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For generations now many a voice has been raised to lament the spiritual condition of the Church. Worldliness in all of its varied forms and expressions has enervated the testimony of professed Christians, and the world looks on with a mixture of delight and contempt as they scoff: â€śyou are no different from us.â€ť Sadly, they are right.
A thousand thousand remedies have been proposed (and tried!) â€“ programs, lifestyles, retreats, conferences, alliances, t-shirts, bumper stickers, web sites, podcasts, blogs, small groups, large groups, training sessions, and countless more â€“ which end up being little more than feeble attempts to make â€śchurchâ€ť more appealing to the lost in the hope that likeability will be a sufficient substitute for an effective gospel witness.
Is there no real remedy â€“ one that has the sanction of Scripture and has been proven in the days of our spiritual forefathers and their spiritual forefathers to be â€śmighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds?â€ť The simple and yet sublime answer is yes! But we must be willing to LOOK BACK and LISTEN â€“ actions that our modern Church is singularly unwilling to do in its smug conviction that Christianityâ€™s enlightenment began with this present generation, or, to borrow the words of Job: â€śno doubt but that ye are the people and wisdom shall die with you,â€ť (Job 12:2). The present generation would do well to heed what Scripture and previous godly generations have said (and would say again to us if we would but listen). They might find, to their benefit, that these voices of the past have important truth to impart that, in all of our enlightened modern genius, has somehow been overlooked.
John Angell James (1785 â€“ 1859) was pastor of Carrâ€™s Lane Independent Chapel in Birmingham, England for 54 years. He was the author of seventeen books including An Earnest Ministry the Want of the Times from which the following selection is taken. His searching words resonate as though written yesterday (and who would argue that the situation has improved since these sentences were first penned by him in 1847). If such was the case then, how much more needful now, in our day, ought we give â€śmore earnest heedâ€ť to the things which were spokenâ€¦
"No careful reader of the New Testament, and observer of the present state of the church, can fail to be convinced that what is now wanting is a high spirituality. The Christian profession is sinking in its tone of piety; the line of separation between the church and the world becomes less and less perceptible; the character of genuine Christianity, as expounded from pulpits and delineated in books, has too rare a counterpart in the lives and spirits of its professors."
"How is this to be remedied, and by what means is the spirit of piety to be revived? May we not ask a previous question â€“ How came this spirit of slumber over the church? Was it not from the pulpit? And if a revival take place in the church, must it not begin in the pulpit? Is the ministry of the present day in that state of earnest piety which is likely to originate and sustain an earnest style of preaching, and to revive the lukewarmness of their flocks?"
"Do we seek examples and patterns of eminent and earnest piety? How richly are they supplied both in number and in quality in the pages of our history. Where is the deep, ardent, experimental religion of our ancestors, the fathers and founders of Puritanism? What a theologian was John Owen when he wrote his Exposition of Hebrews! What a polemic when he penned his Vindiciae Evangelicae! What an ecclesiastic when he drew up his treatise on Church Government! But, O, what a Christian when he indulged his Meditations on the Glory of Christ, and gave us his treatise On Spirituality of Mind and the Mortification of Sin! What a logician and divine was John Howe when he produced his Living Temple, but what a Christian when, in the shadow of this noble structure of his holy genius, he poured out his heart in his work on Delighting in God and The Blessedness of the Righteous. And then think of Richard Baxter, who gained repose from the labors of polemic strife, and relief from the tortures of the stone, in the believing anticipation of The Saintâ€™s Everlasting Rest."
"Was their piety the result of their suffering? Then for one I could be almost content to take the latter, so that I might be possessed of the former. Lead me to the spots, I do not say, where they trimmed their midnight lamp and continued at their studies till the morning star glittering through their casement chided them to their pillow; but to those more hallowed scenes where they held their nightly vigils, and wrestled with the angel till the break of day. Mighty shades of John Owen and Richard Baxter, John Howe and Thomas Manton, Matthew Henry and William Bates, Thomas Goodwin and Philip Nye â€“ illustrious and holy men, we thank you for the rich legacy you have bequeathed to us in your immortal works, but, O, where has the mantle of your piety fallen!"
"Here then let us begin, where indeed we ought to begin, with our own spirits, for what should be the piety of that man, on the state of whose heart depends in no small degree the spiritual condition of a whole Christian community?...If we enquire for the sources of energy, the springs of activity in the most successful ministers of Christ, we shall find that they lay in the ardor of their devotion. They were men of prayer and of faith. They dwelt upon the mount of communion with God, from whence they came down like Moses to the people, radiant with the glory on which they had themselves been intently gazing. They stationed themselves where they could look at things unseen and eternal, and came with the stupendous visions fresh in their view, and spoke of them under the impression of what they had just seen and heard. They drew their thoughts and made their sermons from their minds and their books, but they breathed life and power into them from their hearts and in their closets."
"Traceâ€¦their career, and you will see how beaten was the road between the pulpit and the closet; the grass was not allowed to grow in that path. This was in great part the secret of their power. They were mighty in public because in their retirement they had clothed themselves, so to speak, with Omnipotence. The same might be said of all others who have attained to eminence as successful preachers of the gospel. If then we would see a revival of the power of the pulpit, we must see first of all a revival in the piety of those who occupy it."
Do we lament the lack of real and evident godliness in the pew? Then we need look no further than its counterpart in the pulpit, is the indictment of Pastor James. To those who would decry the conclusion of this godly man, let them offer a more compelling reason for the all-too-common worldliness that permeates the Church of our day, and her resulting powerlessness, her failure to be salt and light. It cannot be but that, in general, the people will be no better, no more godly, no less consumed with the spirit of the world than those whose example they are instructed to follow (Hebrews 13:7, 1 Pet 5:3). Let us, then, seek out and call to our pulpits men who are not only gifted orators, but who preeminently have graven upon the golden plate of their heart and affixed to the fair mitre of their daily profession these words: HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD, and then we may have reason to hope that He whose name is holy (Isaiah 57:15) will again visit His people with a fresh outpouring of His Holy Spirit.
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