Sounding the Alarm
There is something dreadfully wrong with the visible church today, and I fear that if the prophet Jeremiah were walking among us he would rise up and prophesy of us,
“They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.”
For all of our proper theological training in seminary regarding every dimension of the church, for all of our books on marks of a healthy church, and for all of the conferences we have concerning how to make disciples in the local church, why is it that the visible church in this age is in such a state of confusion and massive spiritual decline? Iain Murray gets right to the heart of the issue when he writes these profound words in his book “Evangelicalism Divided”,
“When churches lose their influence, when the Christian message ceases to arrest the indifferent and the unbelieving, when moral decline is obvious in places which once owned biblical standards—when such symptoms as these are evident, then the first need is not to regroup such professing Christianity as remains. It is rather to ask whether the spiritual decline is not due to a fundamental failure to understand and practice what Christianity really is.
To think in this way leads very quickly to a subject which has always been unpopular with the world and which is now far from popular in the church.
Is it not offensive and intolerant to suppose that anyone can distinguish true Christians from others? Are there not, it is said, many kinds of followers of Christ and does not love demand that we regard them all as ‘fellow Christians’?
This objection often proceeds on the basis of another argument—usually unstated—namely, that the New Testament itself does not give us enough light to be definite. And if Scripture does not resolve the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ then we must tolerate and justify a breadth of opinion on the subject. But if the New Testament does settle the question then we have no liberty to redefine ‘Christian’ in terms which neither Christ nor his apostles ever authorized. Evangelicalism has historically been distinguished by it’s conviction that Scripture speaks plainly on this fundamental issue; it gives us all the light we need to discern between the true and the false, between the nominal and the real.”
We have spent so much time, energy, and money trying to figure out, “What is the church?” when the real question that needs to be asked is, “What is a Christian?” This makes perfect sense of the dreadful mess we are in. If you have real born again Christians, they don’t need very much to pursue godliness and holiness in their lives, they just need Christ. But once the church is filled with carnal and unregenerate professors of Christianity, you will have endless practical immaturity and theological ignorance no matter how many programs and activities you start.
Jesus said that “each tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:44) So, if there is so much bad fruit in the visible church, then something must be rotten to the core. It seems as though we have made disciples just as the scribes and Pharisees had when Jesus said of them,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)
We have only cleaned “the outside of the cup and the plate,” but the inside is still “full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:25) We are like “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27) Oh how dreadful are the words of Jesus to men who only make disciples in outward appearance who have no inward principal of repentance, faith, and holiness when he says, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33)
The church has gotten its “9 marks of a healthy church” so that the church as an organized entity can check all of the right boxes, and yet, something is still missing. What is missing even in many of the healthier churches is the answer to the question, “What is a Christian?”
What happens when we don’t deal with this root question? Rather than dealing seriously with the individual eternal souls of men, we only deal outwardly and organizationally with the church until we become more and more like Rome saying, “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the Church there is no salvation.” It all becomes about the visible institutionalized church, the outside of the cup and dish, rather than about the souls of men and women who together make up the church. Then, since we are not dealing properly with men’s souls, we make salvation far too contingent upon membership in the visible church—the same abominable error the Roman Catholic Church and the Judaizers made by trusting in their outward show of religion.
Now, as Iain Murray said, this is not a popular question, even among pastors. They seem unwilling to deal with this most important issue of conversion, and they seem happy to relegate everything to sanctification…but that sanctification never seems to come. The fact of the matter is, some of our finest churchmen may be on the road to destruction. The church in its present form is an easy place to be unconverted and remain un-convicted because very little truth about God, sin, and salvation is earnestly and clearly preached from the pulpit. The men who are least welcome in the church are those who have the most doctrinal conviction and are most concerned about the lost souls of men.
Therefore, we cannot merely “regroup such professing Christianity as remains.” We need “rather to ask whether the spiritual decline is not due to a fundamental failure to understand and practice what Christianity really is.” The reality is, we could just be playing church, but have missed the mark of genuine Christianity entirely. It happened to the Jews in Jesus’ day when they so descended until they became a synagogue of Satan. It happened to the Roman Catholic Church when the Pope and priests took upon themselves the title “alter Christus—another Christ,” thus making themselves one with the Antichrist. It happened to them. Why could it not happen to us? How do you know that you are not falling from grace even as they fell slowly and imperceptibly over the course of time? As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
Though this is not a popular question, and though it may be regarded as offensive and intolerant even by many pastors who are charged before God as those who are “keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17)—nevertheless, this is a biblical question. If men are offended by the sincere inquiry “to discern between the true and the false, between the nominal and the realm,” then they are offended at and intolerant toward the clear teaching of Scripture. Their problem is with God’s word, not with me or any man who teaches it rightly. The apostle Paul clearly said in 2 Corinthians 13:5,
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
Now, how nonsensical would it be for Paul to command them and us to, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” if there was no objective standard whereby a man could know whether or not he is truly a Christian? Not only does this imply that there is a clear biblical standard, but it also is an express command that you must do this, you must examine yourselves!
The Straight Gate
However, because so little sound doctrine regarding conversion is actually taught, every one assumes that surely they must be saved. But the reality is that the Bible itself clearly tells us that even many professing Christians will be thrust out of the kingdom of God into the pit of hell. Listen to this frightful exposition of Scripture from John Bunyan in his book, “The Straight Gate.” He is expounding on Luke 13:24 where Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Bunyan writes,
“Now that the professor is in special intended in this text, consider, so soon as the Lord had said, ‘Many will seek to enter in, and shall not be able,’ he pointeth, as with his finger, at the many that then he in special intendeth; to wit, them among whom he had taught; them that had eat and drunken in his presence; them that had prophesied, and cast out devils in his name, and in his name had done many wonderful works. (Luke 13:26, Matt 7:22) These are the many intended by the Lord in this text, though others also are included under the sentence of damnation by his word in other places. ‘For many,’ &c. Matthew saith, concerning this strait gate, that there are but few that find it. But it seems the cast-aways in my text did find it; for you read, that they knocked at it, and cried, ‘Lord, open unto us.’ So then, the meaning may seem to be this—many of the few that find it will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.”
Those last words ought to put fear in every man’s heart—“many of the few that find it will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” Few shall find Jesus, and many of those few shall seek to enter heaven, but they will be cast out. So we read in 1 Peter 4:17-18,
“For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
‘If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’”
Peter elsewhere reminds us that no fallen angel ever experiences forgiveness, but all are damned. (2 Peter 2:4) Then he reminds us that on the ark God saved only Noah and seven others “when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.” (2 Peter 2:5) He reminds us that the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned to extinction, and Lot only was saved. (2 Peter 2:6-7) If such is the judgement of a holy God, who do we think we are to presume upon the grace of God? These words should make us tremble with fear before God, earnestly laying ourselves bare before God, asking him to search us like David in Psalm 139:23-24,
“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!”
Jesus said, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14) Examine yourselves, lest you be deceived and perish in your sins! I think the easiest place to die and go to hell is from inside an American Evangelical church. Jesus said to the church going people in his own day, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31) Even as John Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim’s Progress of a man named Ignorance, who had crossed the River of Death with the help of Vain-hope, but then when he had finally reached the entrance of the Celestial City, he was suddenly thrust into the lake of fire. Bunyan says of men like him, “Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of Heaven.” Beware. Examine yourself!