Wake Up, Sleepers!
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11)
Paul is writing to the congregation of new Christians at the heart of the Roman Empire. First of all he has given to them a magnificent explanation of the doctrines of the faith that they are to believe, and then he has spoken to them of the kind of life that Christian teaching must produce as they present their bodies to God. He has spoken both of their individual lives and the body life of the church. He has gone on to open up the law of God and then he has urged them, as his great climax, to love their neighbours as they love themselves. You would think that he has covered the whole spectrum of Christian living but he has something else to say about vital discipleship. He turns to the theme of revived and revitalized Christianity. He is concerned about some of them; not about their orthodoxy, nor their morality but that they are growing luke-warm; they are leaving their first love for other interests – politics and business and so on. In fact they are backsliding without being aware of it. The picture that Paul uses here is of a Christian drifting off to sleep. ‘Wake up from your slumber’ (v.11) he says to them. What good are all those doctrines to you if you are slumbering? What good is it that you have become moral and righteous men and women if you are slumbering? What good is your church attendance and that you are aware of the problems and blessings of other members of the church if you are slumbering?
Frequently in Scripture believers are exhorted to wake up, to be revived, and they are warned of the dangers of spiritual sleep. There is that symbolic person in the book of Proverbs, the sluggard, the slothful man, and his folly is paraded before the whole world. ‘Wake up you sluggard! Go to the ant you sluggard!’ Then you hear the prophet Isaiah preaching to sleeping Israel, ‘Arise, shine, for thy light has come!’ Or you hear Amos warning the careless people of God, ‘Woe to them that are at ease in Zion.’ Or a pagan sea captain is more awake than an Old Testament prophet. He roughly rouses the sleeping Jonah, ‘What do you mean O sleeper? Arise and call upon the name of your God!’ Again you find the Lord Jesus telling a parable in which a master is addressing a sleeping servant, ‘You wicked and slothful servant.’ He was slumbering while his fellow servants were working hard. Then you meet the apostle Paul exhorting the church in Corinth telling them to ‘Awake unto righteousness.’ He addresses the Ephesian church, ‘Awake thou that sleepest . . .’ Paul joins himself to the Thessalonians and he says to them, ‘let us not sleep as others . . .’ Or again you find in the letter to the church at Sardis, in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus passing this verdict on the congregation that it had a name that it was alive, but it actually was dead.
Now all these references tell us one thing, that it is possible that one can be a true believer, even a minister called by God to preach the gospel, or that one can belong to a real gospel church, and yet become a slumbering Christian. All the prophets and apostles and our Lord himself both in his state of humiliation and exaltation make that danger perilously clear. But what is distinctive about these exhortations is this, that we are held responsible by God for our condition. In other words we cannot blame God that we have been slumbering. The fault is not the Lord’s. A preacher may be aware that the gifts that God gave to Whitefield or Spurgeon he has not received. A Christian may feel his intellectual or physical or psychological limitations, and he knows that God will not ask him to do what his grace has not provided. He will never write a commentary on the Hebrew of an Old Testament book. He will never preach to 70,000 Welshmen in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Those are not his gifts, and we may be both sad and relieved that that is the case. But when we slumber we cannot say to God that he has made us sleepers. God addresses us and says, ‘What are you doing here slumberer?’ because to slumber is to sin, and God cannot sin nor does he cause us to sin. He comes and says to us as he says to Adam, ‘Where are you Adam?’ Then we cannot reply, ‘There are other people in the church who are resting just like me, and you put us in that congregation. You did it.’ I am saying that men always seek to respond like that and plead that somehow it’s a failure on God’s part that they are not full of life, not always abounding in the work of the Lord, not always ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. They are not slumbering because there is any failure in the divine love, or the divine provision, or the divine power that is the cause of changing the body of Christ into a dormitory.
