Judgment and Mercy
When I began to consider what I should say in these pages, I found myself pulled in two directions. My first impulse was to lament the spiritual decay that people of my generation have observed at close range and to urge the next generation to carry on the struggle against it with unremitting faithfulness and courage. Upon reflection, however, it seemed right to me that we should also thank God for the amazing works of grace that are being accomplished at the present time, even under a clouded sky and in adverse circumstances. Perhaps I can manage the feat of moving in both directions at the same time.
Almost fifty years have elapsed since I was ordained to the gospel ministry. When I was a theological student and then a young pastor, many of us were impatient with much that we observed in the churches, but we also believed that we were on the verge of an awakening. We expected that such a movement of the Holy Spirit would sweep away the debris of liberal theology, restore the faltering church to the faith of the Scriptures, and bring about untold numbers of conversions. That our hopes have largely remained unfulfilled hardly requires evidence.
During the 1960s I gained a new perspective, while living for some years in the Netherlands and in England where the Christian witness had already deteriorated to an extent unthinkable at the time on this side of the Atlantic. I found that many Europeans tended to look upon the American churches with envy and disdain: envy because religious life in the United States was still so apparently vibrant; disdain because in their view we had not yet come to terms with the realities of modern life and thought. Since then the position in the United States has changed radically, and the very decline to which in our arrogance we thought ourselves immune is now apparent at every turn.
No simple explanation can be given for what has been taking place, and it is essential to maintain a historical perspective. In biblical times and across the centuries there have been other periods of similar barrenness that God has mercifully interrupted with reformation and revival. Those wise in their own eyes, past and present, have regularly belittled the ‘credulity’ of Christians and declared the gospel to be unworthy of serious consideration, but the desert sands of infidelity are littered with the whitened bones of foolish people who said to themselves and to others, ‘There is no God’.
It should also be considered whether we may be living under a divine judgment, a famine ‘of hearing the words of the Lord’ (Amos 8:11). Is such an act of God the reason for the pervasive decay in many of the denominations whose testimony was once firm but who have lapsed into doctrinal, theological, and moral confusion? Is the widespread ineffectiveness even among churches that have continued to be formally orthodox a sign of God’s displeasure? Surely I am not alone in describing much of what passes for Christian faith as superficial and hereditary, lacking in knowledge, faith, and fervour.
I do not write, however, as one with his back against a wall. The present disarray is no cause for disillusionment or despair. On the contrary, if we have eyes to see them, there are many reasons for gratitude and hope. I mention only a few.
We must be thankful for the availability of Christian books and periodicals. I remember as though it were yesterday when the first slender volumes published by the Banner of Truth Trust appeared on the shelves of our seminary bookshop in 1958. No one could then have predicted what would happen subsequently, but those little books proved to be a harbinger of the literary torrent that followed from publishers in many parts of the world. The writings of the Reformers, the puritans, and their successors have been reissued in numbers without historical precedent. Moreover, others are building on that foundation and giving us books that explore the teachings of Scripture and apply them to our own situation.
We can be thankful for earnest, faithful preachers of the gospel. While historic Christian churches in Europe, Canada, and the United States have collapsed, the gospel is being preached with power in our own land and over vast reaches in other parts of the world. The very fact that ecclesiastical ties are being stretched and even broken is itself an indication of authentic life. Lines of division have been drawn by courageous leaders who have chosen the path of obedience to God over denominational loyalty. Ours is a time of vigorous growth in Africa, Asia, and South America, a fact of which we should never lose sight.
We are right to be thankful for strong, sturdy congregations in which the lamp of the gospel is burning brightly. There are many that have not substituted ‘feelings’ for truth; that elevate faithfulness to God and his Word above all other considerations; that continue to honour the Lord’s Day; that joyfully worship in accordance with biblical principles; and in which people – the elect – are being brought to Christ in saving faith.
Above all, we must be thankful that the universe, the world, and the church are in the hands of a sovereign God whose purposes are indefectible, whose plan is every day being carried out, who will unfailingly bring to himself every one for whom our Saviour died, and who must in the end receive all praise and glory.
Dr. John R. de Witt, after having served various pulpits since 1959, is now retired and living in Columbia, S.C. He also served as associate editor of The Banner of Truth magazine and translated Herman Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology.
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