The Folly of Leaving Your First Love
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love (Revelation 2:4).
By 1630 Scotland was in need of another revival, a time of visitation by God when a whole community is soaked with his presence. Such had occurred five years earlier in the town of Stewarton under the ministry of David Dickson, and that revival no doubt influenced and moved the people of nearby Shotts, not far from Glasgow, to seek a similar blessing. In accordance with the Scottish Presbyterian tradition of seasonal communion services, Shotts set aside several days in June for people from surrounding communities to come together for soul-searching preaching, calling them to repentance and conversion. A few godly Scottish women of royalty who were sympathetic toward the cause of the Covenanters (those who sought the independence of the Scottish church from the king’s episcopal policies) prevailed upon the local pastor at Shotts, John Home, to invite two powerful Scottish preachers for the occasion – David Dickson, whom God had used so powerfully a few years before at Stewarton, and seventy year old Robert Bruce, a man whom some said was the human instrument God had already used to bring conversion to thousands of people. Instead of the usual plan to end the services on Sunday with communion for those who could give evidence of true conversion, the leaders decided to stay another day, closing with a service of thanksgiving on Monday.
That Sunday evening a number of ministers, elders, and leading women, including both the Marchioness of Hamilton and Lady Culross, met and prayed through the night for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the people who would gather the next day. We do not have a record of the prayer meeting but we do know they prayed all night, no doubt asking for the Holy Spirit to visit them powerfully in this last service of the communion season. After the prayer meeting, each having gone their own way for personal devotional time, Lady Culross closed the curtains on her bed and for the next three hours could be heard praying earnestly, with great liberty in the Spirit. At the end of this time she called on Pastor Home and strongly urged that he invite young John Livingstone to preach the last service.
Livingstone was only twenty-seven years old and not ordained, though his lack of ordination was no fault of his own. Archbishop William Laud, who was determined to root out Calvinism in England and Presbyterian Scotland, considered Livingstone a dangerous man and was therefore unwilling to ordain him. Known throughout the region as a powerful preacher of the doctrines of grace – the question of ordination notwithstanding – Livingstone was nonetheless mortified at the prospect of preaching before such a large crowd on such a solemn occasion, and before these older men, Dickson and Bruce, whom God had so powerfully used the previous days and for many years in the past. But he agreed, and then proceeded to go out into the fields to pray and prepare his heart to preach. On such occasions, Livingstone says, he spent little time in preparing his mind, in thinking through what he was to say. Instead he focused on his heart, seeking to fill himself up with Christ, trusting the Holy Spirit to prompt him with what he ought to say, asking for the Spirit’s presence and power. This time, however, the more he prayed and thought through his daunting task, the more terrified he became. He felt totally inadequate and utterly weak. Finally he decided that he could not go through with his preaching and began walking away, in the opposite direction from the town, passing several who were coming for the thanksgiving service. As he walked away from the town of Shotts he sensed the Holy Spirit being grieved over his flight, impressing upon him that he was not trusting God. He became fearful of God’s chastisement and repented, literally turning around and walking back to town.
Over one thousand people gathered for the service, coming from many miles away. They sat on the grass that sloped down to the Kirk, a sort of natural amphitheatre. Livingstone took as his text Ezekiel 36:25-26: ‘Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’ He spent ninety minutes unpacking the meaning of the text, seeking to bring conversion to the lost, warning them of the wrath of God. At one point in his sermon rain began to fall and the people instinctively drew their coats over themselves to protect themselves from the rain. Livingstone noticed this and leaped on it to make a graphic illustration which the Holy Spirit brought with great power upon the hearers: ‘What a mercy it is,’ he declared, ‘that the Lord sifts that rain through the heavens to us, and does not rain down fire and brimstone as he did on Sodom and Gomorrah.’ As Livingstone was moving to the application of his sermon, warning people to flee from the wrath of God, exhorting them to believe the gospel, he says that he had a freedom and liberty, a melting of his heart, such as he had never before experienced. His application and exhortation continued for another hour. Eyewitnesses claim a strange and unusual emotion came over this vast congregation. God came down through the preaching of the gospel and an estimated five hundred were converted that day. Three young men on their way to Edinburgh for some fun stopped at Shotts to rest their horses and decided to attend the preaching service. They were soundly converted and remained faithful followers of Christ for the rest of their lives. John Livingstone, while a powerful preacher, much used of God, said that only one other time in his entire ministry, did he experience anything like what happened at Shotts that day, June 21, 1630.1
Indeed, the history of Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland, and the United States is replete with remarkable visitations of the Holy Spirit. Indeed the vestiges of the East African revival are still very much with the brethren of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and southern Sudan. While recently in Uganda for ministry we met with the Bishop of the Mbale Diocese who showed us statistics of numerical growth. The Diocese now has 214,000 adult members, an increase since 2003 of 80,000! The first three hundred years of Christendom had a strong and vibrant church in North Africa. It is no more, having been over-run by Islam. Western Europe and the United Kingdom now face the judgment of God through Islamization. The United States cannot be far behind. And though this remarkable revival culture pulsates throughout East Africa, I warned the brethren when there that the seeds of judgment are blowing in the wind for them as well. I said, ‘You probably do not believe this can happen to you, but those living in seventeenth and eighteenth century America, England, Scotland, and Wales could never have fathomed it either.’