I say to you that such excuses are as old as the fall itself and Adam’s attempt to shift the blame for his sin onto his wife. No. We are responsible for our slumbering. We are responsible for the state of our churches. So I am pointing out to you that Paul teaches this congregation what they are to believe, and then he exhorts them how they are to live, and then he challenges them not to slumber as others do. ‘Do you know the time?’ says Paul. Nero was on the throne and things were hotting up; it was a time to be strong and wise and vigilant, but that is not his primary reference. Paul is reminding them of this brief time of our earthly pilgrimage, a time that shoots by like a weaver’s shuttle, the only time that we shall ever have to work for the Lord in a groaning world. No time is to be spent in slumbering. Now it is high time to awake out of sleep for soon our lifetime’s labours will be ended. The consummation of our salvation, full and final, is getting nearer and nearer; already it is much closer than when we first believed ten or fifty years ago. The day is almost here; this night is coming to an end, so do not slumber. There is no failure in the divine provision or the divine love or power. I will never argue with God, ‘But you refused to baptize me with your Spirit.’ God will say, ‘Did I not put you in Christ? Were you not complete in him?’ And every mouth will be stopped for we know that God made full provision for all his people in everything they were called to do, but we failed to avail ourselves of it, rather we slumbered. Now I am going to ask two questions about this state of spiritual slumber.
1. When are Christians most tempted to slumber?
Please understand that the New Testament doesn’t teach that there are two classes of Christians, sleeping Christians and awakened Christians. I don’t want to give that impression. I oppose anything that divides the body of Christ in such a way or that suggests a solitary experience is enough to upgrade a Christian’s life. It takes the careful and zealous implementation of all of Romans chapter 12 and 13 to transform believers. ‘I will do what God is telling me to do here,’ you determine by grace. Cry mightily to God that he will enable you to live in this way. No, what the New Testament is saying is more challenging, that at certain times in the lives of all kinds of Christians, from new believers to old preachers, they are in danger of slumbering, and frequently they don’t know it. What are those times?
i] A Christian is most likely to slumber when his outward circumstances are most pleasant. When you are staying in a caravan and a storm is blowing in from the Irish Sea and the whole trailer is rocking back and fore then you find it hard to sleep. Or if you discover a leak in your hot water bottle then you cannot remain in a wet bed. But when the night is quiet, your bed is warm and you curl up under the sheets then you are able to sleep like a log. When all is safe and comfortable then you will say, ‘Soul, soul, you have many goods laid up for years; take your rest, eat, drink and be merry.’
Many of you know this. There were times when you didn’t know if you could pay your bills. You were unemployed; there was uncertainty about finding a job. You had had an accident or a series of illnesses. You were relying on providence every hour and your troubles forced you to the throne of grace more faithfully and longer than ever. There were difficulties in the church; enemies were at work dividing the congregation, and at such times you were addressing the throne of grace as you never did when the church was united and happy. Now that more peaceful times have come don’t you think that you were more awake spiritually then than you are now? Few men sleep in troubled times but men sleep on a calm night.
You have passed through that trial; the wheels of providence are turning over very smoothly and you thank God for helping you during those months, but are you praying as earnestly now as you did then? Are you as conscious now as you were then how entirely in God’s hands you are for everything? When Jonah was in the fish’s belly he watched and prayed, but when he was on board ship he slept. Everyone else could see the danger. Everyone else was praying and calling on the name of his god, but Jonah was sleeping on calmly. Once he’d been thrown overboard and swallowed by the fish, how he prayed!
