For years many people have recognized the deplorable condition of the church in America – its shallowness, superficiality, worldliness, and spiritual impotency – and many solutions have been advanced and tried with virtually no impact on stemming the moral and spiritual decay of society. We have prayed around flag poles, had forty-days of this and forty-days of that, attended innumerable conferences and conventions, formed legal organizations and consumer groups, parachurch ministries and political action groups, cozied-up to political leaders, become seeker sensitive, emergent, entertainment driven, culturally relevant, missional, created coalitions, and whatever else the mind of man can concoct – all with absolutely no abatement in our nation’s slide into total and unbridled debauchery. Lawlessness is increasing and our collective moral conscience is thoroughly seared as evidenced by the irrational moral outrage over the killing of a lion named Cecil, an animal that would eat you in a heartbeat, while at the same time the exposure of Planned Parenthood’s ghoulish, merciless, inhuman, and Nazi-like practice of harvesting organs from babies barely stirs a ripple of moral indignation, much less guilt. The generation of Germans who apathetically stood by while Jews were marched to the death camps seems righteous in comparison to American society today (Ezk 16:51).
So how are we to stem this tide of apostasy, licentiousness, lawlessness, and barbarism? Some say we need more evangelism, but if the answer is more evangelism then it must be of a different kind than what the church has been doing up till now. The church is a reflection of its beliefs, the culture is a reflection of the church, and our government is a reflection of the people it governs. Godly and righteous people do not elect ungodly and wicked leaders. Fortunately Scripture and history provide us with the answer, if we will only pay attention and heed their lessons.
By the early 18th century, Christianity in England had proved itself to be little more than a religious ethic; sedate, timid, and complacent. In 1662 over 2,000 Puritan pastors had been ejected from their pulpits under The Act of Nonconformity and were replaced by men who lacked both learning and Christian principles. In turn, the standards for ministry suffered a long and steady decline. The church became seen as a beneficial social institution that bettered mankind and helped support a civil society, but eventually it lost all spiritual authority, sincerity, and zeal. In effect, the salt had lost its saltiness, and as a result English society was plunged into depths of depravity and inhumanity never before experienced. In 1732, London’s leading religious publication, The Weekly Miscellany, printed an essay deploring the prevailing conditions – an essay later summarized as follows:
“It broadly asserts that the people were engulfed in voluptuousness and business, and that a zeal for godliness looked as odd upon a man as would the antiquated dress of his great grandfather. It states that freethinkers were formed into clubs, to propagate their tenets, and to make the nation a race of profligates; and that atheism was scattered broadcast throughout the kingdom. It affirms that it was publicly avowed that vice was profitable to the state…and that polygamy, concubinage, and even sodomy were not sinful.”
Some sought to better conditions by forming “societies”, what we would call parachurch ministries, and enacting legislation to combat immorality. However, all these endeavors failed, and they failed miserably. There was no noticeable improvement in the moral or religious condition of the nation. In fact, conditions grew worse, not better. Both the church and nation had sown to the flesh, and from the flesh was reaping corruption (Gal 6:7, 8), just like the majority of the church today. By 1738, Archbishop Seeker wrote,
“In this we cannot be mistaken, that an open and professed disregard to religion is become, through a variety of unhappy causes, the distinguishing character of the present age. This evil has already brought in such dissoluteness and contempt of principle in the higher part of the world, and such profligate intemperance and fearlessness of committing crimes in the lower, as must, if this torrent of impiety stop not, become absolutely fatal.”
The abject failure of all these attempts to better the nation’s moral and religious conditions simply proved that the nation’s troubles originated in the individual human heart, and that this “torrent of impiety” would continue until some power was found that could arrest it at its source.
