The September Record is coming out this week…here is the cover, table of contents and lead article. You can purchase it from your church, the Free Church offices or online.
With the rapid retreat from any form of Christian values in today’s ‘progressive’ Scotland, the question arises as to what the Church can or should do about it. Sadly, the confusion in the culture is mirrored by confusion in the Church – including the Free Church. ‘Liberals’ tend to go along with the culture rather than challenge it. That is why the Church of Scotland Establishment is unlikely to challenge anything that the political establishment advances. They are either the ‘spiritual’ wing of the new progressives or playing catch-up. Broad evangelicals are happy to speak out about issues that the culture agrees with, but tend to keep silent in public about more contentious issues. It’s much more culturally acceptable to speak out against sex slavery than it is to speak out against same-sex marriage. Whilst in general they may not agree with the current trends within society, they tend to think it is unproductive to speak out and only causes unnecessary hassle.
Separatist evangelicals who adopt a more biblical and conservative theology often want to circle the wagons and retreat into their churches. After all, the world will behave as the world, so is it not better to ensure that we remain pure until the Lord returns or the Spirit brings revival? We can complain within our own settings and grumble about the state of the world, but we figure there is no point in casting our ‘pearls before swine’. In recent years a version of this, known as ‘The Benedict Option’, after a book of the same name by Rod Dreher, has become the ‘in thing’. Dreher argues for a return to a kind of monastic Christianity in which Christian communities shine like light in the midst of an increasingly barbaric culture.
Puritan evangelicals take another point of view. We believe that Christians are called to be salt and light and to seek the prosperity of the nation/city/culture that God has called us to. We are not just in this world for our own benefit, but also to be the prophetic voice of God for the nations. We call communities and nations as well as individuals to repentance and faith in Christ.
At a time of great trouble in the history of the United Kingdom, John Owen gave several sermons over the years to the English Parliament. These are found in volume 8 of his works, Sermons to the Nation, and they make fascinating reading – especially if you know the context. In February 1659, with Parliament about to recall the King and the Puritan revolution apparently over, he preached a wonderful sermon on Isaiah 4:5, ‘The Glory and Interest of Nations Professing the Gospel’. Owen argued that we should be encouraged by Gospel promises in the midst of perplexing and difficult outward circumstances and by the presence of Christ with his people in those same circumstances. Owen specifically disavowed the notion that Christ was with people because of their nationality, but he also disavowed the idea that it doesn’t matter what our rulers believe.
Owen gives us a pattern for acting and speaking out in our nation today (remember he was speaking to Parliament):
1) If you desire the glory of these nations, labour to promote the interest of Christ in these nations.
2) Labour personally, every one of you, to get Christ in your own hearts.
3) Set yourselves to oppose that overflowing flood of profaneness, and opposition to the power of godliness, that is spreading over this nation.
4) Value, encourage, and close with them who have this presence of Christ.
Would that such a sermon were preached and appreciated in both the UK and Scottish parliaments! But that is unlikely, given our current insipid national civic Christianity. You are more likely to hear a sermon on climate change and Brexit than anything specifically to do with Christ. I realise that this is a different age. But the same principles can be applied to our culture today.
Firstly, it is our responsibility to promote the interests of Christ. That does not mean that we confuse our interests with his, or that we align Christ with any kind of politics. But it does mean that we proclaim the Gospel and we remind our rulers that they are servants of God and they have to answer for what they do with that stewardship. It also means that we pray first of all for ‘kings and those in authority’.
Secondly, we need to watch our own life and doctrine closely. And we need to make sure that we personally are ‘in Christ’. Upholding Christian standards whilst not knowing Christ is the ultimate road to hypocrisy.
Thirdly, we must oppose the profaneness and opposition to godliness that is flooding our nation. In William Wilberforce’s day that meant he was opposed to slavery, animal cruelty and the decline in the nation’s ‘manners’ – what he regarded as civilised Christian conduct. In our day there are many issues, including the oppression of the poor, abortion, racism, attacks on the family and the LGBTQ agenda to impose Queer theory and deconstruct marriage, gender, sexuality and the family. Too many Christians don’t want to rock the boat – but they don’t seem to realise that we are on the Titanic and it is sinking.
Fourthly, we must be united as Christians. Sadly, there are many who profess the name of Christ who neither know him or are known by him. But those who do know Christ cannot afford to have family squabbles when the family is under attack. And yet far too many Christians seem to think that their number one priority is to attack or demean our fellow believers. Yes, we have to deal with heretics and false teachers who, like wolves, would attack the flock, but we need to remember what happened to Owen and his fellow Puritans – internal division destroyed their witness in many areas.
It is true that there is a time to be silent. But there is also a time to speak. There are many things about which I have kept quiet – so much so that, believe it or not, I carry a bit of a guilt complex for not having spoken out. There is a great responsibility here on those of us who are church leaders. We are not called to be involved in party politics but we are called, as under-shepherds of the Great Shepherd, to protect, warn and care for the flock of God. But we seem more concerned about preserving and protecting our position. We are so weak and spineless. And we lack courage. We feed ourselves like the hired shepherds who run away whenever the wolf attacks the sheep. Or we proclaim loudly about issues that are long past and have little relevance to the culture today.
As Luther said: ‘If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him.’
We need to see what is coming. He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to be hot,” and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?’ Luke 12:54-56
How is it that we don’t know how to interpret this present time? We need to learn to read the times and apply the Scriptures to them. As an example of how to do this, let me recommend highly Al Mohler’s book We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong.
I don’t want to have on my conscience the Lord’s people in a few years’ time saying ‘We didn’t see that one coming!’ Some of us did. And we have to speak out before it’s too late. Whether people will listen or not – that’s not our concern. We have to speak the Word of the Lord. And – in case we forget that our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers – we need to remember that disagreeing with an ideology or particular practice does not give a Christian the right to forget the biblical teaching that every human being is made in the image of God, every human being is to be shown love and respect (even, or especially, our enemies) and every human being is to be given the good news of Jesus (not just the bad news of their own sin).
We should disagree because we love the truth, not because we want personal victory or revenge. ‘Meanwhile let us live at peace with all men, as much as in us lies, and let us endeavour to practice uprightness in our whole deportment, that we may be able to confidently appeal to God, that when we suffer at the hands of men, we suffer wrongly.’ (Calvin) Let us treat all people not on the basis of their sexuality, race, gender, class, or so on, but rather on the basis that they are made in the image of God – and need that restored. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of which I am chief! I end with the words that Owen used to close his sermon. ‘Blessed are the people that are under his care and conduct; yea, blessed are the people whose God is the Lord.’ The Editor