Are you asleep now while men and women in the church are praying all around you? Was there a time when you didn’t miss a Prayer Meeting? Was there a time when you never neglected a time of personal devotions? Now others pray while you slumber. But perhaps you are the reason the church is in the storm it’s in. So I am saying to you that the danger time for spiritual slumbering is when our outward circumstances are most pleasant.
ii] A Christian is most likely to slumber when all is going well in spiritual matters. In The Pilgrim’s Progress1 you never read that Christian slept when the lions were roaring, or when he was wading through the last great river, or when he was fighting with Apollyon, or when he was lying in Giant Despair’s dungeon. Poor pilgrim; he almost wished he could sleep there. While he was climbing up Hill Difficulty he didn’t slumber but half way up he came across a pretty arbour, a sheltered resting place, and there he sat down and read his scroll. He took off his sandals, rubbed his feet and lay back. Soon his mouth was open, his arms were hanging down and Christian was fast asleep. Depend on it that it’s in the easy places spiritually as well as physically that we slumber.
Arouse yourselves. The enemy is in no less dangerous and no less busy today than he has ever been. When did the enemy come and sow tares in the wheat? It was while no one was watching, while men slept. All the work of ploughing and sowing and watering was over. Now they were gripped with a spirit of anticipation, full harvest, bursting barns and riches. Then it was that men slept. And false doctrine, and modernism, and ritualism crept into the churches of Wales in times of numerical and moral prosperity while deacons and elders were sleeping. It was not during times of persecution. Those who should have been watchmen and listening out for the hint of another gospel (which is no gospel at all) went to sleep, and so the sowing of the tares went on unchallenged. An unwatchful church soon becomes an unholy church. A congregation which does not guard carefully the truth as it is in Jesus will soon become an unsound church, a degenerate church and finally a synagogue of Satan.
Members of gospel churches – I speak to you in particular now. Financially you have never had as much money in the church accounts as today. Your contemporary service really attracts the teenagers. You are baptizing young people all the time. I would urge you to beware of thinking, ‘I am rich and increased in goods and have need of nothing’, while ignorant of the fact that you are ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.’ What a dangerous combination is being contented and luke-warm, of hiding your slumbering souls behind a programme of activities. It will result in Christ spewing you out of his mouth. Are the churches in Turkey asleep today? Are the churches in southern Sudan asleep? Are the underground churches in North Korea asleep? If Smithfield were filled with the smoke of burning martyrs we Christians wouldn’t be slumbering. Ebenezer Erskine knew times of prosperity and times of persecution. He commented, ‘I like a roaring devil better than a sleeping devil.’
There is no temptation half as bad as not being tempted. When a man is wrought upon by the Spirit who convicts him of sin and righteousness and judgment then he doesn’t slumber; when hell is open and he knows he is not right with God it is no time for him to sleep. It is after we feel we have had it all, conversion and tongues, then cliché religion grows – ‘Jesus saves and keeps and satisfies’ – and we relax. We have arrived; there is nothing left to attain; we slumber. You who feel contented today, take care! There is no time in which we are so likely to fall asleep as when we think we are safe. We are told of the disciples who came down from the Mount of Transfiguration – that peak of blessing – that they slept.
When these same men were later in the Upper Room at the Lord’s Supper, and taken by our Lord to watch and pray with him in the Garden then we are told that they slept. They had just heard the greatest sermon men have ever heard in this world; they had just heard its climax in the greatest prayer ever prayed. They had heard Jesus’ warning to watch, and his request for them to pray. And yet they slumbered. They had been admitted to the most secret place of our Lord’s grief; they saw his sweat as drops of blood and heard him wrestling for God to give him another cup to drink, but he found them sleeping. Though he woke them up they soon slept again. ‘Couldn’t you watch with me for one hour?’ They were sleeping for sorrow and our Lord knew and made an excuse for them as he might graciously make for us – ‘The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ But let us do all in our power to avoid such an apology. Now it is high time to wake out of sleep.
