A Fallen Church
There is no sadder and more deplorable sight on earth than a fallen church. There is nothing that causes such lamentation among the righteous of earth and the angels of heaven.
The old keeper of the lighthouse at Calais was asked, “What if one of the lights went out?” He replied, “It must not be. There is too much at stake. Think of a vessel loaded with human beings being wrecked on the rocks because my lights had gone out. It cannot be, it must not be. Oftentimes on dark stormy nights I look out over the angry sea and I feel as if the eye of all the world is on my lights. Go out! Burn dim! No, never!”
The eyes of the world are on the light of the church of God; for that light to grow dim means the shipwreck of thousands of immortal souls. Look, will you! See strewn along the barren shores thousands of benighted, perishing souls—all because the light of some congregation has gone out. There is no more deplorable sight on earth.
Is it possible for a church once filled with God and the power of the Holy Spirit to fall into cold formality, lukewarmness, and worldliness? Listen to these sad words, “O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.” (Psalm 74:1-2) Note the words, “Thy congregation… mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.” God once dwelt in Zion, but now has forsaken her. Let me repeat: there is no more lamentable sight than that of a congregation which God has purchased, which He has redeemed, that has to be forsaken because of its worldliness. There is no more pathetic story than the lamentations of Ezekiel and Jeremiah over the degeneracy of the people of God.
Jesus said to one of the seven churches of Asia, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen.” (Revelation 2:5) This church as a whole never did repent and get restored to the place from whence it had fallen. Very seldom does any congregation that starts drifting toward the world ever redeem itself. Jesus writes to another one of these churches, saying, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” (Revelation 3:20) Remember, these words were not written to an avowed sinner, but to a religious professing church. Jesus was on the outside of this church knocking for admittance. A church in which He once dwelt, but now shut out! This church as a whole never did admit Him, but a few of the more humble did. Such has been repeated time and again since then, and doubtless will be until the end of time. Thank God there are a few in every degenerating form who will not bow down to the goddess of this world. They keep their hearts open to the Savior’s call.
I once read an amusing story of an old colored man who had been genuinely converted, and wanted admittance into a certain church. He applied to the deacon for membership. The deacon referred him to the pastor. The pastor, to be rid of him, told him to go pray about it and see what the Lord would say. A few days afterward the colored brother met the pastor and told him that he had prayed. “And what did the Lord say?” asked the pastor. The brother replied, “The Lord said that He had been trying to get into that church for the last few years and could not. How could an old colored man like me expect to get in?”
There are many congregations in which Jesus once had a place, but He has been thrust out and will never have a place there again though He knocks loud and long. This church at Laodicea, though once filled with the Holy Spirit, and the power and the glory of God, had, at the time of John’s writing, declined into a sad state of lukewarmness (Revelation 3:14-22). This gives proof that a Spirit-filled church can decline into cold formality. This gives evidence that a Holy Spirit-governed church can pass from this to death and yet not be conscious that they have done so. The church at Laodicea still thought that spirituality predominated in their midst. They thought that they were making great progress in the Christian life. Such is the blinding power of worldliness and manrule. The god of this world blinds people’s eyes (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Such people often think they are becoming more spiritual and making progress heavenward, but all the time they are drifting toward the world.
Perhaps you have read of the sad fate of a ship in the Sunda Strait. The current in this narrow channel and around the islands of the adjacent sea runs very swiftly; so much so, that vessels sailing against the current may seem to be making progress when in fact they are being carried backward. An officer in command of a vessel did not take into account the swiftness of the stream. With all sails spread and a strong fair wind, he thought he was making good progress up the current, but instead he was carried backward on the lee shore where all on board perished.
This has been true of many a church and reformation. They thought they were making progress in spirituality, and all the while the swift current of worldliness was carrying them to the shoals of cold formality and lukewarmness. When worldliness begins to get into a congregation they begin to lose sight of God’s ways and ere long will get into a state where they will engage in worldly things that they were saved from and could not conscientiously engage in, but do them now without any consciousness of doing wrong. They forget they were saved from them (2 Peter 1:9). It is possible for people to be saved from many things and afterward deny being saved from them, stating that these were only the fanatical ideas of others whose example they followed. Different reformations, that were once spiritual, have degenerated into a low state of worldliness and lukewarmness. Their drift to worldliness began, perhaps with an apparent insignificant innovation. The slight innovation did not seem to materially affect holiness of life, but it did materially affect the inner life.
