There is always a danger of looking back to a golden age in the past when the Church of Christ was free from difficulties. No such age has ever existed. Yet we can look back to times when the Church of God enjoyed much greater spiritual prosperity than today. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of the 3000 who were added to the Church on the Day of Pentecost. And Paul could remind the Thessalonians how, in the short time he was able to spend in their city, the “gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance . . . . And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost; so that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. . . . And how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” The Holy Spirit was powerfully applying the gospel to the hearts of multitudes of sinners in most places which the Apostles visited.
Nor were such outpourings of the Spirit confined to biblical times. The Reformation was a period of remarkable transformation in the life of the Church throughout large swathes of Western Europe. But it was more than a re-ordering of the structures of the Church, putting them on a more biblical footing. What was also vitally important was the preaching of the pure gospel, so that once more great multitudes were turned to God from idols.
Even as far east as Poland, a powerful work of reformation was wrought in the kindness of God. But, weakened by heresy, Polish Protestantism was before long overwhelmed by the Counter-Reformation, led by the Jesuits. In Italy and Spain, the light of gospel truth, which had begun to burn brightly, was brutally extinguished by the Inquisition. In France, wave after wave of persecution wreaked havoc on the Church, so that at last very few believers were left in the country many having gone into exile. In other countries also, the tide which had flowed so strongly began to ebb.
Some of these countries Poland, Italy and Spain, in particular have never recovered from the disastrous efforts of the Counter-Reformation. What one generation sowed, succeeding ones have reaped; they have been left to languish under the darkness of Romanism.
On the other hand, much of the English-speaking world has seen periods of repeated revival. There was great blessing, for instance, in many parts of Scotland in the 1730s and 1740s. Cambuslang and Kilsyth spring to mind as scenes of the outpouring of the Spirit, when many were turned from their own ways to serve the living God. But the work of God in Scotland was only part of a much greater work in these times, when, under such instruments as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, large numbers of sinners were brought into the kingdom of God.
Among them was Robert Smith, converted under George Whitefield and later a minister in Pennsylvania. Smith was to write in 1788: “A few days ago I returned from Virginia, where I preached five Sabbaths . . . . The half was not told me of the display of Gods power and grace among them; no, not the tenth part. I have seen nothing equal to it for extensive spread, power and spiritual glory, since the years 40 and 41. The work has spread for 100 miles, but by far the most powerful and general in John Smiths congregations, which take in part of three counties. Not a word scarcely about politics, but all religion in public and private. They run far and near to sermons, sacraments and societies. They have six or seven praying societies, which meet every Wednesday and Saturday evenings, and at College on Sabbath evenings also. Numbers of the students have been convinced, and several of them hopefully converted. . . . The blessed work has spread among people of every description, high and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, orthodox and heterodox, sober and rude, white and black, young and old especially the youth, whom it seems to have seized generally.”
But what of today? Where are we now? If we focus on the United Kingdom at present, the picture is not encouraging. Gods law is increasingly disregarded. A generation ago, concern might have centred on Sabbath desecration. Now the Sabbath is almost an institution of the past except in some few corners of the land and in the hearts of Gods people everywhere. It was pointed out in earlier years that, if the battle for the Sabbath was lost, the next Commandment to fall would be the Seventh. And so it has turned out.
Immorality is commonplace and promoted by almost every form of entertainment. The ordinance of marriage is increasingly disregarded in society generally, while the Scottish Executive held out for months against the suggestion that marriage might even be mentioned in the proposed guidelines for schools on teaching about relationships. It is regarded as normal for couples to live together as if they were husband and wife without entering into the God-given ordinance of marriage. In any case, the permanence of marriage had been undermined by successive pieces of legislation which made divorce easier and easier. And homosexual relationships are put on the same level as those between male and female.
All these sins against the Seventh Commandment have consequences. Marriage is one of the fundamental building-blocks of a stable society. For society to put it aside is to leave itself open to greater fragmentation, not to speak of the increasing number of instances of heartbreak when relationships break down. In many cases, these relationships were not protected by the vows before God and man of marriage. Even when they had that protection, the lack of consciousness that these vows were made before God has often left them ineffective.
Similarly, most people have lost sight of the duty to worship God. They do not take part in public worship of any kind on a regular basis. One indication of the rapid decline in outward religion is the fact that membership in the Church of Scotland is now only half of what it was in the mid-1950s. But that is itself an indication of the serious problems that have existed within most of the professing Church in Scotland. The difficulties in Hezekiahs time were the result of past failures: “Our fathers have trespassed, and done that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord our God, and have forsaken Him, and have turned away their faces from the habitation of the Lord, and turned their backs” (2 Chron 29:6). As we look back today, we ought to recognise that the disastrous state of present-day religion is the result of other generations gradually throwing off the teachings of Scripture, especially the doctrine of its inspiration. The Church can no longer speak with conviction to the people; she has, by and large, no authoritative message to give them. No wonder that so many have voted with their feet and given up attending! Yet each generation, this one included, will have to answer for its own sins.
The Psalmist could look back with thankfulness over periods in Israels past history: “Thou hast saved us from our enemies, and hast put them to shame that hated us. In God we boast all the day long, and praise Thy name for ever.” (Ps 44:7,8). But circumstances had changed. And, as he looked around him now, he could only sing mournfully: “But Thou hast cast off, and put us to shame; and goest not forth with our armies” (verse 9). So we may look around us today. We ought to acknowledge with thankfulness that the Lord has not altogether taken His armies away from the UK. But they are undoubtedly weak. And we do not see much evidence, when these armies go out to do battle with the forces of Satan, that the Lord goes with them. Yet we may take up the petition with which Psalm 44 concludes: “Arise for our help, and redeem us for Thy mercies sake.”
R M MCheynes biographer records how his friend W C Burns described Newcastle as “a town giving itself up to utter ungodliness a town where Satans trenches were deep and wide, his wall strong and high, his garrison great and fearless, and where all that man could do seemed but as arrows shot against a tower of brass”. In 1842, MCheyne and some other ministers went there, knowing “that the Spirit of God was omnipotent and that He could take the prey from the mighty”. One night, MCheyne preached to a large crowd in the open air in bright moonlight on the Great White Throne (Rev 20: 11). He ended his sermon by saying, “We will never meet again till we all meet at the judgement seat of Christ, but the glorious heavens over our heads and the bright moon that shines upon us and the old venerable church behind us are my witnesses that I have set before you life and death”. It was said that some will have cause to remember that night throughout eternity.
Almost everywhere today, Satans strongholds are extremely powerful. But they are not impregnable, any more than they were in 1842. The Church in our time must go out with the same gospel, the gospel which was so effective in the hands of the Apostles, the Reformers, and ministers like MCheyne. The preaching of the gospel has for many years been followed with little success, but the Word of God is still the sword of the Spirit an effective weapon indeed. When the Lord will again be pleased in sovereign mercy to go out with His armies, it will be found that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Cor 10:4). When the Holy Spirit will again be poured out abundantly, the forces of evil and false religion will not be able to resist, and a great body of people everywhere will be made willing in a day of Christs power.
Where are we now? As a nation, we are in a serious position, having turned our backs on God. The Church is weak; the Holy Spirit has largely been withdrawn. But the pure gospel has not been altogether taken away, and today more copies of the Scriptures are being circulated throughout the world than ever before. There are glorious promises in Scripture though we cannot tell in advance when they will be fulfilled which point us to greater blessings than the world has yet seen. Let the Church then go on in prayerful confidence, even today, in spite of every disappointment, knowing that her Master has great purposes of mercy for this world, summed up in the promise: “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9).