortable. The hells encourage us to think like that, because while we are feeling comfortable and safe, we are not going to explore our real motives, and while our motives remain hidden and unexamined, we do not feel the need to change. In this way, the hells win the battle for our souls by default.

In the newspaper of another city a few years ago, there were two news items on the same day that dramatized some extremely important spiritual truths. Both headline stories had to do with men confessing their adulteries. The one was an internationally known church leader in the midst of a sex scandal; the other a local man who was interviewed by the newspaper after placing a classified ad in the personals in which he extolled the virtues of loving two women – only one of which was his wife.

It’s not unusual today to read about people who are unfaithful to their partners – in fact it’s becoming far too common. So what made these two stories particularly worthy of note? Both of these men, one of whom was a church leader, stated publicly while confessing to adultery, that they stated that they had done nothing wrong. Consider the following passage from the True Christian Religion:

…He who trespasses against one commandment of the Decalogue trespasses against all. But the meaning of this assertion is different from its sound, for it is to be understood thus, that he who purposely or deliberately acts contrary to one commandment, acts contrary to the rest, since to so act from purpose and deliberation is to deny utterly that it is sin, and when it is said to be sin, to reject the statement as of no account; and he who so denies and rejects the idea of sin gives no thought to anything that is called sin. (TCR 523)

How can a man come to the point in his life that he can publicly assert that adultery is not a sin? What kind of reason can such a person give? They said it was correct and exemplary behaviour because they did it for “love.” By this I believe they meant to say that it was acceptable for them to behave the way they did because the only standard for behaviour in their lives was their own feelings of pleasure or happiness. The one said it was okay to leave his wife and take up with another man’s wife because he no longer “loved” his wife, and therefore his obligations to her were at an end; the other said that since he felt “love” for both his wife and his girlfriend, that it was right and proper for him to have both. How would the angelic heavens respond to such a statement? It happens that Swedenborg records their response to a similar situation:

When the angels had heard this they replied, “You talk in this way because you are merely sensual; for all who are in hell have the ideas of their thoughts immersed in the bodily senses, and are unable to raise their minds above the senses. We therefore excuse you. A life of evil and a consequent belief in what is false have so far closed the interiors of your minds that with you any elevation above sensual things is impossible unless in a state remote from your evils of life and falsities of belief. (TCR 77:3)

It should be emphasized that the angels are not excusing the evil, but the insane speech of those who are immersed in their bodily senses, and because they are unable to lift themselves up from them, they are in hell.

These two adulterers, through their public statements, have brought an important issue to light. It is useful for us to have our attention drawn to this question so that we can identify the same kind of subtle falsity in our own thinking, and drive it out if it is present. The question is, when does “love,” (or our own feelings of happiness) justify doing what is evil? Indeed, does love ever justify doing what is evil? The answer to this question revolves around the difference between evil and sin.

The difference between evil and sin is the same as the difference between an action and the motive behind the action. God has told us of certain things that we must not do because they are evil, and these things are summarized in the Ten Commandments, but there are times and circumstances where, if the motive is good, these commandments can be broken without permanent spiritual harm. Sin, on the other hand, has to do with the motives behind the actions, and a person can sin without appearing to others to break any of the commandments.

For example: a mother is destitute and sees that her child is starving, so she steals a loaf of bread to feed the child. Her action is evil, because it has broken the commandment against stealing, but since her motive was the protection and preservation of innocent life, it is not counted as a sin. Another example: a soldier faces an enemy in the act of invading his homeland, and in the heat of battle, he kills. To take a life is evil, but the motive of protecting his homeland and nation means that it is not accountable to him as a sin.

In these cases, love, because it is genuine and looking outside of self to the protection and care of others, does justify breaking the commandments, but it doesn’t make it right. The action itself is still evil, but excused by the Lord because of the motive.

