We all know that things are not as they used to be in society and the church. We have witnessed a moral and spiritual decline. Pews have emptied and a basic understanding of Christian truth and values has ebbed away. And in all honesty, the lives and spiritual temperature of believers are not as they should be either. How should we respond? Do we chase and follow the culture whatever that means? Some are in denial partial or otherwise, they point to exceptions that prove the rule. True, people may still be religious and curious, and it is also fair to say that the decline is not universal within the church. Perhaps nominal, cultural Christianity is a liability as much as a benefit and it is better if profession has a cost attached to it. Yet we all know things are not what they should be. Others feel unable to do much more than lament in paralysis what we have lost while awaiting the inevitable. Another response is paranoia where the threat of further decline lurks behind everything no matter how promising. Clearly the response we need is one of faith. But could there be one of encouragement too that is not wishful thinking or denial but takes full account of evident decline?
Robert Fleming wrestled with this question in seeking to discern the times with wisdom. He puts it in the following terms. What can the righteous do when there is growing darkness coming upon the Church and the very foundation is likely to be shaken? In such a time the hearts of many get so far down that they are likely to loose their hands from their duty too and give up. It is no small thing to manage matters well in such a time of trial for the Church. In such a sharp storm we need much ballast. But we know that Scripture is near, and this remains a good and safe guide for our conduct. It shows us how to steer our course in the darkest night. Scripture makes it clear that one thing is our great duty in such a time. We must hold fast to our ways and seek to grow stronger and stronger in the way of righteousness despite all the difficulties we encounter (Job 17:9). In the following updated extract Fleming shows how to use Scripture for our encouragement in times of decline.
1. Encouragement from God’s Eternal Counsel
All is well and nothing can go wrong whilst the foundation of God (His eternal counsel) abides sure (see 2 Timothy 2:19). Though other foundations may be shaken, the godly man has a safe anchor here in a stormy day. His great eternal concern is beyond being endangered even though more than an immortal soul were at stake. His heaven is sure even though things on the earth seem most uncertain. Must it not therefore be well with the Church too? Even if it was sinking into the grave the Mediator will bring it up again. The evil eye and cursing of mere man cannot damage or destroy that possession which God has blessed (Numbers 23:23).
2. Encouragement from God’s Self-Attesting Word
Does the Christian not have such a clear knowledge of the truth and the great benefit of godliness that it needs no testimony from others or motivation from their example? It witnesses its reality to those to whom it commends itself. It does this even though it should be opposed by the whole generation amongst whom they live. A true Christian must know the truth and be so established that they can be supported despite the greatest possible falling away of others. This is possible even though no one else in the whole world were to walk in that way and they were left alone. There is such a great and certain revelation of the truth to be known by the soul that they can say with Joshua, “as for me I will serve the Lord.” O to see a generation of men with this mettle. Those who with resolution would forsake all others to follow and serve the Lord without company if necessary.
3. Encouragement from God’s Providence
We have grounds for being established in the darkest time when we can strengthen ourselves by making best use of the things that happen. Even matters that shake everything most can strengthen their hand in the way of the Lord when many stumble at such providential dealings. It is strange, to observe what questions and accusations some have concerning the truth on the basis of things which in their conscience they must admit are a convincing witness to it.
4. Encouragement Even if the Number of Godly People Declines
We should not question the truth because the number of those who follow it and are seriously pursuing godliness seems so small. We must either abandon Scripture or admit that the way to life is indeed narrow and few enter it. The small convoy the truth has in the world is an explicit verification of it. Is there the least warrant to make the choice of the multitude a test of the way of the Lord? We can certainly show to the contrary that the Lord’s followers are a select number, chosen out of the world. Otherwise, the Scripture would not be fulfilled. The falling away from the truth of many guarantees it no less than that of others coming to embrace it. The excellent way of holiness is better and more clearly known by the fact that it is everywhere spoken against.
