Church activity is spread over an ever-widening field today. We have national churches of a mixed nature, traditional churches, charismatic groups, house churches and fellowships. Happenings in churches that get into the news are mainly about decline in membership, abandoning principles, adopting the ways of the world. There is scarcely any news of multiple conversions, substantial growth or an impact being made on the nation. Many churches are busy trying to fill gaps caused by the negligence on the part of other institutions in matters of family life and state obligations. The evangelical church is fighting for its life but is mainly taken with new worship forms, new ministries and new devices. Various alliances are attempted but, as Dr D M Lloyd-Jones used to say, bringing two dead bodies together does not bring about a resurrection. There has to be a drastic change at the centre.
The first concern must be to raise the standard of the ministry. Richard Baxter (1615-91), whose ministry transformed the people of Kidderminster, said: “If God would but reform the ministry and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would cerainly be reformed. All churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall, (not in riches or worldly grandeur), but in knowledge, zeal and ability for their work.” (The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, p.14) Much is made today of Seminary training, exposure to modern scholarship and grappling with contemporary issues. But are we being blessed with holy ministers and preachers with unction who are used as mighty instruments for good?
How was Puritanism, which, as Dr J I Packer maintains, was nothing short of “a movement of revival”, established in England? When attempts to reform the Church of England collapsed in the late 16th century the growth of spiritual life and Reformed teaching came through an army of preachers – “the Puritan Brotherhood”. If true revival is the awakening of an awareness of God and a resulting conviction of sin then that work began first in the hearts of the men God was to use as instruments in the recovery. A true Biblical understanding of the holiness of God, the holy law, human depravity, judgment, the necessity of regeneration, heaven and hell, was burnt into their souls.
It was the preaching of such men that transformed the face of England. Young preachers learned the model of ministry even before they went for academic training. The ministries of Thomas Taylor at Reading, Richard Greenham at Dry Drayton and Richard Rogers at Wethersfield, were breeding grounds for godly preachers. These were men who lived in the presence of God and whose preaching was aimed in particular at the conscience. To quote Baxter again: “The preacher that speaks as if he saw the face of God doth more affect my heart though with common words than an irreverent man with the most exquisite preparations.” The Puritan preachers dealt much with the heart and conscience of their hearers. As Robert Bruce, a Scottish Puritan of the same era declared, the first need in evangelistic preaching is to awaken the conscience so that it “bites” and “sendeth thee to seek a remedy”. (‘Robert Bruce’ in A Scottish Christian Heritage by Iain Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, p.63).
The Christian Profession
A second concern must be to raise the standard of Christian profession. There is no doubt that a prolonged period of spiritual declension in the Church has lowered the expectations of what is required of a person seeking membership. Rev Thomas Hog of Kiltearn was one of the few Highland ministers who stood loyal to the National Covenant and suffered ejection from his charge. In his younger days he was considered to be exemplary in his Christian profession, speaking to the edification of others and willing to suffer for Christ’s sake. A subsequent period of deep conviction and a dramatic conversion led him to believe that his previous profession was false. It is striking how far one can go in an outward profession, without a true work of grace. His subsequent life and ministry took on a tincture that looked for marks of grace in the life of any professing the name of Christ and for evidence of fruit. Although for some the requirements may have seemed too high they certainly produced generations of godly people.
It is undoubtedly the ballast that is needed for examining a profession in our day. The first step in conversion must surely be the awareness of the majesty and holiness of God. We exist for God’s glory but we have sinned and come short of that glory. The conviction of sin makes us lose all confidence in ourselves and become dependent wholly on Christ. All the glory must be ascribed to the triune God. How long or deep the process may take can vary, but at the least it works a hatred of sin and a love for God. It is manifested in faith and true repentance. The regeneration that gives life makes us like the tree planted by the rivers of water which brings forth its fruit in season (Psa. 1:3). The conflict with the old nature is a lifelong exercise and as pilgrims we will know this warfare until we reach the gates of heaven.
The Church’s Life
The third concern must be about authentic church life. R B Kuiper in his classic work, The Glorious Body of Christ (Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), begins by asserting that “the Christian church is glorious in its very nature”, but then goes on to say: “Today the glory of the church is thickly veiled. It is no exaggeration to say that in the main it presents a picture of advanced decadence and extreme feebleness.” And Kuiper was writing in the middle of last century! He asserts that the visible church is glorious in so far as it resembles the invisible church. A church can be no more glorious than are the members that constitute it. Only divine additions deserve to be called additions. Man-made additions are always detractions from the glory of the church. That is why the kind of profession already outlined above is so vital.
The church was conceived in the eternal purpose of God the Father (John 6:37), purchased by the blood of Christ her Redeemer (John 10:11) and brought into life by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:1). The church as a whole is the body and bride of Christ, as is each local expression of it. The church is the fulness of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23). The church must be satisfied with being the church according to God’s own priorities, given in His Word. Worship is her principal function. To maintain her life there must be the pure preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline. As John Knox observed: “This church is to be kept separate from the world by the faithful exercise of discipline in order that reproach is not brought upon God by the character of its members, so that the good is not affected by the evil, and so that those corrected may be recovered.” (Works of John Knox, ed. David Laing, vol.4, p.204) And there are many other things that contribute to the well-being of the church, such as rule by elders, catechising, family religion and Sabbath-keeping.
The sad thing is that with all the emphasis on the recovery of Reformed doctrine in the last sixty years we have not seen a recovery of “the true face of Christ’s Church” in the UK. If zeal for the honour of God is the essence of true piety then it is time to rise up as men of God. Although the smallest church contending earnestly for the truth is contributing far more to the advance of Christ’s kingdom than a conglomeration of churches that obscures the truth by ambiguity and error, we must not rest satisfied but we must turn to the Lord “and give him no rest till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:7).