How should we respond to the massive upheavals that have taken place nationally and internationally over the last couple of years? If we think about it in the abstract, perhaps it seems obvious that after a time of turmoil and distress, we would re-dedicate ourselves to the Lord and more earnestly seek his grace to put more energy into serving him. Now that restrictions on social and church life have eased, we have many opportunities to do this. But instead of being re-energised as we emerge from the pandemic, many believers feel they are struggling to shake off a kind of spiritual lethargy. They feel they are doing little more than just drifting along. Could the Lord be leaving us to cope with the aftermath more or less by ourselves? How then can we possibly cope? Why does he not intervene mightily to invigorate his weary church?
In this updated extract, James Guthrie shows he was familiar with this same problem. He looks first at where God is going – is he coming towards us to bless us with more of his presence, or is he withdrawing? Then he looks at where we are going – turning inwards on ourselves or reaching upwards for God’s help? What progress are we making?
What direction is God going?
When the Lord is present with us in society, this is manifested in what we call the common operations of the Spirit. For example, he gives people the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, justice, courage and so on.
When the Lord is present with us in the church, this can be seen in one of two ways. One way is in the ordinary gifts of the Spirit (ordinary as distinct from saving grace). These include the gift of ministry, or teaching, or exhortation, or church-ruling, which he uses to enable the saints to grow, and to edify the body of Christ (Romans 12:6,7; Ephesians 4:8,11,12). The other way is in the special operations of the Spirit, when he gives sanctifying and saving grace, and by his continued influences makes his people more and more renewed in the inward man day by day. To the extent that God gives or withdraws his presence in these things, so his people prosper or decay.
Whichever of these we think of, we have to admit that God has to some extent or another departed from amongst us. He has left us under a cloud of desertion.
In society, wisdom and understanding, courage, strength, and success have been taken from us. He has mingled a perverse spirit in the midst of us that causes us to err in every work.
Likewise in church and church administration, the Lord is not showing his presence. The unity and authority of pastors and church courts is gravely weakened. He has divided us in his anger, and though we have attempted to heal our wounds and recover our strength, yet our endeavours up to now have for most part been frustrated by the Lord. There is bruising instead of binding up, and much bitter contention and strife in many of our meetings. Instead of the sweet fruits of edifying unity and peace, whilst we should pull together in unison in the work of the Lord, some pull one way and others another, rendering our endeavours almost useless to the church, comfortless to ourselves, and despicable to others.
In the ordinances, the Lord is restraining and withholding the blessing which should come from them. Plenty is sown, yet little is harvested.
The word of salvation is only rarely blessed in the hand of ministers to the converting of souls. Faithful ministers across the land feel that they labour in vain and spend their strength for nothing. Many souls who claim to be converted and have a real union with Jesus Christ are suffering a dreadful withering and decay. Tenderness is gone. Influences of the Spirit are withheld. Prayer is restrained and shut out. Faith fails. Love has grown cold. Hearts are hardened like stones. There is little or no delight in God or in his Word or in the fellowship of his people. Corruptions are rife, and heart plagues abound. God hides his face and is like a stranger to his people, leaving them to wrestle alone in their duties and difficulties.
And yet while the Lord’s people would admit all this, they make so little fuss about his departings! Maybe we have some remembrance a better condition, when we enjoyed his fellowship, and some sense of our loss and its bad consequences. This brings some sort of desire to recover our former state – but how faint and feckless these desires are! We are effectively content to live without God, and to let him go without even attempting to take hold of the hem of his garments.
If the Lord’s gracious influences were strong on our hearts, we would not, we could not, easily contemplate his departing. We would not, and could not, hold our peace, night or day, until he returned and revived his work. The fact that we sit, almost satisfied, and silent under his withdrawings suggests that many of us, though we have a name that we are living, are actually dead, and that the spiritual life which remains in others is ready to die (Revelation 3:1-2.).
What direction are we going?
1. Going on without basic gospel truths
Multitudes of people go on in a profound lack of familiarity with the gospel and the necessary truths of God. Light has come amongst us, but many love darkness rather than light. Often too this ignorance is unforced and perverse.
2. Going on in routines
Formalism – that is, a form of godliness without the power of godliness – abounds and prevails among us.
3. Going on fruitlessly
Even when we know and obey the gospel, we are barren and unfruitful in our spiritual life. Our outstanding sin is that in spite of the fact that the Lord waters us plentifully with the dew of heaven and the sweet rain of the gospel day by day, yet most of us are still only an empty vine, which brings forth fruit to ourselves, but not to God.
4. Growing weary of the things of God
We have grown weary of the precious things of God, and the blessed opportunities they bring us. Instead we prefer our own worldly advantages. Many are tired of the ordinances. Many are tired of the Lord’s Day, and halve it between God and the world. Many value our blessed Lord Jesus and the inestimable treasure of the gospel at a very low rate, much less than thirty pieces of silver.
5. Going on without listening to God
We refuse to hearken to God. Are we not a rebellious and gainsaying people? We neither fear the threatenings of God to repent, nor embrace his promises to believe, nor listen to his commandments to obey.
6. Going on with unfaithful ministers
Although there are many precious ministers who study to divide the Word of God aright, warning the wicked to turn from the evil of their ways, and encouraging the godly in godliness, yet not all ministers are like this. There are others who heal the hurt of the daughter of the Lord’s people slightly, and speak peace to these to whom the Lord does not speak peace. They bite with the teeth those who ought to be encouraged and comforted (Micah 3:5).
The goal of some ministers is not to commend themselves to every man’s conscience as in the sight of God. Instead they handle the Word of God deceitfully, so as to make the hearts of the righteous sad (by turning the edge of their doctrine against them, referring to them as hypocrites and narrow-minded), and on the other side to strengthen the hands of the wicked to persist in his wicked way.
7. Going against our commitments
We keep dealing treacherously with God in the matter of his covenant. We have all made covenants with God (at least the covenant of our baptism). The terms and intentions of these covenants include walking close with God, zeal for the kingdom of Jesus Christ and against his open enemies, and reforming ourselves in our various roles and capacities. Yet surely we must acknowledge that most of us have not only come exceedingly far short in these, but we have palpably transgressed. The sinfulness of this is greatly heightened by the greatness of the Lord’s mercies and his wonderful works on our behalf.
8. Going away from our first love
We have forsaken our first love (Revelation 2:4). Even if we compare ourselves with ourselves – what we are now with what we were, perhaps even a very few years ago – we will see this. But what is worse, we seem to have fallen further from our first love than the church of Ephesus. Jesus Christ acknowledged some good points about Ephesus. ‘I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil, and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted’ (Revelation 2:2-3). Do we deserve a testimony like this? More likely, we come far short in all these things. Where are our works, and where is our labour and patience, and where is our zeal against those that are evil? The reality is that we are a barren and fruitless people. Our way is full of murmuring and fretting. We allow many who say they are pastors, and are not, to go on without investigation. We decline to take up the cross of Jesus Christ, and refuse to endure and labour for his name. We either faint or turn aside to crooked ways. And shall we fall so far short of Ephesus in all these things, and yet not fear the removal of our candlestick?
Are we and our God drifting apart? Of course the Lord never leaves any of his people completely, or lets any of them leave him completely. But relatively speaking, there can be times when we back away from God and turn our backs on his ways and his grace. Correspondingly God can hide his face from us instead of shining on us the light of his countenance. Then the last thing we should do is let things go on as they are. Instead we need to battle the inertia and shake off our lethargy. If we follow the advice to the church at Ephesus, we will remember our first love, repent, and do the first works.
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