5. Encouragement Even Though Godliness is Despised
The fact that such great contempt and reproach accompanies the truth and practice of godliness in our day should not prejudice against it. Rather it should be a further reason to strengthening the Christian in holding on in their way. This is because this has been foretold, it is only what the most excellent of the earth have had to deal with in their time. They were esteemed as the filth and offscouring of the world. The truth has not lacked such an assault in any generation nor has it lacked a triumph over such attacks. The greatest reproacher has sometime been forced to make a retraction concerning what he scoffed at. When God comes near in judgment the proud change the way they speak especially when faced with the dreadful appearance of death. But this also witnesses what a marvellous thing true religion is. It loses no weight with those who know it when it comes under the greatest cloud of detraction and contempt: For Christ is still precious then and His way desirable to those who believe.
6. Encouragement Even Though Wickedness Prospers
The fact that the sentence is not speedily executed against an evil course of action makes the world more desperately wicked. But is not this also a seal and confirmation of the truth? It is grounds for being established in the way of the Lord since it verifies what Scripture says (Ecclesiastes 8:11). We may see that a short reprieve from punishment is no pardon nor acquittal whilst sin to a later reckoning. Judgment deferred, when it is accompanied by hardening threatens greater judgment than a quick and immediate response. This shows that the judgment will be the greater when it comes. In fact, if this did not happen, that the world takes such advantage in abusing delayed judgment, it might make us question the truth, since not one syllable of it can fall to the ground but all must be fulfilled.
7. Encouragement Despite Ungodliness Within the Church
The great abounding of ungodliness within the Church is an undeniable seal to the verity of the Scriptures and should help the godly man hold on in his way. This is because it is unanswerably clear that there could be no darkness if there were not such a thing as light. Folly cannot exist if there were no wisdom. In the same way, excellent holiness is evidently made known by its opposite, which it could not have if it were not most real itself.
8. Encouragement Even Though Error Prevails
The truth is greatly entangled in a confusion of contrary doctrines and unceasingly pursued by error. It is attacked by those adversaries who in every age seek to darken it. But this can be no grounds for prejudice against the truth or wavering. It should strengthen the godly in their way and help them to grow stronger when they have Scripture fulfilled so explicitly before their eyes. The Lord has made His way plain, nor does that blessed record of truth give anyone grounds to turn aside to crooked paths. Men themselves created the clouds that tend to darken the truth. The truth is in all ages surrounded by error, which (when there is any brighter revelation of it) breaks out like a thick fog though they can never unite any more than gold and clay can. It is clear that it is inconceivable that error could exist if the truth did not have a certainty and real being. It serves to aid its further triumph. People should pursue earnestly a solid persuasion of the truth of Scripture so that their souls come under the power and authority of the truth as the word and testimony of the living God. This would prove to be a more effectual cure to the dreadful disease of error in the Church than all the debates of the time though they also have a special use.
Here are some further ways in which this serves to confirm the truth.
(a) No error or false doctrine assaults the Church which is not opposed and predicted in Scripture. The Word is written and directed in a special way to every period of the Church and especially suited also to all later trials and assaults. It was written in such a way by He who knew and foresaw what opposition His truth would encounter in later times. There is no poison or corruption in doctrine which infests the Church which does not have its proper antidote provided in Scripture.
(b) Even the astonishing depth and power of error and delusion exactly confirms the testimony of Scripture thence most exactly confirmed (2 Peter 2:17). It is astonished to see how people are turned mad by to embrace the most absurd notions. We see how tenacious and violent they are in it even when silenced with the clearest manifestations of the truth. It is strong delusion and deception (2 Thessalonians 2:12).
Encouragement despite decline is not fantasy, it considers the reality of the situation. But when we see things in stark relief, we are able to see the glory of God and His truth in a clearer way. Our trust is not in our own resources or of those around us but in the one who never fails. It is not a way to pretend all is fine when it is not, rather it is to focus on our only hope. He has placed in these circumstances for a reason. This gives strength and motivation to do all we can while we can for His glory.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.