iii] A Christian is most likely to slumber when he is nearer the end of the journey. There is a retired preacher I know who when he was a preacher would always be warning of the perils of a dead orthodoxy. His ‘Amens’ would be heard in conferences. Any kind of evangelism, even the most worldly, he would support. How scornful he was of those of us who expressed any misgivings. He has now retired from his church, and it is as if he has disappeared from the ranks of the kingdom of God. He fusses with his grandchildren and decorates his house and goes for drives to the Welsh hills for picnics, but where is he in the fields of battle? John Bunyan puts ‘Enchanted Ground’ right at the end of the journey. He wrote,
this Enchanted Ground is one of the last refuges that the Enemy to Pilgrims has, wherefore it is, as you see, placed almost at the end of the Way, and so it standeth against us with the more advantage. For when, thinks the Enemy, will these Fools be so desirous to sit down, as when they are weary? and when so like to be weary, as when almost at their journey’s end?2
It is after they have walked with the Lord for many years, when they are weary of their fightings and struggles. So he places Enchanted Ground right next to Beulah Land.
I am saying that those who have been Christians for years are in danger of slumbering, of thinking that a message like this is most suitable for the young confident believer not themselves. They have grown out of that; they’re not in danger of slumbering. But have you noticed in the Bible that there are few young people who fall into gross sin? Lot was not a young man when he got drunk. Abraham was not a young man when he lied. Jacob was not a young man when he cheated his brother. David was not a young man when he fornicated and plotted murder. Peter was not a young man when he denied his Lord. Demas was not a young man when he forsook the Apostle Paul.
The classic example is Samson. What a warning he is to us! Here is a man who was once ‘strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.’ Years ago perhaps he was a man we knew, and all of us can think of different men like him. When he prayed in a prayer meeting we didn’t want to pray after him for there was such an anointing on his praying. He preached in the open air to the bingo queue. What a collection of books he had. When he went off to sea he took two cases with him; one was full of his books. He witnessed to everyone; he even painted a text on his bicycle. He did mighty things for the Lord and we looked on and wondered and envied. We said, ‘Would to God that we had an hour of strength like that man.’ Yet, where is he now? All the people of God knew him. Our enemies knew him too; he was valiant in battle. Where is he now? He’s not here in the congregation; we do not hear of him on the fields of service. We don’t see him in conferences, or in prayer meetings, or standing in the open air. He’s gone to sleep. He thinks he has spiritual goods laid up for many years and now he’s taking his rest. Oh that we could wake him up. Delilah is the companion of carnal security. She gives many believers the seal of her kiss and she sings them to slumber. Yes, we have joined together memories and made a composite picture of a number of awesome men we’ve known over the years, once valiant for truth, once abounding in the Lord’s work, but now they are lying asleep.
I don’t need to go outside these walls or look beyond this congregation. Some of us, though never so distinguished and not attaining so much, are today lying in Delilah’s lap. Bless God if he hasn’t let you live a useless life, but possibly now you’re degenerating and taking things easy. Now you like to think of yourself as mature, your theology has become more progressive, you’ve started to laugh at yourselves for what you call your ‘juvenile zeal.’ We hear you say, ‘In those days we used to think we knew it all.’ Now you are prudent; now you are wise. Would to God you weren’t so prudent and wise. Would to God you were half as foolish as you used to be when you loved God with a zeal so great that nothing was too hard and nothing too challenging if the Lord called you to do something for him.
What do I see when I think of Samson asleep on Delilah’s lap? I see danger of the deadliest sort. The Philistines are not sleeping, and while Samson sleeps up they come with scissors and razor and clip away at his bushy black hair till it covers the floor and his head is as bald as an egg. His hair of consecration is gone and he is as weak as a kitten. I am terribly afraid that that should happen to you. Our strength comes through our faith. There lies our victory over the world, and if that goes then we are as weak as other men, yes weaker, for Samson was weaker than Philistine children when he was hairless. Maybe by degrees Satan is stealing away all your spiritual strength. It might be the preacher; one day he’ll announce his text and begin to speak and find all his authority and power has left him. While you try to do something for Jesus you find yourself utterly inadequate. ‘I’ll arise and chase away my enemies,’ you think. You know not that the Lord has left you. The Philistines have bound you and your strength has gone. All you have are bitter memories of gifts and blessings never to return. Remember Enchanted Ground is at the end of the journey, at a place where Christians need to rest. Remember Samson, once so strong, sleeping while the enemy destroyed him.
