‘Take not thy Holy Spirit . . .’
As we approach the end of 2009, the religious and moral outlook in Britain remains bleak. God continues to be very largely ignored by Government and people. Year after year, legislation pours out of Parliament but never, it seems, is it considered remotely possible that God may have declared his mind on some aspect of whatever area of human conduct is being further regulated. Or if it is abundantly clear that God has spoken – declaring, for instance, that homosexual behaviour is abominable – his revelation must be steadfastly ignored and the nation directed to conform to the norms of godless, secular thinking.
Church buildings abound in all parts of the country. While many of them have been closed down and converted into flats or offices or even nightclubs, the majority remain open; yet in how many of these could one hope to hear a sermon which even vaguely resembles the central scriptural message of sin and salvation? One fears they are comparatively few.
But bleak though the outlook is, there is still a remnant according to the election of grace. The Lord has not forsaken us altogether. We still have reasons for thankfulness. The Holy Spirit is still at work, though he has seriously departed from us. Sinners are still being born again; God’s children are still making their way towards heaven in dependence upon their Saviour.
Notwithstanding the human propensity for formality in religion, the abundance of churches reminds us of other times in history, when the Holy Spirit was poured out. We may let our minds drift back to, for instance, the period of the Reformation 500 years ago, when a seismic change took place in many parts of Europe that was, at bottom, the result of the Spirit’s work.
In 1559, following the five-year reign of militantly-Roman-Catholic Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth had now been a year on the throne of England, and a new church settlement was in place. Although that settlement left much to be desired, the gospel was again being preached in many pulpits throughout the country. And convinced Protestants who, during Mary’s reign, had been forced to take refuge in continental cities such as Frankfurt and Geneva, were now back in England and again making their influence felt.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, 1559 found John Knox back from Geneva for the last time to assume leadership of the movement which, in God’s good providence, was to lead to national recognition of the Protestant religion the following year. The unwillingness of the present Scottish government to commemorate next year the anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland reflects two facts: (1) The Reformation was a clear statement that the Bible is completely true and its teachings utterly dependable, so that everyone is under an absolute obligation to receive these teachings and to follow them out in their lives. (2) The Reformation was an equally-clear statement that Roman Catholic doctrines are false, blasphemous and dangerous.
Both these statements show that the minds of those, such as Knox, who articulated them had been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Equally, the fact that neither of them is popular today shows that the work of the Holy Spirit is now very much restrained. This is an age when ‘truth is fallen in the street’ (Isa. 59:14), and what most people want is to be able to do and say and believe whatever they please and feel no responsibility before God to receive what he has revealed.
Since the Reformation, the Holy Spirit has often been poured out in abundance on the hearts of needy sinners in various parts of the United Kingdom. That abundance is no longer to be seen, and we are in danger of the Holy Spirit being entirely withdrawn from this country – though we should bear in mind that the influences of the Holy Spirit will never be entirely removed from the world, for there will always be some to fear God ‘as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations’ (Psa. 72:5).
Britain deserves that the Lord would take his Holy Spirit away because of how we have rejected him and his ways. His judgements in Old Testament times were thus described: ‘He turneth rivers into a wilderness, and the watersprings into dry ground; a fruitful land into barrenness’; and the reason why these judgements were inflicted is at once spelled out: ‘for the wickedness of them that dwell therein’ (Psa. 107:33,34). Similarly, when the rivers of gospel blessings dry up and spiritually-prosperous districts are turned into barrenness, we have to ask: Is this not the result of the sins of those who dwell there? As we consider our position today we cannot avoid remembering the sinful unbelief of so many in the churches during the last 150 years or so: they rejected the authority of the Scriptures and gave human reason free rein in deciding what may be believed in both religion and morals and what may be rejected.
In such a situation, God’s people would do well to remember David’s petition: ‘Take not thy Holy Spirit from me’ (Psa. 51:11); let them also cry: Take not thy Holy Spirit from our nation. Yet what hope can we have that such a petition will be heard? If we focus on what we deserve, the answer to our question must be: Absolutely none. But such a focus ignores the fact of grace; it is to a gracious God we are to come with our petitions, and there is a gracious Mediator in whose name we may present them.
The Church has been commissioned to spread the gospel everywhere, even in generations when the Holy Spirit has been largely withdrawn and when there is a danger of even more serious judgement being imposed. But the Church has not been left to act alone; the great King, her Mediator, has promised her: ‘I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 28:20). If he is with her, he will work by the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, there is every reason for the Church not only to pray that the Spirit would not be taken away, but also that he would be poured out to a vast extent, even in a generation as undeserving as ours.
Did Jerusalem deserve the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, particularly so soon after they ‘by wicked hands’ had ‘crucified and slain’ the Lord of glory? Manifestly not. But the disciples had been praying consistently and earnestly in the upper room since the ascension of their Master and, in his grace, the Lord had been pleased to hear them and to pour out the Holy Spirit. For Christ had ‘ascended on high…led captivity captive…received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also’ (Psa. 68:18). And prominent among these gifts for rebellious sinners was the Holy Spirit, to subdue their rebellion and make them willing to follow Christ in the paths of new obedience.
Did Scotland and England and various other European countries in the sixteenth century deserve the great work of the Holy Spirit during the Reformation? Again, manifestly not. And we would be hard pressed to identify any body of godly people who were then praying consistently and earnestly for an outpouring of the Spirit. So, while there were no doubt scattered individuals and small groups who were crying to God to come and work in the power of his Spirit, we may recognise all the more clearly the grace of the one who said, long centuries previously: ‘Before they call, I will answer’ (Isa. 65:24).
In spite of the bleakness of the spiritual landscape around us, in this and other countries, we must never lose sight of God’s grace and power. We must never lose sight of the fact that he hears prayer, even the prayer of the weakest of his children in the most discouraging of circumstances. We have every reason to plead that the Lord would not take his Holy Spirit from us but, further, that he would pour out the Spirit to an unprecedented extent. We have the encouragement of the promise: ‘The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Isa. 11:9).
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