A Dead Calm or a Necessary Storm?
We are living in days when there seems to be a flat calm on the church scene in the United Kingdom. How can we explain the current situation? We may find an answer to this by considering church history. Some people would regard times of peace and quiet as desirable and times of controversy as regrettable. History, however, shows that times of calm can often be periods when the devil causes a spirit of delusion to come over the church.
Romanism and Rationalism
In the early 16th century, Scotland was in the grip of Roman Catholicism, which William Cunningham later described as ‘a Satanic system’. How was the delusion to be overcome? It came through the breaking in of gospel light under John Knox. Landing at Leith in May 1559, he saw the issue clearly: ‘I see the battle shall be great, for Satan rageth to the uttermost’. He met that rage of the enemy head on with the trumpet blast of the Word of God. His goal was to uproot Roman Catholicism from the soil of Scotland and to plant biblical Christianity in its place. It caused an uproar but, by the grace of God, a great transformation took place.
The glorious Puritan age in England was followed by years of Deism and rationalism. The dead calm lasted until the 1730s. At that time it was the note that had been silenced for some seventy years that was heard again in the preaching of George Whitefield. He said: ‘By the help of my Master I will go and attack the devil in his strongholds’. When Whitefield denounced the bishops and clergy of his day it raised a veritable storm and led to a flood of abuse against him. The spirit of glory and of God rested on Whitefield and there was ‘a Great Awakening’.
By the middle of the 19th century, another change was coming over the church with the introduction of liberalism. Influenced by rationalism, the theory of evolution and Higher Criticism, scholars and theologians began to undermine the historic Christian Faith from within. What became known as the ‘Downgrade’ movement gained momentum. It was left largely to one man to spearhead the fight back. C. H. Spurgeon stood firm against the tide of unbelief and was vilified for it. He confessed to one, ‘This struggle is killing me’. He saw the corrosive effect of the unbelief and how it would affect future generations. He said. ‘I shall live and speak long after I am dead’. How true were his words.
That same liberalism spread throughout the western world and affected the church in the USA. Again the main challenge was spearheaded by one man, J Gresham Machen. His Christianity and Liberalism in 1923 was a call-to-arms against theological liberalism in Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Missionaries with liberal views were being sent to China. He saw the danger and challenged it. He was forced to form an alternative missionary agency. A corrupt church raged against ‘Mr Valiant for Truth’. He was defrocked and received, humanly speaking, nothing but scorn, derision, and an early grave. Even one of his antagonists, Pearl S. Buck, missionary to China, acknowledged: ‘He stood for something and everyone knew what it was’.
That fight was taken up again in the middle of the 20th century by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. For a time he stood alone against the popular tide in a man-centred age. ‘When a man sees the truth (the truth of God), he has no choice. He does not force himself to stand alone. He does not even want to do so; but he can do no other’. He saw the subtlety of Satan in blinding men. ‘I am certain that one of the main causes of the ill state of the church today is the fact that the devil is being forgotten’. He was instrumental in the recovery of God-centred Christianity.
The challenge facing the church some fifty years on is that once again the devil seems to be forgotten. Have we unwittingly suffered from his subtlety? Have we lost valuable opportunities to press home the advantage against him? We may cite some examples.
Did the leaders of the Reformed movement in the 1960s fail in not pressing home the need for a full-orbed church reformation? Did the ‘Crieff Fellowship’ of men in the Church of Scotland during the 1970s and 1980s, when evangelicalism seemed at its greatest strength in that Church, fail to challenge the prevailing heresy in the Church courts? The consequence is a national tragedy, with evangelical men now escaping from the sinking ship in all directions. Did the Free Church of Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s miss the challenge to return to a full-orbed re-assertion of the Reformed Faith of its Fathers? By taking a different course it now seems to be slowly going in the way of ‘a mixed multitude’.
Surely, the sleepy times in which we live cry out for men with a mission and movements with a cutting edge. Evangelical and Reformed periodicals and media outlets are missing an excellent opportunity. This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of The Banner of Truth magazine.1 Go back to the pages of the early issues and you seem to be in a different world and you feel like crying out, ‘Do it again, O Lord!’ How we need to regain our footing, as A. Moody Stuart said in 1884, ‘on the rock of eternal truth’!
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