2. What is the nature of this slumber into which we may fall?
It isn’t death. We were dead once but now we are alive in Christ Jesus and we will never die, but though a Christian might not die yet he may sleep and that sleep can be so like death that it is hard to tell whether this man is a slumbering backslider or a sleeping reprobate. Both are asleep. You find men like this in the Bible, like King Saul and King Solomon, and we debate whether they were Christians at all. That we have to ask the question indicates that there is something wrong with their profession. So what is it that characterizes a slumbering Christian?
i] This sleep is a lack of feeling. A sleeping man is unaware that the house is on fire or a burglar going through his possessions. People are sick in the house; his mother is having a heart attack, but he is asleep. A revolution is taking place in the city. The government is being toppled, but he is asleep and oblivious. A volcano has burst and lava is flowing towards his house; a tsunami wave has momentarily receded into the bay and will soon return remorseless in its energy twenty feet high sweeping all before it. Run for the high ground! No. He is ignorant of all this because he is asleep.
Preacher – this is your condition. Haven’t you often been insensible and unaffectionate like this? You wish you could feel, but all you felt was an ache because you couldn’t feel. You wish you could pray. It wasn’t that you didn’t know the words and the prayers but you didn’t feel anything even when you tried.
For words without the heart
the Lord will never hear,
nor will he to those lips attend
whose prayers are not sincere.
(John Burton 1803-1877)
You sighed once. ‘Oh . . .!’ you breathed. You would give a world to sigh now. You used to groan once, but a groan today would be worth a thousand pounds if you could buy it. As for songs, you can sing them but your heart is not in them. You go to the house of the Lord but your singing is as apart and detached as though you were listening to a crowd singing while muttering something else under your breath. You feel like a chrysalis; the butterfly has flown and all that is left is a dry shell, and that’s you. You’ve become cold and formal in your religion. You feel there’s not the savour and unction in the preaching that there used to be. You know that there is no difference in your minister; the difference is in you. The hymns are the same, and the people of God are all the same but you have fallen into a state of slumber. Once you would think of people you could visit because they were lost. You were moved at the thought, but not any longer. Your heart is not in it. You are insensible and unawake, not entirely perhaps but too much so. Slumber is a lack of feeling.
ii] This sleep is characterized by fantasies and vain illusions. When we sleep common sense disappears. Fantasy holds a carnival in our brains. What illusions deceive us! We are married to different people. We perform the most unthinkable actions as we dream. So one mark of a time of spiritual slumbering is the fantasies of professing Christians. Simple words are given an extraordinary significance. A few tears become a revival. The raising of a couple of hands and, lo! we are witnessing mighty blessings from heaven. A conviction that we personally hold becomes a word from heaven which people must receive as divine. The smile of a sick person becomes a miracle. Men fantasize that God is greatly using them. The letters go out . . . E-mails round the world about some ‘new awakening’ that’s ‘just like Pentecost.’ It is all a vain illusion. It’s human engineering.
There are Christians who are living in a dream world. They are trying to escape from the reality of their own sleepiness by such fantasies. You know what is wrong? You are. Face up to reality! Face up to your church! Read the two volumes of The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales3 and learn what a real work of the Spirit of God is all about, and then walk humbly with God and measure what you have experienced with the mighty works of God in better days. God has put the church today in a civilization which is under his judgment. It is a day of small things, nevertheless it is not a day of absolutely nothing at all. This is the time and place where you are to work for him. You’ll never have another 2009 to work for Jesus. Thank him for the real blessings you’ve known and for the real work of grace in the lives of others around you, but do not fantasize about your work. Wake up Christian! Modesty is a great Christian grace. We are just beginning to begin to be the servants of God in our age.
