Some of us who are advanced in years can lay claim to remembering life in a God-centred church and, to a certain extent, in a God-centred nation.
The influence of three centuries of the Shorter Catechism being memorized in the home, the church and the school had left its mark. The opening question: ‘What is man’s chief end?’, with the answer: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’, had shaped the character of generations of young people. It is when God is acknowledged in His true place in our lives that other aspects of life fall into their proper place. When God is removed from the equation, self takes over and confusion and chaos reign. Scotland, for example, is rapidly descending into a secular state, and the more established churches are in steep decline. Statistics reveal that in less than 20 years the number who never go to church has risen from 49 to 63 per cent, and among 14 to 18 year olds it has risen from 56 to 80 per cent. It is clear that a rising generation will know little or care little about the Christian faith that formed the country in which they live.
The inevitable outcome of this is the growth of the ‘me generation’. That is why only another mighty movement like the Protestant Reformation can change the present course of the church and the nation. We have been reminded that ‘the Reformation represents a move to place God as He has revealed Himself in Christ at the centre of the church’s life and thought’ (Carl Trueman). Following on from the Enlightenment, the propagation of the theory of evolution and the growth of Liberalism, autonomous man began to assert himself more and more. Turning away from the true God he has become obsessed with the idolatry of self. It has affected the whole of society but, as far as evangelical Christians are concerned, it has influenced our concept of the gospel, our attitude to adversity, and our promotion of the self.
The Gospel for Me
What is the gospel? In the eyes of many today it is the panacea for the human predicament. They fail to see it as being primarily concerning the glory of God. Paul described it as ‘the glorious gospel of the blessed God’ (1 Tim 1.11). It is the gospel which tells of and reveals the glory of God. ‘For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. (2 Cor 4.6). Although God’s essential glory cannot be lost yet the acknowledgment of it (His honour) in this world has been lost by the Fall of man. The greatest achievement of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is the recovery of God’s glory in the world. Paul gloried in the cross (Gal 6.4) because it displays the glory of God to a degree hitherto unseen in creation.
Modern evangelicalism has shifted from the consciousness that God is to be feared and glorified to the consciousness that man is all important and that God exists for the benefit of man. The vibrant objective Christianity of the Reformation has become reduced to a private, internal and therapeutic type of Christianity. The faith has been reduced to something that is individualistic, self-focused and consumer-oriented. David Wells writes:
Much of the Church today, especially that part of it which is evangelical, is in captivity to this idolatry of the self… That this devotion to self seems not to be like that older devotion to a pagan god blinds the church to its own unfaithfulness. The end result, however, is no less devastating, because the self is no less demanding. It is as powerful an organising centre as any god or goddess on the market. The contemporary Church is whoring after this god as assiduously as the Israelites in their darker days. It is baptizing as faith the pride that leads us to think much about ourselves and much of ourselves. (Losing our Virtue; Leicester, 1998, p. 204)
Why Me? Meeting Adversity
As someone has said: ‘Nothing perhaps separates modern man from his forebears more definitely than his attitude toward adversity’. Some knowledge of life in the past ages would help us to see how our evangelical forefathers coped with all the ills of life. Many of them had a hard struggle even to survive and provide for their families. Illness and death were frequent visitors to the home. They bowed to the sovereignty of God and recognised that, in the all-wise providence of God, there is many ‘a crook in the lot’.
Thomas Boston, minister in Ettrick was contending with ‘a sea of trouble’, losing six children and caring for a sick wife. (Memoirs; Banner of Truth Trust, 1988, p 494ff and A Crook in the Lot; Banner of Truth Trust, 2017). Dr Alexander Beith, a Disruption leader, in the course of a few years lost seven children but was able to write, Sorrowing Yet Rejoicing (Stirling, 1878). Dr Samuel Miller of Princeton records: ‘I am now the only surviving son of seven born to my parents. One sister and myself are all that remain of nine children…Solemn situation!’ (Princeton Seminary: Vol 1; Banner of Truth Trust, 1994, p. 63).
The expectation among large parts of the evangelical church today is that we have some sort of right to be ‘healthy and wealthy’. And when trouble does come it is a question of why me?
A large proportion of literature today is focused on giving comfort in suffering. A great amount of sympathy is aroused on a human level and the main topics for prayer at church prayer meetings are to do with physical and mental welfare. It was the Rev Dr Sinclair Ferguson who was mentioning to a gathering recently that his memory of prayer meetings in his youth was the dominance of petitions for the saving of souls. There is also a tendency among some who should know better, of seeking to humanise God and give comfort by assuring the sufferers that God is suffering with them. God is not our fellow-victim. He has a purpose in our afflictions and that is the building of character which is formed by overcoming difficulties. (Rom 5.3-5).
Promoting the Me
‘Self-promotion, says Ian Hamilton, ‘is one of the sins that so mars modern evangelical Christianity’ (Pulpit Aflame; Reformation Heritage, 2016, p. viii). In an age when there is a low state of godliness it is not surprising that self-esteem and self-publicity should be prevalent. A. A. Hodge declared: ‘All self-consciousness is of the very essence and nature of sin.’ The aim of the gospel is to turn us from self-consciousness to Christ-consciousness.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say ‘We are on too good terms with ourselves. We don’t know much about dust and ashes’. In the Sermon on the Mount: Vol 1 (IVP, 1977, p. 68-69) he says: ‘Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself…The man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do, and treat him as well as they do’ .
In the Life of John Murray, his biographer Iain Murray, speaks of how he took after his father, Alexander, who passed away in 1942 at the age of 90 years. ‘Before that day came he had taken care to secure from his minister a solemn promise that no obituary of him would be published in his Church’s magazine. “He would rather get a slap than flattery” men said of him. His son .. breathed the same spirit. He spoke little and seldom of himself. In part, we may attribute the reticence of father and son to the native reserve of the Highland Gael. Surely no race of men ever disapproved more strongly than they of any broadcasting of personal affairs to the world at large! But in this matter it was the Gospel itself and not temperament itself which exerted the greater influence.’ (Collected Writings: Vol 3; Banner of Truth Trust, 1982, p. 3). In this attitude Murray was following men like one of his great mentors, John Calvin, who did not speak of himself and wished to be buried in an unmarked grave.
It would be difficult to imagine Prof Murray or Dr Lloyd-Jones promoting themselves, their families or their writings on the present day social media. We are in a different generation but is there not something very revealing about the way that evangelicals use the social media today?
Spouses extol one another, parents parade their offspring (even in the womb) before the watching world, mutual congratulations are given over every little achievement! One wonders sometimes if there is even sufficient consideration given to the feelings of singles, widows, childless couples etc? And it is invariably the highlighting of talents and achievements that is to the fore. There has been a shift it what is regarded as commendable in people. There was a prominent writer some years ago who examined newspaper obituaries down the years and noted the shift that came from the time of observations of the character of the deceased to extolling the gifts, abilities and achievements. The same is seen in what has become the norm for funerals, even in Reformed circles today–an emphasis on the gifts and achievements and a celebration of the life.
How we need to learn that what we have of substance is nothing but reflected glory. O for a seismic shift!