Let’s get started with two quotes, one from the old church father of church fathers, the other from a modern author who may well be a wizard:
“An evil is eradicated not by the removal of some natural substance which had accrued to the original, or by the removal of any part of it, but by the healing and restoration of the original which had been corrupted and debased” – St. Augustine
“You have hands, blister them while you can.” – N. D. Wilson
That’s right, if you want the evil to go away, then you have to get to fixing things. You have to restore the damage. You can’t just renounce it, abhor it, complain about, whine about it, get all poutsy poutsy, and tee up another doctrinal watchdog YouTube clip.
You’re quite bent out of shape by all of the bent out of shapeness you see in the world. So you need to get on with setting some things back into place.
Thus far, Augustine.
And if you’re going to actually get down to restoring something, then you will have to sweat, bleed, and blister. You will have to do some real work, something practical, something close by, something more (not less) than think. Oh, and you’re on the clock because soon your fingers will be worm food.
Thus far, N. D. Wilson.
Hello There Beloved Reformed Evangelicals
I’ve put Reformed Evangelicals right up there in the title because they have a special place in my heart. Now I do not want to transgress step number two below, so if you don’t fit the Reformed Evangelical bill, that OK, the hard steps outlined below apply to you as well. I don’t mean to leave you out, but I would like a word with those who have been to a Desiring God conference, or the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, or Reform Con, or Acts 29 and the like. If we break things down by denomination, we have any of you from the CREC, the PCA, the OPC, the ARP, all of you non-denominational Calvinists, all of you thankful for John McArthur and 9Marks Ministries, as well as those Reformed brethren still soldiering on in the SBC. I’m sure I left some institution or organization out, but you know who you are.
The year that we have begun to set out on will end with us having made an advance, or it will end with us having suffered casualties. And just look around, we’re not in a position to drag our feet.
The Lay of the Land: Genuine Wildness
The lesson from the boy who cried wolf is not lost on me. One really shouldn’t go crying about danger when there is none. If you do that kind of thing, people won’t pay attention when there really is a big nuke headed their way. So with Aesop’s counsel seeding my mind, you will still find me up on the wall doing backflips with my hair on fire in a desperate, and I hope faith-filled, attempt to get your attention. Not only is there an enemy at the gates, but many are asleep in the camp. Not only are many asleep in the camp, but these sleepers are dreaming about their cultural impact and changing the world. But, I repeat, they are dreaming. Thus me doing my best Cirque Du Soleil atop the wall in order to rouse the troops and encourage some much needed changes.
A word about the enemy, or perhaps better, the lay of the land. You have likely heard of the religious Nones. Over a decade ago, Pew Research reported that the Nones were on the rise, making up 20% of all U.S. adults. You are well-acquainted with the decline of Christianity in the United States. But, these shifts need to be seen as seed. This rising and falling is the seed that spouted the chaos we have endured the last few years. According to an article from Gallup last year, U.S. church membership has fallen below 50% for the first time. Only two decades ago, church membership was around 70%, and had been hanging around that 70% number since the 1930s. That’s a graph that stayed steady for a long time and then dropped faster than a politician’s N95 mask after the cameras stop rolling.
The last two decades of Christianity’s decline has born the rotten fruit of Obergefell, COVID insanity and tyranny, BLM riots, and both the White House and the Department of Education flying the rainbow flag. The recent (Dis)Respect for Marriage Act is the latest installment of our idolatry.
The Pulpit is the Prow
Now here is the essential thing, this is the root of the matter and you must make sure you get all the way down in this dirt or we will just plucking dandelion flowers. Melville was right, “The pulpit leads the world.” And the pulpits in the land of the free have led us into declining church attendance, Intersectionality, Queer Theory, and COVID pandemonium.
Ours is not a peculiar disease, but it is a particular type. Our error is that of hearing the word but not doing the word. “Woe to you American Evangelicals, for I sent you more Bible conferences and books than you could ask for. If the mighty works which were done in you, had been done in Saudi Arabia, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Now I am not simply looking for the young energetic youth who has just come back from Bible camp to “Amen!” my rebuke in the last paragraph. I mean that rebuke in a particular way and I welcome an interlocuter asking, “Is that really the case? Have the Reformed Evangelicals in the states really been guilty of hearing and not doing?” My reply goes like this.
You can surely find faithfulness in many places. It is no objection to my main point to highlight Mrs. Johnson the widow who is doing all our Lord requires. I will not disagree that there are many salt-of-the-earth-saints laboring along, doing that which pleases the Lord. But, as a whole, Reformed Evangelicals have not discipled our nation, which is expressly commanded by Christ in the Great Commission (Matthew 28). In the first place, we have not taken to heart all that Christ has commanded. And in the second place, we have not taught the nation to obey all that Christ has commanded.
While I am on this point, our greater error is that we have not actually known the doctrine. We have been quite eager to spread the good news. You can find evangelistic outreaches and youth group car washes all across this land. You can find sharp looking ministers spending big dollars on high-tech media to find a way to get people into the doors of their church. Lots of energy has gone into this kind of outreach. But we haven’t actually done the word of Christ. We haven’t taught the nation how to do it.
One of the main reason that we have not done the word is because it is flat terrifying to do so. We sanitize the story in our dream world, “By faith, Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing wither he went” (Hebrews 11:8). “Amen,” we say. Amen huh?