I remember one day, when only a small boy, working with my father and older brother who were working in the timber. They had felled a tall tree. When working some sixty feet up the body of the tree, on splitting it open they found a small rifle ball near the center. By counting the cortical circles, we found that two score of years had passed since this bullet had become lodged near the tree’s heart. No trace of this inner foreign substance could be seen on the outside, but the wood was blackened up and down the tree for some three or four feet and outward nearly to the bark.
This illustrates the sad effect of slight innovations. They may not very greatly affect the outward life at first, but they darken the heart and mind. To the world there may not appear to be any great wrong, for the world sees only the bark. But there is something working mischief in secret chambers of the soul which in time will affect the stream of life. They are adrift on the tide that bears them on to the world. Little by little they take on the life of the world around them. Some of them in the more serious hours of life catch a glimpse of the distance to which they have drifted, and then begin to cry for God to send a great revival wave to sweep away much worldliness that has so stealthily crept in among them. But the revival does not come. As the years go by, this once-spiritual church gets more and more worldly. Recently I listened to a preacher who pointed with pride to the reformation of which he was a representative. This same preacher can be often seen smoking a cigar. Had you said to him a number of years ago that he and his people would drift to such a low state, he would have thrown up his hands in horror. But they have arrived to such a degraded condition and still they drift on to greater corruption. No reformation that begins to degenerate knows to what extent its glory will depart and to what extent it will drift in the years to come.
The church at Laodicea said they were rich, increased with goods and had need of nothing. They pointed with pride to their earthly riches and mistook these for spirituality. This has often been repeated since that day. They, no doubt, pointed to a wealthy and increased membership, and they referred to the increased salary of their minister; they pointed with pride to their costly building, to their trained choir, their proficient orchestra, their expensive pipe organ, etc. Poor deluded souls, they did not know they had become blinded.
That church at Laodicea is not the only church that has gotten into such a deluded state since that time. Look at the various reforms that God has brought in by the power of the Holy Spirit at different times during the Christian era. In the beginning of each reform the people were God-fearing and God-loving. They were a plain, simple, honest, unpretentious, humble people. They were filled with the Spirit, and had, to a considerable degree, all things common. They were united, they were hospitable, they worshiped in tents, private homes, halls, blacksmith shops, school houses. There were amens, and glad hallelujahs in their midst. The power of the Holy Spirit was present to convict and convert. Converts would strip themselves of their worldliness in dress; feathers, flowers, beads, and rings very soon disappeared. Men made their wrongs right, taking back what they had stolen, etc. Preachers walked over the country preaching without any thought of financial remuneration.
As time went on these different reforms began to be less diligent and self-denying; they began to lose spirituality. Judgments were let down; worldliness began to creep in little by little. They became less hospitable—scarcely lodging a stranger or brother overnight; selfishness supplanted love. They gave all to understand that the things they possessed were their own. They erected costly church buildings, established schools, had trained choirs, quartets, duets, and solo singers, they studied modern methods of church work, introduced entertainments, suppers, thrilling plays and pageants, and in short, became like the old formal churches around them.
A number of these reformers are still pointing with pride to themselves as a reformation. The Lutherans still speak of the “Reformation.” Some call themselves “The Reformed Church,” while others speak glowingly of the reformation in which they have a part. But alas, alas! where is the fire? In the earlier days of their movement they did distinguish themselves by their spiritual power and mighty judgments, but alas, all has become tame and mild, until they cannot be known (except in name) as a reformation. They have so gradually lost their power of reforming that they do not know they have lost it, and go on calling themselves a reformation, and are yet looking forward to the day when their great reform is going to fill the earth. It will never be. Many of these reform churches in our towns and cities have but little or nothing to distinguish them from the other churches. They are all regarded as churches among churches. They dress in the same worldly way, they have their choirs, their quartets, duets, and solo singers, and some of these make no profession of religion. Many times, some young man or lady sings a solo in some of these reform churches and then is off to a dance. Such singing is howling in the ears of God and of all spiritual people. We see solo singers singing in these so-called reform churches decked with beads, rings, bracelets, sleeveless waists, skirts to the knee, neck and chest exposed. God does not come to smell in such an assembly (Leviticus 26:31; Amos 5:2). These reform churches have their pageants, just like the old formal churches around them. You would never know by their works that they laid claim to being a reformation, and are really surprised when they speak of themselves as such. They are not doing any greater work than others and yet thinking they are going to fill the earth.