The situation was not much better in the American colonies. There was little difference between the church and the world. Samuel Blair who resided in the Middle Colonies wrote of the situation in the spring of 1740, “Religion lay as it were a-dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in this part of the visible church.” Neither in England or America were conditions favorable for a sudden transformation, but nevertheless, sudden transformation there was. In the very months that Archbishop Seeker penned his despairing words, England was startled by the voice of a 22-year old preacher by the name of George Whitefield who preached the law, repentance, the doctrines of grace, and the necessity of a new birth for conversion. His was not the only voice, but it was by far the loudest. He was joined by other fearless men – men such as Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland in Wales who cared more for the glory of God than the praise of man, and who were willing to suffer the loss of all things for the Gospel. These men were not only viciously opposed by mobs of unregenerate people (one preacher, William Seward, died a few days after being hit in the head with a large stone while preaching), but also by the organized church and other pastors who would insight the mobs against them (Jn 16:2, 3). Like Paul many of these men bore the brand marks of Christ on their bodies, not the imprint of the world. This was the beginning of what became known as The Great Awakening, and it began with the unadulterated preaching and teaching of God’s word, of the doctrines of grace, and of the necessity of a new birth.
In America the coldness and apathy which characterized the church was suddenly jolted awake by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, and others. The Great Awakening in America “broke upon the slumbering churches like a thunderbolt rushing out of the clear sky” wrote one New England pastor.
The preaching of the Great Awakening was often alarming, not because of its theatrics, but because of its content. There was no mood music, no altar calls; they did not even keep track of the number of “decisions”. These men understood and believed that only a consciousness of the presence of God could invoke the fear that led to life and make the truth startlingly real to both preachers and hearers. In the words of Robert Bolton, a person “must be cast down, confounded, condemned, a cast away, and lost in himself, before he will look about for a Savior.”
How are people to be brought to this state? For this Edwards had a clear answer. First, people will not come to this condition of themselves because they are by nature “secure.” “They do not realize that God sees them when they commit sin and will call them to an account for it. They are stupidly senseless to the importance of eternal things.” This truth has been graphically illustrated by the exposure of subscribers to the Ashley Madison website. As long as they could hide under the cloak of anonymity they felt secure and completely insensible to the reality that God sees all they do and will hold them accountable. Therefore, secondly, it is necessary for the Holy Spirit to apply truth to a person’s conscience in order to “awaken” them. People must be dealt with so that “their conscience stares them in the face and they begin to see their need of a priest and a sacrifice.”
The principle means of dealing with the conscience is the law of God, “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rm 3:20); “I would not have come to know sin except through the law” (Rm 7:7). Its purpose is “that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God” (Rm 3:19). The law places a person before the holiness and justice of God and lets them know they have a reason to fear God. This distress is not an irrational panic or a frenetic emotional fit, but that which natural men must experience when the Holy Spirit convicts them of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn 16:8). All true revivals in which the national heart and mind has been awakened have been those in which God and not man has produced a deep consciousness of sin and the fleeing to Christ for salvation.
So how do we stem the tide of lawlessness in which our nation is awash? In a word, we cannot. The problem is the human heart, and only God has the power to arrest “this torrent of impiety” at its source. God works through means, and the only means God has ordained to reach the hearts of men is His word (Rm 1:16; 1Pt 1:23). In an age where preaching has become passé and it is considered a mark of pride or folly for a man to stand before people as though he had something authoritative to say, where most preaching is geared toward appeasing and assuaging the conscience and excusing and redefining sin, true preaching that proclaims the great doctrines of Scriptures, the majesty and holiness of God and the depravity and helplessness of man has almost disappeared. Many once solid evangelical leaders have capitulated to the culture and/or drifted into false doctrines, leading many of their followers astray. But God’s purpose is not thwarted. The eyes of the Lord still move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His (2 Chr 16:9). Will you be one of them? The preachers of the Great Awakening were but a mere handful, but God delights in using weak means to accomplish great ends. You will not receive the praise of man, especially not religious men, but the consolations of God more than make up for the hardships (Mt 5:11, 12).