Us: Here am I send me, Lord!
The LORD: OK, go.
Us: Go where?
The LORD: That way.
Us: Anything else?
The LORD: No.
Us: But where am I going, LORD?
The LORD: I told you. That way.
Us: And LORD, where might I end up?
The LORD: Reread Hebrews 11:8.
We love our stats and our data. We love living by sight. When you go out on faith like Abraham did, the result is that you are a foreigner. You don’t know the customs. You don’t know the traditions. You’re ignorant of the songs. Where is the post office? Is there a post office? And there is no one to answer your question because you haven’t yet found an interpreter yet. I repeat: Trusting God and going out in obedience like Abraham is terrifying.
The truth is that the knowledge we so often seek only comes after we have got on with obeying Christ. Jesus said, “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God” (John 7:17). So there is understanding. If you will get on with obeying Jesus, then you will get the flow of things. But feeling the rhythm (and feeling the rhyme for that matter) comes after you’ve stepped out in the direction God said to go, after you’ve enfleshed the word.
So, with all of this in mind, here’s those seven very hard steps, in no particular order, that we must take in the coming year if we’re going to turn this game around:
First, remove your children immediately from the government schools and provide them with a Christian education. All of the talk about Christian culture and dominion is meaningless if the pagans have the catechism, “For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes” (Luke 6:44). Your public education growing up was different, we’re agreed. Your parents public education was different, also agreed. But take a look again at the stats from the last two decades. Things have changed. And you are a conservative, so it is hard to change, spend, and advance. Like Abraham, you have no idea where the journey is going to end if you remove your children from Caesar’s household and tutelage. Welcome to the party. Go ahead and get out of there. God has a great inheritance, but you’ve got to get moving.
Second, reckon yourself and your household as one among the household of faith. I mean something specific by “household of faith.” Galatians 6:10 says we are especially to do good to the household of faith, which should leave you asking, “Who is a part of that household and how do I know?” The answer is straightforward. Those in the household of faith are baptized Christians. They sit with you at the Lord’s Supper. This particular step is more of a paradigm shift than most realize. You must love the saints. The weird ones? Yes. The ones with whom I have doctrinal disagreements? Yes. The ones that have slighted me? Yes. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. There is a type of unity that we will not know until the return of Christ. But that is no excuse for our hyper-fragmented American evangelicalism. Until we really get serious about maintaining the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, we will be divided and conquered.
Third, do good Christian business, especially with those of that household of faith. If my Christian brother who runs the pub downtown is burning my burger every Tuesday and charging me twice as much as the unbeliever across the street, you will find me enjoying the well-cooked and fairly priced patty. But we need to consider afresh the wisdom of doing business within the house of faith. It is a genuine application of the Galatians 6:10 passage above.
Fourth, sing psalms. Yes, sing psalms. No, this is not a throw away step. Lewis spoke of stealing past people’s watchful dragons. Reformed Evangelicals have those watchful dragons up. There are certain truths that they have not believed and obeyed. They are not accustomed to obeying them. And they don’t really want to. The psalms contain those truths and have a way of getting past those flying lizards. Drunk on modernity as we are, we need to be reminded of our heritage. And nothing can do that quite like psalm-singing. God brought us out of Egypt. He brought us through the Sea. He sustained us in the wilderness. He conquered the Promised Land through us. We will not recognize how far our modern worship music has fallen until we start working in some psalms. And I know. I said these were hard steps.
Fifth, find and worship in a church that conceives of worship as Elijah did when he set up the altar on Mount Carmel. Even among the Reformed, our worship doctrine has gone the way of the world. When we assemble, we assemble before the Living God who still sends the fire and the rain. He changes hearts. He humbles. He saves. He does this as we appear before him to call upon His name. When we assemble on the Lord’s Day, we do so asking God to act such that the world would know there is a God in Israel. This step is a central one. It is a foundational one. The rest build upon it.
Sixth, fulfill family duties twice as hard as you did last year. These family duties are much like weeding a garden and planting some seed. They are not fancy. Moreover, weeding and planting are tasks that are particularly hard to do when chaos ensues. “You want me to plant in this weather?” Yes. Help you kids with their homework. Talk with them about their day. Work out the knotty issues. Sing songs with them around the table. Cook. Eat. Clean. Read them a book before bed. Tuck them in. Pray for them. Bless them. Expect God to do greater works through them and their children than he has done through you. Go to sleep and do it all again when the sun rises. You shall not labor in vain, for you are the seed of the blessed of the Lord, and your offspring with you (Isaiah 61:9).
Seventh, find and live with others who are reading the same page that you are. You need to sing with those who are singing off the same sheet music. The kind of work that must be done in the days ahead is the kind of work that cannot be done alone. Given the reach of the internet, many Christians are receiving stronger teaching than they have been able to access in days gone by. Many Christians are being put in touch with other saints around the nation who are tracking with this healthy teaching. But we are in a weird moment where all of this teaching has not quite yet, but must, bear local fruit. Pray for God to put you in touch with others where you live so that all of the solid teaching you’re receiving doesn’t die on the vine. The doctrine has to be lived out. We must be more than hearers of the word. Find those who are doing it, and do it with them.