Editors Note: This one has been fighting me and still feels a bit helter skelter, grace is appreciated. And hopefully the length will make up for the late publication.
The other night a Papist friend, in the course of describing the premise to a novel, mentioned what he saw as a prophetic vision of the future where, “protestantism merged with psudo-nazism.” Now it doesn’t take too much walking with your fingers around this blog to realize that I deeply disagree with the comment, and take umbrage. The fact that my sanctification kicked in and I didn’t respond with some crack about pedo priests is an act of God and proof enough of his sovereignty. Ultimately what was apparent was that my Romanish friend was as amateur in the doctrines of the Reformers as he was nominal in his own Mariolatry. Deeper than that though was borne out by other disparaging comments which point to the problems of idolatry in the protestant church of the west*. And with those I intend to once again wrestle.
2016 as a Parable
If we jump into the Wayback machine it will be discovered that my strong belief was that the sound and fury surrounding the 2016 election was due to idols on both sides. Each candidate spoke in messianic terms, and each side saw a victory of the other in eschatological proportions. After the dust settled there was elation or wailing and gnashing of teeth on par with any ancient near east culture. A god had been defeated by the rival deity. Jamar Tisby was afraid to go to his majority white church, where his, white, pastor was more concerned with the feelings of Jamar over and against the result of an incredibly clear diagnostic that the place was filled with worshipers of Trump or Hillary. And that played itself out in churches across the nation. Now here we are, just over five years and yet another election later and while some of the louder voices have piped down or been swapped for those of a more snake oil tone, can we really say that things are different?
The problem of false gods skipping up and down the isle demanding fealty and loyalty is still in our midst. The United Methodists are about to become not so united, and the Southern Baptist Convention may soon fit into a much more reasonable size banquet hall. Many churches have spilt already they just can not bring themselves to admit it. And the reason is that there ultimately there is a three way battle going on. A Progressive god, a Conservative god, and the LORD who will not be mocked.
The question then is how did we get here?
I will posit a hypothesis. Though the root is that man is born in iniquity and the intentions of the unregenerate heart is only evil always, the way that sin nature has played out is on two fronts: Indoctrination into the doctrines of the World, and metamorphosis of the Pulpit from an authority to a therapist.
Every responsible pastor I have ever heard or talked with is actively pleading with their people to turn off the damn news cycle. Though I have heard few articulate it well, on some base level they understand that they are competing with a 24hour cycle of catechesis. Or as Douglas Murray has pointed out a Mass. Especially prominent the left is the daily log on to find out who today must be excommunicated (canceled) for their transgressions, alternatively shown a meager probationary grace if they survive the wrath poured out on them. Rightward, it tends toward more muttering under the breath, while cleaning guns, under the indoctrination of FOX news. Either way the result is the same. The faithful are lead in their instruction of what is orthodox and unorthodox for the kingdom that is being built. No matter it’s source the constant feed of “information” is indoctrination.
This is only a part of the equation. Because rather than preach with a fire pastors have been neutered to counsel with a kindness. In my estimation the word Pastor, which to the puritans meant a doctor of the soul, has been confused with pastoral, which makes us think of lovely verdant pastures with fluffy sheep, and babbling brooks. Calm, cool, relaxing. No thought to the armed shepherd shooting wolves to pin their skins to the barn as a warning to others. A physician of the soul is a doctor treating cancer, it must be cut out with prejudice. Idols are a cancer of the soul. Be they an inanimate object, or a political stance. Their endgame is to condemn a soul to Hell.
The world is indoctrinating sons of hell, dashing about trying to build a temporary kingdom. And sadly the Church, that embassy of an eternal kingdom, is busy counseling it’s people on how to feel about the doctrines of the kingdom of man.
Church as Therapy
The modern evangelical lacks resiliency. The usual response to the most meager opposition is weep or retreat. The world disagrees with us and we go running to our pastors for a nice, “there, there now” and emotional pep talk. Martyn Lloyd-Jones listed this type of therapeutic preaching as one of the failures a sermon can fall into:
“To others the message is to be one of general uplift, a kind of psychological treatment. It may use Christian terminology, but it evacuates it of it’s real meaning. The terms used to do something psychologically to people, to make them feel happy, to make them feel better, to teach them how to face the problems of life – ‘Positive thinking’ and so on” – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers
Or we just hunker down more into our holy huddles, hoping and praying that they just leave us alone, or fail to notice our unobtrusive presence. Pastors and congregants alike have forgotten to see us as Screwtape does.
“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.” – C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters
There is a point at which pastors are to counsel from the pulpit. A distinct part of every Puritan sermon is comfort to the weary soul. but that did not stop them from speaking of sin and sinners in the harshest of tones and clearest words. This balance is struck by remembering that repentant sinners and progressively sanctifying christians should be comforted and counseled as they continue on closer to Christ. The unrepentant should not be lied to, they should not be eased on to the gentle slope, broad with no sharp twists or turns. There should be no comfort. Just as there is no room for other gods in the church of Christ, there is no room for idolators to be polytheists in the House of God.