Paul planted the church at Ephesus on his third missionary journey between 53 and 56 A.D., and wrote his marvellous circular epistle around 62 A.D. Jesus rebuked the church at Ephesus before 70 A.D., saying that they had left their first love, calling them to repent and do the deeds which they did at first, declaring that he would remove the lamp stand (the church) out of its place if it did not repent.2
In Psalm 85, perhaps written around 430 B.C., the Psalmist prays,
Wilt thou be angry with us forever? Wilt thou prolong thine anger to all generations? Wilt thou not thyself revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee? Show us thy lovingkindness , O Lord, and grant us thy salvation. I will hear what God the Lord will say; for he will speak peace to his people, to his godly ones, but let them not turn back to folly, (Psa. 85:5-8).
God had been remarkably gracious to his idolatrous people, warning them for centuries, sending one prophet after another, calling them to repentance. They continued in their recalcitrance and God sent them away in Assyrian and Babylonian exile, graciously fulfilling his prophecy through Jeremiah that after seventy years of exile he would bring them back into the land of Judah. Still, some one hundred years after the return, they were returning to folly, having given their children in marriage to pagans. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were beside themselves in grief (Ezra 9:3, Neh. 13:23ff).
Have we not done the same thing in the western world! In our pride and arrogance, have we not left our first love! Have we not squandered the riches of covenantal love, the doctrines of grace, and fornicated with the harlot of modernity! Why should we expect a free pass from the One who is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29)? We have forgotten the One who has blessed us with our wealth and prosperity. We have exchanged the worship of the God of Israel for the gods of science, pop psychology, and deistic moralism. Consequently we are utterly bankrupt. We have shamelessly incurred mountains of debt, leaving it for our children and grandchildren. We slaughter the innocent. We tolerate wickedness and perversion that would make the ancient Graeco-Roman world blush.
Is there any hope? Yes, there is always hope in Jesus. The question, however, is whether or not we are willing to pay the price to see that hope realised. I have my doubts, but I press on in hope that God will mercifully awaken us before it is too late. I purpose, in the next several months, to lay out in these devotionals, from Scripture, what must be done to reverse our spiritual declension. It will require a major paradigm shift in the church. It will mean that ‘business as usual’ will no longer work. ‘O Lord, wilt thou be angry with us forever? Wilt thou not thyself revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee?’ I suggest that revival will come, that God desires to do another great work, if we will but do what he commands us to do. May God light a fire in our hearts, moving us to a holy zeal for his glory and the expansion of his kingdom! O Lord, in thy wrath, would thou remember mercy? (Hab. 3:2)
- Scotland Saw His Glory, page 111ff, compiled and edited by Richard Owen Roberts. Livingstone’s story (along with lives of David Dickson and Robert Bruce) is also told by John Howie in The Scots Worthies, and, in his own words, in Volume One of Scottish Puritans, both published by the Trust. The latter volume includes some of Livingstone’s correspondence, and letters to him from Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross.
- I prefer the earlier date of authorship of the book of Revelation. Even if one takes the later date, around 90 A.D., the point is still strongly made, that the church of Ephesus returned quickly to folly.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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