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The Church at the Crossroads
“Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16)
Some people have a nostalgic view of the past. To them there there is nothing to be compared to “the good old days”. They want to keep “the traditions of the fathers”. Others see the need to be contemporary and to distance themselves entirely from the past. Who is right? It depends on what is meant by “the old paths”.
The Old Paths
When the Lord, through the prophet Jeremiah, pleaded with apostate Judah to return to the old paths He had in mind the truth given to their forefathers. This was the revelation that He gave to the Patriarchs, the covenant with Abraham, the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai and the reaffirming of the Law on the borders of Canaan. Israel were a chosen people by an act of sovereign grace. They were a nation redeemed by the shedding of blood. They were in covenantal relationship with God who required them to be a holy people to Himself. There was the promise of blessing for obedience and of curses for disobedience. But by now Judah, like Israel before them, had shown a fundamental rejection of covenant relationship. They accommodated themselves to the debased religion around them in Canaan. They had set up idols in the temple and had children sacrificed to Baal.
Judah was like a man on a journey approaching a crossroads. The command is to “look around” and “take stock” and look for the right way. God had not fully washed his hands of them. The command is to make the right choice. We are at a similar crossroads in the Church and in the nation today. The Church that was restored to the New Testament pattern at the time of the Reformation is scarcely recognizable as such any more. Just like Judah of Jeremiah’s time the Church has accommodated itself to the world and to humanism.
We see the symptoms of decay similar to what was seen then:
The Symptoms of Decay
1) Few seem to see the danger. “To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear?” (Jer. 6:10) Where is the person willing to listen? The people lacked the insight to comprehend the divine Word. They are unaware of their danger. “How canst thou say, I am not polluted” (Jer. 2:23). “Yet thou sayest, Because I am innocent” (Jer. 2:35). This is a people ripe for judgment. We know from the New Testament that “judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). We are under judgment. It has happened again and again in the history of the Church.
2) Iniquity is springing up everywhere. As water-springs maintain the water in a well at a constant level so evil is spring up continually in Jerusalem (Jer. 6:7). The current social evils have led to profound moral decay. Society is rotten as we may see from the statistics on abortion, children born outside marriage, child abuse, addictions, domestic violence. corruption among politicians, bankers, TV presenters. There are more and more revelations and it is difficult to keep a lid on them.
3) Our leaders are picking away at our Christian heritage. The enemy is depicted as a grapegatherer picking the vine of Israel (Jer. 6:9). The laws of the land that resulted from our Christian heritage are being picked off one after another and man-made regulations take their place.
4) There is rottenness in the Church. In Jeremiah’s day the religious leaders were just as corrupt as the general populace. Instead of acting responsibly as custodians and proponents of the moral and religious laws, they were condoning the spread of immorality and idolatry. They were guilty of the most blatant form of spiritual deception, proclaiming peace where none exists. “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).
5) There is no sense of shame. “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination?” (Jer. 6:15) We are seeing the degrading picture of sin as outlined in Romans 1 unfolding before our eyes. Men committing shameless acts and glorying in their shame. They parade it on our streets and even within the professing Church.
Old paths for today
The call for us today is not to go back to the ways of fifty years ago or even a hundred years but back to the Protestant Reformation and back to the foundation in the New Testament.
1) The path of a God-consciousness. We must relate to the one who is the great Reality. The tendency today is to relate to what man has supposedly become. Secular humanism affirms the universal and unique significance of humanity. As has been said: “The ties with the supernatural have been loosed, and the autonomy of man has found at last the justification for which it has searched for millennia. That is to say man outside of Christ has sought for and found his essential identity not with the God of heaven but with the beast of the field.” The Church has not been immune from this influence. We need to recover the consciousness of the majestic and holy God. Stephen declared: “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham” (Acts 7:2). We are the children of Abraham. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “If we know God,” says Professor John Murray, “we must know him in the matchless glory of his transcendent majesty, and the only appropriate posture for us is prostration before him in awe and reverence”. Calvin observes, “For, correctly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety”.
2) The path of Scripture alone. The great Reality has made himself known in his Word. Without the Word the world is in darkness. This country remained in darkness while the Roman hierarchy kept the Bible from the people. William Tyndale sacrificed his life so that the ploughboy could read the Bible in his native tongue. The Reformation can be described as ‘After darkness, light’. But from the middle of the 19th century liberal theologians have tried to destroy the Bible. The 2nd century heretic Marcion tried to eliminate all the passages in the Bible except the ones dealing with his so-called gospel of love. The modern viewpoint is to get rid of the sections that human reason cannot accept. “Think truncated thoughts about God and you will get a truncated God, read an expurgated Bible and you will get an expurgated theology.” (Carl Trueman)
3) The path of sin-consciousness. The loss of divine transcendence paves the way for the trivialisation of sin. The law of God, the ten commandments, which is the transcript of God’s holiness, is not preached. In Scripture sin is the very defiance of God’s holiness. To contemporary man sin is just failure in respect to man. We have a system of evangelical thought which militates against conviction of sin. In the eyes of many evangelicals today the first business of preaching is to win men to the acceptance of the message. There is an appeal for men to receive Christ for happiness and heaven. We have largely lost the doctrine of the wrath of God and eternal judgment which used to be the starting point of the Christian way. Without a consciousness of sin the Gospel of redeeming grace is meaningless.
4) The path of the exclusive Gospel. In the light of what we are before a holy God there is only one way to approach Him and that is the God-appointed way. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?” (Psa 24:3). The answer is nobody unless God had taken the initiative. He has approached us in His Son and in the Son we approach Him. There is no other way. (Acts 4:12). J G Machen said: “What struck the earliest observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation was offered by means of the Christian Gospel, but that all other means were resolutely rejected. The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolute exclusive devotion to Christ.” This ran counter to the prevailing syncretism of the age. How much more it runs contrary to the relativism, inclusivism and universalism of our day!
5) The path of Holy Spirit wrought conversion. When we are in the presence of the living and true God we are suddenly aware of the depravity of our wicked hearts. True conviction of sin will constrain self-abhorrence, confession and the plea of forgiveness and cleansing. Those who are by nature “dead in trespasses and sins” cannot respond to the Gospel, despite what the Arminian maintains. What can turn around a God-defying, self-willed, self-centred sinner but the grace and power of the Holy Spirit implanting a new nature in the sinner? “Ye must be born again.” It is as Henry Scougal maintains “the life of God in the soul of man”. It is a high calling, “having God for its author, and being wrought in the souls of men by the power of the Holy Spirit... being a resemblance of the divine perfections, the image of the Almighty shining in the soul of man.”
These are the starting points for a return to God for the individual and for the Church and to find “rest for our souls”.