For years I have had a deep dissatisfaction with the evangelical church. It seems so superficial. Worship is too casual. There is a lack of reverence for God. The contemporary music is repetitious and makes no strong theological statements like the old hymns did. The lyrics don’t lodge in your mind in a way that reinforces scriptural truths.
The focus of the modern message seems to be too much on me and my spiritual growth rather than knowing God better and becoming more intimate with Him. There is a lot about how to improve myself and my relationships and not enough about the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. There is a preoccupation with the latest popular Christian authors and little interest in the Christian classics written by the great saints of old.
Church growth strategies have replaced reliance upon the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Belief has been reduced to a matter of making a ‘decision for Christ.’ Unbelievers are urged to come to Christ in order to appropriate all the blessings of heaven on earth rather than to turn from a life of sin to follow Christ. It is a once-for-all salvation proposition that does not require embracing the life of good works appointed by Christ (Eph 2:10) or sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings. Thus it creates a new category of believer called ‘carnal Christians’ who go to heaven but receive no rewards when they get there.
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:35) Brotherly love is the hallmark of Christianity. It is what should set us apart from other people. If we really love on another, at the very least we should expect our fellow believers to know our names, notice when we miss a church service (or two, or three, or more), share a meal together once in awhile, uphold us with a word of encouragement or comfort when misfortune strikes, maybe pay us a visit in the hospital, and hopefully come to our funeral. Even unbelievers show their love in these ways. Yet the church as it is constituted today does not seem to bind its members close enough to produce even a loose community, much less the kind of fellowship that engages in sacrificial service.
We missed worship last Sunday because my wife was ill. For the first time in all our years of attending church, someone actually texted my wife to ask if she was okay. Ours is a church of Chinese immigrants, so it is a much closer fellowship than most American churches. Many folks have families overseas, so church is their surrogate family. Also, Chinese people place a much stronger emphasis on family relationships due to their Confucian heritage.
A close friend and former member of our church recently passed away. Although she and her family had been attending an American church for the past several years, the vast majority of the people at her funeral were Chinese friends and family from other churches. The gentleman who officiated was a Chinese family counselor who had befriended the family when they were going through a tough time. He had never done a funeral before, yet apparently they felt more comfortable with him than they did with any of the pastoral staff from their church.
I went through some very tough times during my forties and fifties. My wife had an affair with her boss and filed for divorce. My son became so violent that he had to be sent away for the protection of the family. I lost my job. My finances were completely wiped out. I went deep into debt. Still, I was forced to pay thousands of dollars a month on a worthless boarding school which was later closed down when another parent brought a lawsuit for fraud and abuse. I began to suffer from manic depression due to multiple stresses that were all piling up at once.
I discovered that my son’s troubles were due in part to the fact that he had been sexually abused by a former colleague when we were missionaries together in Japan. I sought help from the offending missionary’s board since they had done nothing to prevent the abuse. For years they insisted the offender had done nothing wrong. Then I found three more victims who were all sons of another one of their missionaries. They could not deny what had happened to these boys, so they finally agreed to meet with me. When they did, they presented a detailed history of all his offenses, information that they had in their possession all the time they were denying any wrongdoing. Yet they steadfastly refused to help me with the thirty months of boarding school expenses.
At this point, I so despaired of the miserable condition of the evangelical church that I quit attending for several years. But I never blamed God and I did continue listening to Christian radio, particularly the messages of Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sunnyvale, California. Pastor MacArthur often addresses the pathetic plight of the contemporary church. I suppose that is one reason I was drawn to him.
But he also introduced me to a new way of thinking about the Bible called Reformed Theology. This systematic approach to Bible study is based upon a doctrinal scheme that places the sovereignty of God above all else. Its foundation is the principle that “from him [God the Father] and through him and to him are all things.” (Rm 11:36). All things are ordained by Him (Acts 17:28). Without Him nothing is possible (Mt 19:26). He alone reconciles us to Himself, we can do nothing to earn His favor (Jn 15:16; 3:27), and He keeps us safe within the fold of His loving care so we need not ever fear being separated from Him again (Col 1:22, Rm 8:35).
The founding father of Reformed Theology is John Calvin, a protege of Martin Luther. He formalized the teachings of the Reformation in a treatise called the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a defense of the Christian faith. This is a compilation of his teaching and preaching over thirty years. It takes the teachings of the Bible and codifies them into a system based on what he called the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation. This approach is designed to extract the original meaning of the author given the historical and grammatical context in which it was written. This method replaces sermonizing with a line-by-line examination of the scripture as it would have been understood by the audience for whom it was originally intended. Thus it prevents preachers from spiritualizing passages to fit them to contemporary situations.