What we have today is exactly that. And as those gods battle, win and loose against one another. Their faithful rise and fall with them. Then come into church looking for assurance that not all is lost. And there they are gently comforted, not called to repent as they should be. Returning the to 2016 election. I still hold that across the nation pastors should have not worried about their distraught congregations emotional states**. They should have worried about the stunning number of idolators in the pews and preached repentance. Instead was a oxymoronic message about how God is sovereign and they can chin up because He is love and it will all get better. If God is sovereign then A. the outcome was preordained by him as his instrument. And B. He is a jealous God who hates rivals with a burning passion. Idolatry offends Him, wrath awaits the unrepentant idolator, not warm hugs.
A common knowledge dictum is that church is not the place for evangelism because the lost are outside and we have to go to them. I even agree that seeker sensitive and it’s downstream practices are a bad idea at best. Church, in one sense, is for christians. My concern is that our churches are so full of unregenerate liars who claim to worship God but serve at another alter. In a bizarre twist the unsaved are sitting in the sanctuary. And because of therapeutic preaching they have become inoculated against the common gospel. They mishear, or justify their way through it and read their idols into it as opposed to letting Scripture read them.
My fear is that the church has become like the Israelites in the days of Isaiah and Jeremiah
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.” – Isaiah 1:11-15
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” – Jeremiah 5:21-23
Two Pronged Approach
Therefore, the gospel must be proclaimed to the gathered people in such a way that brings about repentance. Yet a church full of spiritual infants nursing on the the basics of the gospel is hardy any better.
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” – Hebrews 5:11-14
“Truth obeyed, said the Puritans, will heal. The word fits, because we are all spiritually sick-sick through sin, which is a wasting and killing disease of the heart. The unconverted are sick unto death; those who have come to know Christ and have been born again continue sick, but they are gradually getting better as the work of grace goes on in their lives.” – J.I. Packer, Among God’s Giants
First Gospel then obedience. The laboratory for obedience is the church. Obedience begins with attendance, it continues with the modes and postures of worship. From that lab the work moves out into the wider world. When a church allows the world into the environment of the laboratory the results are skewed. But when worship is free from idols the lives that come from that church are prone to be ones of living sacrifice, all is done as an act of worship. And that is what the world does not want. It wants idols in our hearts and in our churches. It is terrified of what would happen if Christians were not distracted by these false little gods, made so large by the constant catechesis aimed at us. Repentance and obedience, these are dangerous things.
I will let Doug Wilson close with a description of what it looks like when worship takes place.
“The people assemble, the roof retracts, the Holy Spirit gathers you up and escorts you into the Heavenly places. When you come to worship God, you have not come to a mountain that can be touched. You have not come to a physical place, you have come to the Heavenly Zion, you have come the the Heavenly Jerusalem, You have come to the great assembly, you have come to an innumerable host of angels, that’s where you come when you worship God. You come into his presence and you face God the Father, in the name of Jesus, and that is one of the things God does to affect your family to affect your congregation. I pray frequently, I want unbelievers to be aware of what is happening, not when Christians sign petitions, go ahead and sign then, not when christians support legislation, not when they vote; go ahead and vote it’s your civic duty. But that is not what I want them to worry about. Do you see that, I don’t want them to worry about how I vote, I want them to worry about how I worship. That’s what they need to worry about. Every week, Paul says to take every thought captive, we are besieging the citadels of unbelief, we are besieging the citadels of unbelief. Note that we are besieging them, every week week we have the privilege of gathering around your local citadel of unbelief… and you’ve got this big battering ram. And every week God says to his people, ‘Go ahead, take another swing!’ And you do it by worshiping, When you worship God, when you worship God the Father you pick up the battering ram and and you swing it! And you put it down and you say, ‘Another week until I get to do that again.’ And then you gather with God’s people and you pick it up again, and you swing it. I want, at some point in these proceedings, I would like the unbelievers, the high secularists, I would like the people who set themselves against everything that would know God or would come to him, the people who set themselves against the knowledge of God. I would like for them to hear… At some point, somebody at a cabinet meeting somewhere to say, ‘what was that? That little distant, boom, boom. Every week I get a little nervous. What’s going on?’ God’s people are worshiping. And when God’s people worship the Father, he transforms them into the likeness that he built us to be transformed into. That is the whole point of this project, that’s the whole point of human history, that’s where we are going, that’s why we are here.” – Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger: Leading in the Church
*If you are just joining us do not mistake the presence of idols sneaking into the reformed faith as a denial of the ones that march proudly through the door of Rome. An American flag may be just as much an idol in a Baptist Church but to our credit it is a rather recent interloper as opposed to the pantheon of demons masquerading as saints in any church of the East or Rome.
**It is also interesting to note that the 2020 election which went the opposite way, there was very little concern for the feelings of the loosing side.