On the other hand, one can easily imagine a situation where a man spends many years preparing himself to take a position of trust, presenting himself as a sober and respectable fellow, only to later abuse that position and to exercise his powers for personal gain and pleasure. To do good, when done solely for the sake of self, is a sin. In such a case, his love is not genuine love, not charity, but the love of self, and therefore from hell. Such hellish, selfish love cannot justify or excuse evil.

We all want to “feel good” about ourselves and our lives. We want to do good – at least in our own eyes. We turn away and ignore the sins within ourselves – because it’s easier. Like many other unpleasant tasks, we put it off until later, but the Heavenly Doctrines warn us of the spiritual danger of failing to search out the sins within:

Do you know of any one sin in which you are? Have you ever examined yourselves, and consequently shunned any evil as a sin against God? He who does not shun evil is in evil. (TCR 527:4)

And even though we are in states of evil, we yet believe that we deserve and are destined for heaven, and so we either have to justify our sins, or get rid of them. Justifying sins is a lot easier than shunning them. Remember what the Lord taught when the lawyer asked Him:

“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbour as yourself.’ “

And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (LUK 10:25-29)

The Lord answered him by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, but the point here is that the lawyer asked the question not because he was really interested in knowing the answer, but “to justify himself” (LUK 10:29), to make it seem that the Lord’s answer was so general that it could be applied in almost any way, and especially so that it could be applied to make the lawyer appear to be doing good to the neighbour without having to give up his evils and change his life.

Again, the Heavenly Doctrines speak pointedly to this:

Who cannot understand that he who does not examine and see his sins remains in them? For every evil is delightful to a man from his birth; it is delightful to him to take revenge, to commit whoredom, to defraud, to blaspheme, and especially to exercise dominion from self-love; and does not this delight prevent your seeing these sins? And if, perchance, you are told that they are sins, do you not from their delight excuse them, and even prove to yourselves by means of falsities that they are not sins? And, therefore, you remain in them, and afterward commit them more frequently than before, and this even until you do not know what sin is, or indeed whether there is any such thing. (TCR 567:6)

It seems to be a problem without a solution: our hereditary nature leads us into evils of every kind, and because we get pleasure from acting out our evil loves, we end up sinning; and when we begin to break the commandments with knowledge and intent, we begin to deny them all, and we justify our actions with such falsities that eventually we don’t even know what sin is, let alone that it exists in us and needs to be removed. We come to the place where we can admit to adultery, or some other sin, and still claim to have done nothing wrong, because it gave us pleasure. As the Lord said in our text, we begin to “highly esteem that which is an abomination in the sight of God.”

The Lord is not, as it may appear, standing back, waiting for us to fail, but rather He is doing everything He can to help us break out of the vicious circle, to treat us fairly, and to help us break away from our evils so that we can prepare ourselves for spiritual life. We are taught that those who have removed some evils in themselves that are sins through the process of self-examination, repentance, and reformation, come into a settled and peaceful state where they believe in the Lord and love the neighbour. When we come into such a peaceful state, the Lord then flows in with His love and presence to keep us strong in our resolve to refrain from other evils; to keep us moving in the right direction once we have chosen it freely for ourselves. Once we have established, through our efforts to repent, that it is our true intention to continue to make spiritual progress, then, if from ignorance or circumstances beyond our control, a sin is committed, it is not imputed because it was not done from purpose and consent, and because there is genuine sorrow. (See TCR 523)

Because we all have different characters, and backgrounds, and because the effect of sin is to blind us to what sin really is, there needs to be some standard of truth that is objective, external, for us to judge our opinions against. For us, that standard must be the Word of the Lord, and especially the Ten Commandments – all ten of them.

We need to act courageously, to look within ourselves, and compare what we find there with the standards set forth not in the world but in the Word. When we find what is evil we may try to justify it because it pleases us (because we are “in love”), but we must recognize it for the deadly danger it is, and flee from it as if from the devil himself. Then, as long as we do our best to refrain from that evil, the Lord will flow in with the power of heaven and remove that evil, which can then be replaced by the opposite good. The net effect is that the pleasures we once had from that evil begin to fade, and are replaced by the heavenly delights of the opposite good.