Reading the Bible in this way slowly began to transform my thinking. For instance, I had been taught that I must choose Christ as my Savior, but I realized that He had chosen me and set His love upon me long before I even came into existence. Suddenly, I realized how much I had been given and how little I deserved it. I began to feel a deep sense of gratitude to God for saving me and keeping me. And I saw that I have absolutely no basis whatsoever for spiritual pride.
Scriptures that I had glossed over suddenly took on new meaning. I had never thought about the fact that Saul was not seeking God when he was suddenly struck down by a vision on the road to Damascus. He was actually on his way to round up some Christians and bring them to Jerusalem to put them on trial. God sought him out and turned him around when he had absolutely no intention of following Christ. I know people who have had similar experiences. God just snatched them out of a life of disobedience and chose them to be His own.
I also began to realize that salvation is not a one time event but a continuous process of becoming more like Christ every day. Paul says to work out your salvation (Phil 2:12). For the first time in my life, I saw how this is not a contradiction of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, but a reaffirmation of it because it is God who works in us both to know and to do His will (Phil 2:13).
Furthermore, I discovered that there is no such thing as a “salvation issue.” There is no excuse for justifying disobedience on any grounds. Jesus never condoned disobedience under any circumstances. He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). There are also legitimate grounds upon which to make a judgment as to whether or not a person’s faith is genuine. If one lives a life of deliberate and persistent disobedience, it is fair to say he is not a believer (Mt 7:16, 20). Neither is everyone who professes Christ a Christian (Lk 6:46, Mt 7:22-23). I had always been told one cannot judge what is in another’s heart. But the Bible says what is in the heart is manifest by one’s deeds (Mt 7:20; Lk 6:45).
Now the cause of the many problems with the Evangelical church came more clearly into focus for me. Preachers have abandoned the line-by-line, sequential and expository preaching of the Word of God for a populist, topical style of preaching that is subject not to the intentions of the original author but to the opinions and biases of the speaker. So much for the work of the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn 16:8). Absent the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, it has become necessary for pastors to resort to human devices to draw people to church. Hence the church growth movement, seeker friendly services, friendship evangelism, contemporary worship, and church drama.
At the same time, the church did away with prayer meetings, which were not very popular, and replaced them with small groups. Rather than occupy themselves with prayer and sound preaching and teaching, small groups spend their time socializing and discussing their own experience as it relates to some popular Christian book or passage of scripture. Small groups rapidly became popular because they give participants the opportunity to receive endless affirmation from one another free of the restraints of official church doctrine or discipline from qualified church leaders.
And that is how we have ended up with monstrous mega-churches where the only people we really know are the ones in the small group we belong to, provided we have chosen to belong to one. We share our needs, have a short time of prayer, discuss what some book or passage of scripture means to us, and then go our way until next time. Is it any wonder that the church is fraught with doctrinal error? Is it any surprise that the church suffers the same kinds of social maladies as rest of society? Should Christ’s followers really need to do background checks on those who minister to children? Why should we be surprised there are so many unconverted members in our congregations?
Journalist Collin Hansen remarks:
“Many churches geared toward so-called spiritual seekers focus on God’s immanence, his nearness. They talk about a personal relationship with Christ, emphasizing his friendship and reminding audiences that God made us in his image. It all makes sense, because so many baby boomers left churches that felt impersonal and irrelevant. But the culture has shifted. Fewer Americans now claim any church background. Evangelical mega churches, once the upstart challengers, have become the new mainstream. Teenagers who grew up with buddy Jesus in youth group don’t know as much about Father God…. Calvinism puts much stock in transcendence, which draws out biblical themes such as God’s holiness, glory, and majesty. Think of the prophet Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6:1: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.”… Beholding God’s transcendence helps us experience his immanence or nearness.”1
It would be hard to overstate the impact John Calvin had on the Kingdom of God. His Reformed Theology spread across Europe and England raising up disciples like the famous Scottish evangelist John Knox, the Colonial reformer John Owen, the authors of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Tyndale Bible, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and the Geneva Bible. The latter was carried by the Pilgrims and the Puritans to America where it became the basis for the Mayflower Compact and the Constitution of the United States. The first great religious revival in the American British Colonies was led by two famous Calvinists – George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. This spawned the first of many American missionary movements which eventually reached around the world bringing the gospel to places it had never been.
For a remarkable example of how compelling preaching can be when it is based on a sound historical-grammatical approach to interpretation, listen to John MacArthur’s message entitled “The Last Passover Part 1.” You will learn things you never knew about the last Passover that Jesus celebrated with His disciples. You will be amazed at the sovereignty of God when you see how He arranged all the circumstances of that day to fulfill two seemingly conflicting prophecies..
Also, check out John’s book, “The Master’s Plan for the Church” to see what the church Jesus builds really looks like.