The Twilight of Christianity?
At the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox (probably born 500 years ago, in 1514) noted
how potently God hath performed . . . the promises made to the Servants of God by the Prophet Esaias, ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall lift up the wings as the eagles: they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint’ (Isa. 40:31). What was our force? What was our number? What wisdom or worldly policy was in us, to have brought to a good end so great an enterprise? – our very enemies can bear witness. Yet in how great purity did God establish among us His True Religion, as well in doctrine as in ceremonies!
In the spirit of worship, Knox wished that ‘all praise’ would be ‘to God alone’ and acknowledged that their strength had come from God.1
The year 1560 was a high point in the work of God in Scotland. Yet we certainly should not look back on the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Even during the 12 further years for which Knox was to be spared, he had to endure many disappointments as forces opposed to a scriptural Church pushed back against the gains that had been made. Many have been the ups and downs in Scottish Church history since that time, but it is impossible to ignore the evidence that true religion in Scotland today is at a very low ebb – as it is in England and many other countries which, in other ages, saw God work powerfully and on a large scale.
One is tempted to describe our generation as experiencing the twilight of Christianity. Church attendance is declining; the influence of the Church on society is weakening; ignorance of the Bible and its teachings is increasing; less and less attention is being paid to God’s law. This last point is perhaps most vividly illustrated when parliaments alter a principle which is as old as the earth: that marriage is between a man and a woman (see Gen. 2:24). UK Culture Secretary Maria Miller, among others, even called legalising same-sex marriage ‘the right thing to do’; she must entirely have lost sight of the fact that one’s sense of right and wrong needs a foundation, and that the true foundation is the will of God as revealed in Scripture. At the same time, the larger Churches are giving a very unsatisfactory lead. The Episcopal Church in the United States of America has, since at least 2003, been willing to ordain practising homosexuals to the ministry, and the Church of Scotland has travelled a long way down the same ungodly road.
Most serious of all, Christ himself seems to be withdrawing from Scotland – from the professing Church and from the country as a whole – as is the case elsewhere also. Few, it appears, are being regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit and beginning to follow the Saviour. And among those who profess conversion, there often appears to be little difference between their lifestyle and that of the world.
It was ‘toward evening’ – it was perhaps already twilight – when the two disciples reached Emmaus, and their conversation with Jesus was likely to be interrupted. They felt something precious in his words, although they still did not understand who it was that had joined them on the way and had made their hearts burn within them as he spoke to them, opening up the Scriptures. And if we are forced to conclude that Christ is no longer showing his presence and power in the way that once he did – if the Sun of righteousness is not shining on his Church as he did in times past – we may describe such a time as the twilight of Christianity. No, he has not altogether withdrawn as yet; the Sun of righteousness still shines, but dimly. But we should be concerned that this trend will continue into the future, that he will abandon Scotland, and other countries, to total spiritual darkness.
What should those do who are concerned about the situation? Just what the two disciples did on their way to Emmaus: call to the One who had joined them: ‘Abide with us’ (Luke 24:29). We must pray that the great Head of the Church would show his power by changing the entire spiritual situation in Scotland and everywhere else. What should we pray for in particular? Perhaps first of all, that the Lord would, for Christ’s sake, send the Holy Spirit to bless the Bible to those who read it and to apply sound preaching wherever God-sent messengers are making known the counsel of God. Well might we take up the petition of David: ‘Let the whole earth be filled with his glory’ (Psa. 72:19).
If Christ were to return (in the sense of reversing his withdrawal, rather than coming for the second time at the end of this world) then we would look for a greater degree of conviction of sin, through the Holy Spirit applying that law to sinners. Then such people would recognise that God really does exist, that he does have absolute authority over them, and that his law, which they have so often and so seriously broken, condemns them to a lost eternity. We would expect to see them seeking the Lord with a real sense of urgency, making serious use of the means of grace that are available to them.
We would also expect to see the Spirit working faith and repentance in people’s hearts, and this repentance would result in a change of lifestyle: godliness would replace worldliness; a sense of the authority of God’s Word would replace submission to the world, the flesh and the devil; a feeling of the preciousness of having the Scriptures opened up would replace the neglect of these Scriptures. And the Spirit would continue his work in the hearts of those who are already believers, enabling them to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, so that some at least would be manifestly godly in their lives. A further evidence of Christ’s return would be to see him sending out many ambassadors, men who would speak in his name and with his authority, proclaiming law and gospel – indeed the whole counsel of God.
God hears prayer. Christ responded to the disciples’ request that he would abide with them; ‘he went in to tarry with them’. This indicates a continuing willingness to respond to the cry of those who are conscious of spiritual desolation. That was true of Daniel; how earnestly he confessed sin: ‘We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgements’ (Dan. 9:5). So we, in pleading for the return of Christ and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit must confess, not only the sin of the professing Church at large and of the nation, but also our own personal sin.
And Daniel cried,
O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for thine own sake, O my God: for thy city and thy people are called by thy name (Dan. 9:18, 19).
There is earnestness here, and dependence on God’s work, not on human endeavour – a sentiment which is reflected in Knox’s acknowledgement that the strength for the work of the Reformation came from God alone. Those who thus pray, notes Matthew Henry, know that God’s ‘reasons of mercy are fetched from within Himself, and therefore from Him we must borrow all our pleas for mercy, and so give honour to Him when we are suing for grace and mercy from Him’.
Our generation may be experiencing the twilight of Christianity, but true religion will never dwindle into complete darkness. In answer to prayer – and we do well to remember that prayer is a grace that God gives – he may be pleased quickly to turn the deepening darkness into the bright sunshine of a new day, even in 2014. But whether God’s answer comes quickly or otherwise, we are to pray expectantly for a time when ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Isa. 11:9).
- John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Banner of Truth, 1982 reprint), pp. 261-2.
Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the April 2014 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.
Reflections on Job 31 July 2020
The Beginning Job’s three friends could not have been more wrong. They looked at this profoundly afflicted man and concluded that by his sin he had brought all this suffering upon himself. What other explanation could there be? But there was another explanation, one that lay at the opposite pole to the one these men […]
Hope in the Face of Hostility 24 July 2020
In 1661, Elizabeth Heywood, a godly wife and mother from Lancashire, lay dying, aged just twenty-seven.1 Her last prayers were for the Church of God, for the Jews to be converted, and for the gospel to reach to all nations.2 Her vision extended far beyond her own situation, her own family and church and nation. […]