Where is God? That is a question that needs to be asked in the midst of the present situation.
God does not appear to be at work in the church. The number attending church is in steep decline. Christianity is being marginalised and held up to ridicule by many. Efforts are being made to stem the tide. Schemes are drawn up to reach out to the churchless masses in our nation. Special prayer meetings are held for revival. But it seems that the heavens are as brass. There is a spiritual dearth in the land.
What can we do about it? To some this is not a matter of concern. They believe that God exists for man’s convenience. He provides a salvation which is to be had for the asking. The growth of the church is in their hands. For them, pragmatism is the order of the day.
But those with a more God-centred and biblical view of the church see things differently. They know that the situation cannot be recovered by man’s efforts alone. They emphasise the need for prayer. But there still seems to be a lack of discernment as to what lies at the root of the problem and what should be done about it.
They do not take into account that the church in the Western world appears to be under the judgment of God.
Old Testament pattern
We see that such a situation is not unique but follows the pattern shown in Scripture and Church history. God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. By the covenant with Abraham, God chose a people for himself: ‘For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you’ (Deuteronomy 7.6). As he is a holy God, his chosen people are to reflect his holiness. As he is ‘a jealous God’ he will ‘visit their iniquity’ (Exodus 20.5). In Deuteronomy 28, where we have the renewal of the covenant before the children of Israel entered the land of Canaan, it is clearly explained that there will be blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.
The pattern of blessing and cursing can be traced throughout the OT. When God’s favour and presence was with his people, great things were done. The mighty deliverances they experienced are attributed to the Lord (Psalm 44.3). But his people Israel, by their sinning, provoked him to jealousy. They mingled with the heathen and learned their works. As a result, Shiloh was destroyed and the ark, which was a visible indication of God’s strength and glory, was captured (Psalm 78.61-62).
We see this repeated in the case of individuals, as well as the nation as a whole. Wise King Solomon went astray and God’s jealousy was provoked against him: the kingdom was taken from him. Israel’s unfaithfulness led to their years of captivity in Babylon. Their idolatry provoked the Lord to anger, and in his faithfulness he brought the curses upon them ( Isaiah 1.4, Hosea 4.1).
New Testament pattern
In the New Testament, the church remains under the scrutiny of the Lord. The true church is visible to the world by holding to the truth of God and by the purity of her life (Jude v.3). When the church departs from these ways she comes under the chastisement of the Heavenly Father (Hebrews 12.6). Speaking of the church in Corinth, Calvin maintained that the abuse of the Lord’s Supper caused Christ to be displeased and as a consequence ‘many are weak and sickly among you and many sleep’ (1 Corinthians 11.30).
In the Book of the Revelation we find Christ addressing the seven churches of Asia. The candlesticks signify the seven churches and he walks in the midst of each one (Revelation 2.1). He sees much to praise in them, but his all-seeing eye also exposes what is offensive: ‘nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love’ (Revelation 2.4). In Revelation 3.16, Jesus speaks of spitting the church in Laodicea out of his mouth.
The threatened judgments are severe, but they are declared with the encouragement to repent and come back. The call is always to return to the place they left.
The long decline
Let us apply this to the situation in which we find ourselves today.
Protestantism has wandered through the last century and a half in a similar way to what the children of Israel did in the wilderness. This episode of their history was brought about by unbelief and disobedience. In the case of Israel it was said: ‘Therefore their days did he consume in vanity and their years in trouble’ (Psalm 78.33).
In the second half of the 19th century, the church turned from the Scriptures as its God-given authority. The glorious ‘gospel of God’ was changed into a man-centred message. A jealous God, who is zealous for his honour and his worship, would not be true to himself unless he had visited them for their iniquity. The church can say, as did the people of God in their time of captivity: ‘Thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us because of our iniquities’ (Isaiah 64.7).
This situation was acknowledged to some extent in the 1950s. It was articulated by Iain Murray who, in the light of the declension at that time, began to send out a message through The Banner of Truth published in 1955: ‘Our witness was simple, but we were convinced it was true and urgent, so we spoke plainly: the ills of our land and the spiritual poverty of the church arose from the fact that we have offended God and that he has a controversy with us. Our problem is not in empty churches nor in indifferent multitudes but in our own disobedience to the Word of God. We have diluted the gospel by turning it into a man-centred message and we have ceased to make the Scripture the rule of our practice. In short before everything else we need to clear out of our lives and out of our pulpits and out of our churches all the things that have caused God to depart from us.’
Application for today
God is the glory in the midst of his church as he was in the experience of the people of Israel in the Old Testament. His holiness – ‘the outshining of all his attributes’ – cannot endure sin wherever it is to be found. His anger is nothing other than the holy recoil of his holiness against sin.
Although his people are justified before him, he does not ignore their ongoing sin wherever it is to be found. He turns his countenance away and sends fatherly chastisements (or judgments) to his people. He sometimes uses his enemies to afflict them, or else he may leave them to their own devices, until they come to realise their folly and seek his face once again in repentance.
The only way that the witness of Christians and churches can be preserved is in constant fellowship with God through prayer, meditation, and self-discipline.
To an otherwise outwardly flourishing church like Ephesus there is a warning issued at the first indication of declension; they had left their first love. In the case of the church in Thyatira, with much to commend her, there is a failure of discipline in that they tolerated Jezebel. It has been remarked that ‘when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it’.1 Christ has abandoned many churches that are blissfully unaware of his departure. The children of Israel fought in vain to capture Ai because God had a controversy with them, for there was an Achan in the camp.
Surely the urgent call to the church today is to remember from where we have fallen, and repent, and do the first works (Revelation 2.5).
We know that all departures from God and Scripture are the work of Satan. Men were unconsciously deluded by the principalities and powers of darkness. They embraced error that dethroned God and exalted man. We need to humble ourselves and acknowledge God’s just judgments upon us. We need to challenge the powers of darkness and return to God with penitence to plead for his supernatural power to deliver us. We take heart from the words of John Owen: ‘I believe truly that when God has accomplished some end upon us and has stained the glory of all flesh, he will renew the power and glory of religion among us again, even in this nation’.
1. J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (Sprinkle, 1982), p. 274.
This article is an edited extract from Problems Confronting the Church Today by John J. Murray, published by the Scottish Reformation Society.