The war in Iraq is now over with surprisingly little loss of life, at least among Coalition forces. But where, thus far at least, is the public acknowledgement of God’s goodness in the matter? Yes, the media carried pictures of soldiers praying together before the conflict began, but has anyone heard a single Government minister even whispering the slightest acknowledgement of God’s care over our armed forces? No doubt, Government ministers might speak very readily of the massive superiority of Coalition weaponry in an age of smart bombs and Challenger tanks. But do we not see here a repetition of the attitude of the heathen king of Assyria, who congratulated himself: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom”? So today government and people in Britain and elsewhere look no further than their strength and their wisdom; they have no sense of their need of divine help. And perhaps the Coalition powers face even greater difficulties in trying to bring about a peaceful democracy in Iraq than in their campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and his regime; it may be more difficult to win the peace than to win the war. Accordingly their need of divine help may now be even greater than when hostilities began.If there was, and is, no public acknowledgement of our need of divine help in connection with the crisis in Iraq, is it any wonder that God is so little acknowledged in the ordinary course of British life? Most of us have plenty of the ordinary necessities of life; there is no threat of war at home or of a devastating plague. Scarcely anyone feels the need to ask: “What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” But, for the most part, God is not acknowledged as the Provider; no thankfulness is shown to Him; there is no consciousness that all the good things of life come our way because of His kindness. And, more seriously still, there is no realisation that we have spiritual needs – no sense that we have sinned and need to be forgiven, no sense that we have corrupt hearts and need to be put right, no sense that we are on our way to eternity and need to be prepared. There is most certainly no sense that we are altogether dependent on God to supply the needs of our souls. One would look almost in vain to find anyone who believes that we cannot begin to earn the blessings of salvation but must receive them from Christ as undeserving sinners.
Not surprisingly, in these circumstances, British churches are largely empty and more and more are closing down as the years go by. Yet what kind of message would a sinner hear in a typical British church today? He would certainly not be confronted with the solemn fact of the seriousness of his sin as a rebel against God; he would not be told that he must perish eternally, unless he repents – unless he turns from his iniquities and looks in faith to Christ as the divine Saviour who died for sinners and rose again. Although this sinner might have a sense of sin, he is unlikely to hear the message of the gospel as it is revealed in the Scriptures.
Cost of Conscience, an organisation which describes itself as “a fellowship of Anglican clergy”, has conducted a survey of the beliefs of ministers in the Church of England. The results are disturbing, if not altogether surprising. Among male clergy, 76% accepted the statement: “I believe Jesus Christ died to take away the sins of the world”. No doubt this 76% covers a wide variety of opinions, but what at all can the other 24% believe – in a Church which accepts, however tenuously, the Thirty-Nine Articles as its subordinate standard? Article 2 asserts that “Christ, very God and very man . . . truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men”. The definiteness of the atonement may not be as clear here as in later Reformed creeds, but the fact that Christ made an atonement for sin could not be more clearly stated. Those who deny this basic, central fact of Christian doctrine can have absolutely no sense of the authority of God speaking in His Word. And the consequences are serious – not least for those who listen to such preachers. Did not the Saviour ask: “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?”
But there is worse to come. In the words of Cost of Conscience: “Jesus is asserted as the only way to salvation by a pitiful 53% of male clergy”. Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is rather better at 68%, but the proportion of those who accept His virgin birth falls to 58%. If we turn to moral issues, we find that only two-thirds of all clergy are opposed to euthanasia, while the same proportion supported the statement: “Abortion should not be carried out unless the mother’s life is at risk”.
Thus far we have not referred specifically to the views of women clergy – after all, Scripture teaches that only men are commissioned to preach the gospel. On the issues stated, however, the views of women clergy are consistently less orthodox than those of men. Even so, it is particularly disturbing that only 47% of women clergy supported the above statement on abortion. Cost of Conscience comments: “Though such a low figure is shocking in Christian terms, it has to be remembered that the driving force of women’s ordination, secular feminism, holds as self-evident truth a woman’s right to control her fertility by, if necessary, abortion on demand”.