It is surprising to note how enthusiastically preachers speak and write of the reformers of the reformation which they are supposed to support, and yet they engage in many things these reformers earnestly denounced. In many of these different reforms, if a man preaches what the early reformers preached, he is bitterly persecuted by those who adhere to the reformation. “O consistency, thou art a jewel.” There are preachers today who will persecute you, call you a fanatic for preaching what they once preached to you. A great many of the things they once preached, they now call fanaticism. If all these things were fanaticism, we wonder how they could call it a reformation. Poor benighted souls. If people do not walk in the light, darkness will overtake them, and, oh, “how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23)
Thank God, there are some in every reform that will cleave to the truth and walk in the “old paths.” (Jeremiah 6:16) In many of these degenerated reformations there are those who are groaning in their souls because of the worldliness that is so fast getting into the once-holy church. God will hear those groans and deliver them, but woe be unto those who have occasioned the groans. The teachers in those declining churches think to hold the spiritual ones by giving them a warning against fanatics. But God will care for His own.
It is surpassing strange that one reformation does not profit by the downfall of the preceding ones. Looking back upon the history of the church, we see that when one reformation became worldly, God would, through the more spiritual ones, raise up another reformation, which in time would degenerate in almost identically the same steps as did the one before them. The worldliness they could not once tolerate they are now themselves engaging in. Then the spiritual ones form another movement which in course of time walks in the footsteps of the preceding ones.
This reminds us of a dream which a certain brother dreamed. He dreamed that he saw a glass railway coach running swiftly on a glass railway track. By the side of the track were strewn dead bodies of men and women at equal distance apart. One of the passengers on the coach asked another what these dead bodies meant. He was told that every coach on that track would sooner or later be wrecked on certain rocks somewhere down the track, and these dead bodies were the slain in former wrecks which are strewn along the way for our warning. “Then,” asked the first, “why do we not heed the warning and flee from this fated train?” The other answered, “You tell why.” And on they went. So it is with the different reformations. One degenerating reformation sees the wrecks of former ones strewn all around and yet they speed on in the same worldliness of these former ones. Why do they not throw in the reverse and speed back to the “good old paths”? Echo answers, “Why?” It is because the leaders will not have it so. But the spiritual ones will make their escape. Those who have the integrity of spirit to flee out of Babylon will be His jewels in that day of His great visitation.
Look around you and see the straying vessels. They have lost chart and compass and are adrift on a troubled sea. Again look and you will see (so-called) reformations, that are “as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers.” (Isaiah 1:8) The lodges are deserted, the hedges are down and foxes are getting in. The watchman is lying down, slumbering. Worldliness is creeping in from every quarter, but they heed it not. The once-pure reform has “become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.” (Isaiah 1:21) Selfishness has supplanted love and self-denial; greed instead of hospitality; ministers seeking the highest-salaried places, courting the favor of the “better class.” They have respect to the moneyed men, bring in many new inventions to hold the young people. They say, “Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11) They report that a “sweet spirit of unity prevailed” at their general gatherings, when a large number of the ministers present had bitterness in their hearts against another number of ministers present. Because this was all kept secret, they thought they had unity.
Thus we behold the sinking vessels all about us. Oh, my holy brethren, ye third part (Zechariah 13:9), ye pure remnant, throw out the lifeline, help rescue the simple, honest, sincere ones. They are crying for help. They are conscious they are sinking and are crying to you for aid. Their teachers are trying to calm their fears by telling them that all is well. But they will not be quieted. Let us help them out of the floundering bark before the world has swallowed them up. Again we say, let us throw out the lifeline. Let us work hard day and night, for the end draweth nigh.