The purpose of this sermon so far has been to encourage us to look back upon the things we have done in the past, not from the light of self-love or self-intelligence, but in the light of what we know to be true from the Lord in the Word, to warn of the things that prevent us from seeing our own actions clearly. No doubt, each of us can think of many things that we would like to change, things that we thought would work really well but through inattention, or false assumptions, or carelessness ended up hurting ones that we love. But in clearly seeing the wreckage of the past lies the hope for days that lie ahead. In His Divine Wisdom, the Lord created us so that by being able to see and understand the errors of the past, we can improve! We are not doomed to a lifetime of making the same mistakes, of causing the same hurts over and over.

Our lives are a cycle of states. We’re not happy and good all the time, nor are we sad and evil all the time. We can’t have Christmas every day – nor should we dwell in states of depression and self-loathing. We were created to change from state to state so that in looking back we could learn from our experiences, and in looking forward, we could hope for eternal salvation. Let us look forward with hopefulness and joy to the good things that the Lord has in store for us. We close with this reading from the True Christian Religion:

With any one who actually repents it is different. His evils, such as he has recognized and acknowledged, he calls sins, and therefore begins to shun them and turn away from them; and finally to feel their delight to be undelightful. And so far as this is done he sees and loves good, and at length feels the delight of good, which is the delight of the angels of heaven. In a word, so far as any one puts the devil behind him, he is accepted by the Lord, and is taught, led, withheld from evil, and kept in good by Him; and this is the way, and the only way, from hell to heaven. (TCR 567:6) AMEN.

First Lesson: Jer 7:21-28

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat meat. {22} “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. {23} “But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.’ {24} “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. {25} “Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have even sent to you all My servants the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them. {26} “Yet they did not obey Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers. {27} “Therefore you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not obey you. You shall also call to them, but they will not answer you. {28} “So you shall say to them, ‘This is a nation that does not obey the voice of the LORD their God nor receive correction. Truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth. Amen.

Second Lesson: Luke 16:10-18

“He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. {11} “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? {12} “And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own? {13} “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” {14} Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. {15} And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God. {16} “The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it. {17} “And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail. {18} “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery. Amen.

Third Lesson: True Christian Religion 523.

It is asserted that no man can fulfil the law, and the less so, since he who trespasses against one commandment of the Decalogue trespasses against all. But the meaning of this assertion is different from its sound, for it is to be understood thus, that he who purposely or deliberately acts contrary to one commandment, acts contrary to the rest, since to so act from purpose and deliberation is to deny utterly that it is sin, and when it is said to be sin, to reject the statement as of no account; and he who so denies and rejects the idea of sin gives no thought to anything that is called sin. Those who are unwilling to hear anything about repentance come into this fixed attitude of mind; but on the other hand, those who by repentance have removed some evils that are sins, come into a settled purpose to believe in the Lord and love the neighbour. Such are kept by the Lord in the purpose to refrain from other evils; and if therefore from ignorance or some over-powerful lust, they are led to commit sin, it is not imputed to them, because they did not commit it deliberately, and do not confirm it in themselves.

This may be confirmed by the following facts: In the spiritual world I have met with many who in the natural world had lived like others, dressing finely, feasting delicately, making money by trading like others, attending theatres, joking about lovers as if from licentiousness, and doing other like things; and yet the angels charged these things upon some as evils of sin, and not upon others, declaring the latter innocent, but the former guilty. Being asked the reason of this, since all had done the same things, they replied, that all are viewed by them from their purpose, intention, and end, and are distinguished accordingly; and therefore they excuse or condemn those whom the end excuses or condemns, since good is the end of all in heaven, and evil the end of all in hell. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2008 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009