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In Your wrath remember mercy

"T here is no such thing as religion in England… If anyone speaks about religion, everybody begins to laugh.” 1

“An open and professed Disregard to Religion is become … the distinguishing Character of the present Age… Christianity is ridiculed and railed at with very little Reserve: and the Teachers of it, without any at all.” 2

“It has come to be taken for granted that Christianity is no longer a subject of inquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly it is treated as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all persons of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject for mirth and ridicule.” 3

These comments were made about England in the 1730s, but how well they apply today not only in England and the rest of the UK but also in many other Western nations!

Various Christian heresies were fashionable among the upper classes in 1730s England such as Arianism, Pelagianism and Socinianism. Other people put nature on a pedestal, like a religion, while anything to do with Christ Himself was rejected. Many clergy knew little of the Bible, and ordinary people gave themselves up to vice of every kind, largely unaware that what they were doing was sinful in the eyes of God.  

The Evangelical Revival

Some Christian leaders saw what was happening and cried out in anguish of spirit. Yet the Church remained teetering on the edge of a precipice until John Wesley and his associates began their ministry, urging people up and down the country to read the Bible and gather together to pray.

What followed has become known as the Evangelical Revival, often dated (as regards England) from Wesley’s own conversion in 1738 and reckoned to have continued until about 1815. 4 Personal faith thrived. Gospel truth was taught in churches and became widely known and believed. 

And the effect of this revival on society at large? While many of its sinful practices continued, there was a gradual move towards valuing virtue again. A God-fearing and devout attitude became more generally acceptable. Nevertheless, John Wesley himself, in an article published in 1782, wrote:

What is the present characteristic of the English nation? It is ungodliness... By ungodliness I mean, first, a total ignorance of God; Secondly, a total contempt of him. 5

Evangelicalism in the West today

What remains of the Evangelical Revival today?

A 2022 survey by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research found that many American evangelical Christians held non-Biblical, even heretical, beliefs, especially about the nature of God. 

73% agreed with the claim that Jesus is the “first and greatest being created by God”.

55% believed the Holy Spirit is a force but not a personal being.

44% said that Jesus was a great teacher, but He was not God.

38% considered that “religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth”. 6

A separate survey, also conducted in the USA in 2022 but this time by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, looked at the beliefs of pastors. Among the evangelical pastors surveyed:

39% considered that there is no absolute moral truth and that “each individual must determine their own truth”.

37% said that having faith in general is more important than the question of in what or in Whom that faith is placed. 

30% did not agree that their salvation was based only on having confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour. 7

It is clear that the Church in the West stands once again on the brink of destruction. But what happened to bring her there?

The de-Christianising process

The British theologian and scholar CS Lewis, speaking in 1954, described a “Great Divide”, which he considered “the greatest of all divisions in history”, that had begun to open in the middle of the nineteenth century, separating the Christian age of the previous 18 centuries from the post-Christian age. The process of de-Christianising Western society could be seen, he said, in politics, the arts, religion and technology, and the chasm was continuing to widen. 8

Lewis’s almost exact contemporary, the American preacher and scholar AW Tozer (1897-1963), wrote: 

I see the time coming when all the holy men whose eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit will desert worldly Evangelicalism, one by one. The house will be left desolate and there will not be a man of God, a man in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, left among them. 9

Tozer said that he would like to live to see the time when holy and spiritually enlightened Christians separated themselves from the sinking ship of evangelicalism and formed themselves into a “a new ark to ride out the storm”. 

A vortex that is pulling us down to destruction

Now in the 2020s we are at a stage where Christianity in the UK and much of the West is once again a laughing stock, as it was in 1730s England. This is due partly to the failures and corruption of its own leaders and partly to the arrogance of society’s leaders, two factors which perhaps intensify each other in a vicious circle. 

With the Church’s authority lost, the moral framework that once underpinned Western society has gone, its value systems have collapsed, and the notion of absolute truth is widely rejected. Westerners have largely turned away from God, seeing Him as irrelevant and unnecessary for their happiness and fulfilment. In this view, humankind has matured and become master of its own destiny, no longer having need of any supernatural Being. 

However, we see that nature appears to have turned against humanity, while humans have turned against fellow-humans. We are caught in a vortex that is pulling us downward to destruction. God says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Thus, human pride will be our undoing. The Church in the West, so favoured by God for many centuries, may now feel His wrath and be at the receiving end of His judgment. 

“Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”

If God were now to abandon the West, how could we complain, given that we have pushed Him contemptuously away so often, so publicly and so shamelessly? But let us not despair. It has been said that “man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”. The challenge facing Wesley and his associates in the eighteenth century must have seemed just as great as the challenge facing us today. What if we apply again the same remedy? Repentance, prayer and Bible study were the channels that God in His mercy used in the eighteenth century to bring England back from the brink. Maybe He will use them again. 

George Barna, Director of Research at the Cultural Research Center, noted that their survey data showed that the beliefs of pastors were correlated with their spiritual routines. Pastors who held the most Biblical beliefs tended to be those who followed a consistent daily routine of Bible reading, prayer, worship and confession.

God could still revisit His people in the West. But we must repent and pray for His mercy again, remembering that there is no such thing as a Christian nation and that we cannot presume on His grace. We cannot look at the greatness, glories and triumphs of the West’s past and assume it is our right to be blessed in this way again. 

“Those who revered the Lord spoke with one another”

The prophet Malachi describes a society in which people were still going through the motions of organised religious worship, but half-heartedly, offering their lame and sick animals to Him (Malachi 1). They considered that struggling to serve God was pointless, given that evildoers were so visibly prospering (Malachi 3:8-16). But some in that society still loved God and honoured His commandments; they must have been greatly distressed by what was happening around them. Let us read in Malachi’s words what that faithful remnant did, what God did in response and what He promised them for the future:  

Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3:16-18 NRSV)

Even if we are the only one in our family or church or town reading the Bible and praying humbly to Jesus, He will take note and listen. But, if we can, let us gather with like-minded others to speak together, pray together and study the Scriptures together, thus helping one another to remain true to the Lord. 

“You are mine and I am Yours”

Wesley managed to transform the drunken revels of Bristol coal miners every 31 December into the thoughtful “watch-night” worship services with which Methodists see in the new year. Furthermore, in 1755 he began the custom of “Renewing the Covenant” on the first Sunday of the year, when believers solemnly re-affirm their commitment to the Lord. The Methodist Covenant Prayer, which many other churches have now adopted, runs:  

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

So, as 2023 begins, let each one of us recommit ourselves to the Lord, and determine to make the new year one in which we give priority to prayer and Bible study, walking humbly with our God, and asking Him:

Lord, I have heard the report about you;
Lord, I stand in awe of your deeds.
Revive your work in these years;
make it known in these years.
In your wrath remember mercy!
(Habakkuk 3:2, CSB)

 

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director of Barnabas Aid

 


 

For further information see Patrick Sookhdeo’s books
The New Civic Religion (2016) and The Death of Western Christianity (2017). To purchase please visit
barnabasaid.org/resources/books

 

Footnotes

1 Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, “Notes sur l’Angleterre”, about a visit from 1729 to 1731, quoted in Abel Stevens, The History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century called Methodism, Vol. 1, London: John Willey & Co, 1863, p.11.

2 Thomas Secker, The Charge of Thomas Lord Bishop of Oxford to the Clergy of His Diocese, in His Primary Visitation 1738. Published at their Request, London: J. and J. Pemberton, 1738, pp.3-4. 

3 Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, London: James, John and Paul Knapton, 1736, Author’s advertisement, prefixed to the first edition (May 1736).  

4 In the USA it began a little earlier and is usually called the Great Awakening.

5 John Wesley, “An Estimate of the Manners of the Present Times”, printed in 1782, in The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M., First American Complete and Standard Edition, New York: J. Emory and B. Waugh for the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1831, Vol. 6, p.349.

6 https://thestateoftheology.com/ [accessed 27 October 2022].

7 George Barna, American Worldview Inventory 2022, Release #7: Non-Denominational Pastors Far More Likely to Hold Biblical Views than All Other Denominations’ Pastors, Cultural Research Center, Arizona Christian University, 30 August 2022, https://www.arizonachristian.edu/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/CRC_AWVIRelease_07_Digital.pdf [accessed 2 November 2022].

8 CS Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum”, Inaugural Lecture from The Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, 29 November 1954, https://homepages.uc.edu/~schaefdw/temporum.html [accessed 27 October 2022].

9 AW Tozer, The Dangers of A Shallow Faith: Awakening from Spiritual Lethargy, compiled and edited by James L. Snyder. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2012, p.14.

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