But let us listen to Paul, a man with a real sense of need because of sin. He considered himself “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious,” and these sins, he knew, were serious because they were committed against a holy God, whose creature he was. Paul could not think of sin, and of his own sins in particular, in any superficial way; he believed he was the chief of sinners. And because sin was real to him, he needed an effective salvation – which was what he found, in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was a gospel that met his deepest needs and it could, he fully believed, meet the deepest needs of others. Which is why we can imagine him proclaiming at every possible opportunity: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”.
It was a gospel which he had found effective in Corinth, in Philippi, in Thessalonica, and even in Athens. It had not yet been possible for him to preach in Rome. Perhaps, in God’s providence, one reason why he had been hindered from reaching Rome was so that he would feel it necessary to write the Epistle to the Romans, which as part of Scripture was to be so vital for the spiritual health of the Church to this present time. In that epistle he expressed his readiness “to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also”. And he gave as his reason for that resolve: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek”. And let us ever remember that this gospel, so “worthy of all acceptation”, was the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of Romans, Paul highlights the main content of that gospel: “Concerning [God’s] Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead”.
Though in decreasing numbers, people do continue to attend church; they may be attracted by the music, by the eloquence of the preacher, or by something vaguely religious about the atmosphere. But they may hear more attractive music elsewhere and superior eloquence; they may even feel that their religious needs are better satisfied as they contemplate the beauties of nature. When the churches no longer see it as their duty to awaken a sense of need in sinners who have offended a holy God, it is not surprising that fewer and fewer come through their doors. People generally feel that the churches have nothing to offer. No doubt, the devil is glad to have it so and will do all in his power to confirm them in this. And he will also do all in his power to convince sinners that churches which do proclaim a pure gospel have nothing to offer their hearers.
But the devil was a liar from the beginning. It was he who deceived Adam and Eve into believing what was manifestly contrary to God’s directions. He has been doing his utmost to deceive sinners in every generation since then into believing – almost always with conspicuous success – that a false religion meets their needs much better than the true. And this generation is no exception; although today the devil seems to find it easier than ever before to persuade sinners that they need no religion at all. The gospel which presents Jesus Christ as a living Saviour was what sinners needed in first-century Rome, whose moral debasement is so pointedly described towards the end of Romans 1. And as individual sinners were brought to feel their need before God, they eagerly received the testimony of Christ’s ambassadors.
In the USA, however, large numbers still go to church. Congregations of 10 000 are not unheard of. Such congregations pride themselves on being seeker-sensitive – so nothing is said which might put off a first-time visitor. Christ is presented as one who can help individuals in their loneliness, for instance, or in their personal relationships. But nothing should be said to awaken a sense of sin, to suggest that the great God of heaven is offended by transgression. That would be insensitive, and the visitor might never come back! Thus it is unlikely that the Scripture reading would start at the beginning of John 3, and so include the forthright words of Christ: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”. Yet unless sinners are brought to a sense of need, how will they ever come to Christ and find salvation through Him? How will they ever set out on the way to heaven?
But what of God’s children themselves, who have indeed set out on the way to heaven? Are they as conscious of their spiritual needs as they should be? Do they feel, as they ought, the strength of corruption in their souls? Do they feel their total need of continued dependence on the grace of God? And do they echo the words of Paul: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God”? Yes, they do have a sense of need, but their sense of need requires to be deepened.
And how can this deepening be brought about? In the same way as unconverted sinners are brought to a sense of spiritual need for the first time – by the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God to their souls. Sinners may, with the help of the evil one, lose that sense of need in many ways. But in only one way can this sense of need be safely satisfied – by the Holy Spirit applying to their souls the gospel concerning Jesus Christ so that they will look to Him by faith. Apart from this, there is great danger that this generation will descend even further into the abyss of moral and spiritual degradation.