The Erosion in Two Generations
Most of us in our allotted span live through two generations. We note that in some stages of history little changed in two generations. But not so in our situation, for there has been a great acceleration in some sixty years. We have seen major changes. We can think of it in terms of a paradigm shift, which is the replacement of one frame of reference with another. The paradigm determines one’s mindset. It is true to say that we have lived through two paradigm shifts. In the first generation (c1950s to 1980s) the shift was from objective truth to pluralism and in the second generation (c1980s to 2010s) it was from morality to immorality. Of that second shift, Albert Mohler said recently: ‘We haven’t had any moral revolution on this scale in human history.’
1. The erosion of our theological character
In the mid-twentieth century we could say that God and his truth had a central place in church and nation. We had a God-centred vision of life and the fear of God shaped much of everyday living. Heresies were exposed and breaches of the Sabbath were challenged. Generally speaking people believed in heaven and hell and what it meant to be saved. There was ‘another world’ dimension to Christian thought and practice.
At that time we had retained much of the Christianity that had been passed down to us. This belief centred upon God as the ultimate and eternal reality. He is himself the Truth. His truth like himself is from everlasting to everlasting, and therefore unchanged and unchanging. The only way we can come to know this God is through the revelation he has given. His revelation in Word and deed corresponds exactly to his being. That truth has broken into time in creation and redemption but it remains the eternal truth of God. Everyone and everything must relate to that. We are initiated into that knowledge through him who is the Spirit of truth (1 John 2:20-21, 27).
The rise of humanism through the Enlightenment tried to make sense of things without God. The shutters went up on ‘the window to the other world’. The transcendent God of truth was side-lined. Post-modernism spawned relativism and pluralism. ‘Worldliness’ came in and displaced God and his truth from the church. The centrality of God disappeared. Evangelical faith has been reduced to something that is largely private and internal. There is no final authority.
As has been rightly observed: ‘An evangelical faith that is not passionate about truth and righteousness is a faith which is a lost cause.’ If we do not recover our theological character and our sense of truth we are undone. What is most lost is what most needs to be recovered. We need to recover, as David Wells has so eloquently put it, ‘the unsettling, disconcerting, moral presence of God’. To quote him again: ‘We have to recover a vivid other worldliness by making ourselves once again captives to the truth of God, regardless of the cultural consequences.’ Why should we fear man, for as Dr Geerhardus Vos pointed out: ‘Ours is a religion whose centre of gravity lies beyond the grave in the world to come.’
2. The erosion of our moral character
The second shift is a natural consequence of the first. If we lose the sense of a transcendent and holy God we lose the sense of living morally before him. Man was made in the image of God, ‘in knowledge, righteousness and holiness’. The image and character of God is expressed in the Ten Commandments. In obeying his commandments we display his likeness and live out our true nature. Christianity is the true humanism. Modern ‘secular humanism’ and Christianity are antithetical.
It was this secular humanism with pluralism and relativism that brought about the permissive society associated with the 1960s. Since then moral conduct in society has gradually disintegrated. There is no longer right or wrong, only personal preference. As Philip Jensen has said: ‘Society is held together by economic activity. There is no common moral culture.’ Even what was regarded as morally conventional is gone. Those who are morally conventional are now in the minority.
Our society prides itself in being liberal, multi-cultural, inclusive and tolerant but it is a society that is empty and has in it the seeds of its own destruction. There is inevitably a loss of character. Image and appearance assume the functions that character and morality once had. Virtue has been replaced by values. Our Prime Minister and government speak about ‘British values’ but can they define them? Values may mean nothing more than a preference, belief, feeling, habit or convention, ‘whatever any individual, group or society happens to value, at any time, for any reason’. That sums up our moral chaos.
3. The church: false and true
The sad thing is that the church which ought to be the counter-culture in our nation has been infiltrated by the same worldliness. We have only to think of the unbelievable trends in our national Churches and other denominations in recent years with the acceptance of same sex marriage. The biblical authority was undermined long ago and the moral authority has evaporated. What many predicted would happen has happened. By adapting itself to the culture the professing Church ‘is having its character, and its purposes, and the way its functions defined for it’ (David Wells).
We are back to the situation as it was in the days of the early Church. The pattern is becoming clearer by the day. The Roman Empire, under which many Christians were martyred, was pluralistic and supremely tolerant of religion. The only people they could not tolerate were the Christians. In our society we must expect more and more persecution. But we have to remember with the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs: ‘The Church never grew up so fast as when under most persecution.’ We must strive with all our might to be what the Church ought to be and that is the true counter-culture in our society. Persistent faithfulness to God and his truth and righteousness is the crying need of the hour.
Rev. John J. Murray is a retired minister of the Free Church of Scotland Continuing.
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