iii] This sleep is characterized by an ominous insecurity. When we sleep we are terribly vulnerable. A murderer may smite us; a thief may break in and steal. Think of a certain mighty prince and general in the Old Testament who is on the run and has found shelter in a tent where he has eaten butter from a lordly dish provided by his hostess. He sleeps after the meal, and then the woman creeps up on him with a hammer in one hand and a mighty nail in the other. If he were awake he could crush her with one arm, but he is asleep and there is no one to defend him. The nail is in his ear and with one blow she drives it into his brain and he is dead. Sisera’s banner had waved in victory over many warriors but he died at the hand of a woman.
Sleeping men are always in danger. They cannot protect themselves or strike back. O Christian, if you are slumbering today then your life is in danger. Your status cannot be destroyed for your life is hid with Christ in God, but you may lose your assurance, your usefulness, your zeal and much of the comforts of the gospel if you are asleep. You lie back and let TV images drift in front of your eyes; you surf the web; you flick the pages of that magazine. No effort is needed for anything; you may as well be asleep, and when the temptation comes you are ill prepared and unready and are caught like a mouse in a trap. You have been sleeping when you should have been awake. You plead your weakness. You say, ‘But I can’t help it. I make up my mind, but I fall again and again.’ That is the mark of a sleeping Christian. David sauntered about on the roof of his palace; he was spiritually sleep walking; he was vulnerable to danger. O Spirit of the living God wake up the sleeper.
iv] This sleep is characterized by inactivity. Farmers cannot plough their fields if they are sleeping. The lobster fishermen in the harbour can’t pull up their line of pots and renew the bait if they are sleeping. The stockbrokers in the city are useless if they sleep. Today the nation is being summoned to activity. We will starve; there will be no clothes for our backs and no shoes on our feet if we slumber. The fields are white unto harvest, and we are to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send forth labourers into the fields, men who will work, men who love to work, men who will not complain at the bursts of toil and the calloused hands.
So where are the ministers who will preach, and who will preach their hearts out, who will put their souls into every sentence. Where are the men who make proclamation their vocation, the breath of the bodies and the delight of their spirits? Men and women, the churches in Wales slumber. It isn’t merely that the pulpit is a sentry box in which a sleeping watchman is to be found, but the pews are affected and all the activities of the church are affected. Where are the pray-ers, or those who will work in the book shop, and those who will visit the sick and lonely? What inactivity there is, and yet we have enough men and women to reach out very effectively to this community. We have human instruments and agencies and money. We have everything except the will, the heart to work, the stammering tongue to speak a few words for Jesus. Men and women – let us not sleep as others. Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Soon we must appear before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of the deeds done in the body. Let’s stay awake!
The world is on a broad road, Jesus said, and it is heading for destruction. What am I doing to reach people with the good news of Jesus Christ? Some of you can teach the Bible. Are you using your talents to teach the gospel? Some of you are parents. Are you telling your children about the Lord Jesus and his love? Let me say this, that the people to whom I owe my greatest debt are the people who spoke to me about the Lord Jesus Christ. I can never repay them what I owe them. They changed my whole life and eternity. Every good and happy thing that I have has come from what they told me of the Saviour.
Then do not sleep as others. God in heaven does not slumber or sleep. It is to him you must go. You must cry to him that he will awaken you and revive you and give you the Spirit in renewed power. I charge you by all your hopes of heaven and all your desires for glory that if you would be happy and useful then do not slumber. Look at the state of our land; Christian, do not slumber. Would you be ready at his appearing? Then Christian do not sleep. God’s enemies do not sleep. The world and the devil do not sleep, then let not the child of God sleep. The hour has come; it is here now for you to wake up from your slumber. Hear this wake-up call from the throne of the universe.
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11) Paul is writing to the congregation of new Christians at the heart of the Roman Empire. First of all he has given to […]
- The Pilgrim’s Progress, p.362.
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