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The Folly of the Modern Western Church

volume 21, number 30, July 28, 2022

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” -Revelation 2:4

Where is the vital godliness and holiness that characterized the church in the Acts of the Apostles? Where is the preciousness of Christ? Where is the convicting power of God the Holy Spirit? Where are the sinners crying unto God for mercy? Where are the life-giving evidences of the claims of God upon the lives of so called born again believers? Where is the thundering forth of the law of God so that people may know what sin is? Where is the old fashioned prayer meeting where people meet to cry unto God for the souls of men?[1]

The day in which we now live, of course, is not the first time we have faced the folly of leaving our first love. Unfortunately, this has been a trademark of life in the church since the book of Judges. There is, however, always hope in Jesus. Consider this. 

By 1630 Scotland was in need of another revival, a time of visitation by God when a whole community is soaked with His presence. Such had occurred five years earlier in the town of Stewarton under the ministry of David Dickson, and that revival no doubt influenced and moved the people of nearby Shotts, not far from Glasgow, to seek a similar blessing. In accordance with the Scottish Presbyterian tradition of seasonal communion services, Shotts set aside several days in June for people from surrounding communities to come together for soul-searching preaching, calling them to repentance and conversion. A few godly Scottish women of royalty who a few years later were sympathetic toward the cause of the Covenanters (those who sought Scottish independence from England), prevailed upon the local pastor at Shotts, John Home, to invite two powerful Scottish preachers for the occasion—David Dickson, whom God had used so powerfully a few years before at Stewarton, and seventy year old Robert Bruce, a man whom some said was the human instrument God had already used to bring conversion to thousands of people. Instead of the usual plan to end the services on Sunday with communion for those who could give evidence of true conversion, the leaders decided to stay another day, closing with a service of thanksgiving on Monday. 

That Sunday evening a number of ministers, elders, and leading women, including both the Marchioness of Hamilton and Lady Culross, met and prayed through the night for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the people who would gather the next day. We do not have a record of the prayer meeting but we do know they prayed all night, no doubt asking for the Holy Spirit to visit them powerfully in this last preaching service of the communion season. After the prayer meeting, each having gone his own way for personal devotional time, Lady Culross closed the curtains on her bed and for the next three hours could be heard praying earnestly, with great liberty in the Spirit. At the end of this time she called on Pastor Home and strongly urged that he invite young John Livingston to preach the last service.  

Livingston at the time was only twenty-seven years old and not ordained, though his lack of ordination was no fault of his own. Archbishop William Laud, who was determined to root out Calvinism in England and Presbyterian Scotland, considered Livingston a dangerous man and was therefore unwilling to ordain him. Known throughout the region as a powerful preacher of the doctrines of grace—the question of ordination notwithstanding—Livingston was nonetheless mortified at the prospect of preaching before such a large crowd on such a solemn occasion, and before these older men, Dickson and Bruce, whom God had so powerfully used the previous days and for many years in the past. But he agreed, and then proceeded to go out into the fields to pray and prepare his heart to preach. On such occasions, Livingston says, he spent little time in preparing his mind, in thinking through what he was to say. Instead he focused on his heart, seeking to fill himself up with Christ, trusting the Holy Spirit to prompt him with what he ought to say, asking for the Spirit’s presence and power. This time, however, the more he prayed and thought through his daunting task, the more terrified he became. He felt totally inadequate and utterly weak. Finally he decided that he could not go through with his preaching and began walking away, in the opposite direction from the town, passing several who were coming for the thanksgiving service. As he walked away from the town of Shotts he sensed the Holy Spirit being grieved over his flight, impressing upon him that he was not trusting God. He became fearful of God’s chastisement and repented, literally turning around and walking back to town.   

Over one thousand people gathered for the service, coming from many miles away. They sat on the grass that sloped down to the Kirk, a sort of natural amphitheater. Livingston took as his text Ezekiel 36:25-26: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” He spent ninety minutes unpacking the meaning of the text, seeking to bring conversion to the lost, warning them of the wrath of God. At one point in his sermon rain began to fall and the people instinctively drew their coats over themselves to protect themselves from the rain. Livingston noticed this and leaped on it to make a graphic illustration which the Holy Spirit brought with great power upon the hearers: “What a mercy it is,” he declared, “that the Lord sifts that rain through the heavens to us, and does not rain down fire and brimstone as He did on Sodom and Gomorrah.” As Livingston was moving to the application of his sermon, warning people to flee from the wrath of God, exhorting them to believe the gospel, he says that he had a freedom and liberty, a melting of his heart, such as he had never before experienced. His application and exhortation continued for another hour. Eyewitnesses claim a strange and unusual emotion came over this vast congregation. God came down through the preaching of the gospel and an estimated five hundred were converted that day. Three young men on their way to Edinburgh for some fun stopped at Shotts to rest their horses and decided to attend the preaching service. They were soundly converted and remained faithful followers of Christ for the rest of their lives. John Livingston, while a powerful preacher, much used of God, said that only one other time in his entire ministry, did he experience anything like what happened at Shotts that day, June 21, 1630.

Indeed, the history of Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland, and the United States is replete with remarkable visitations of the Holy Spirit, but where is revival today in the western world? As Leonard Ravenhill said, “We don’t have revival because the church is satisfied to live without it.”

Paul planted the church at Ephesus on his third missionary journey between 53 and 56 A.D., and wrote his marvelous circular epistle around 62 A.D. Jesus rebuked the church at Ephesus before 70 A.D., saying that they had left their first love, calling them to repent and do the deeds which they did at first, declaring that He would remove the lampstand (the church) out of its place if it did not repent. How quickly the church had fallen!

In Psalm 85, perhaps written around 430 B.C., the Psalmist prays, “Wilt Thou be angry with us forever? Wilt Thou prolong Thine anger to all generations? Wilt Thou not Thyself revive us again, that Thy people may rejoice in Thee? Show us Thy lovingkindness, O Lord, and grant us Thy salvation. I will hear what God the Lord will say; for He will speak peace to His people, to His godly ones, but let them not turn back to folly,” (Psalm 85:5-8). God had been remarkably gracious to his idolatrous people, warning them for centuries, sending one prophet after another, calling them to repentance. They continued in their recalcitrance and God sent them away into Assyrian and Babylonian exile, but God again was gracious. He told Jeremiah that after  seventy years of exile He would bring them back into the land of Judah (Jeremiah 25:12, 29:10) and He did.

Have we not repeatedly done the same thing in the western world! In our pride, folly, and arrogance, have we not left our first love? Have we not squandered the riches of God’s covenantal love and the doctrines of grace, and committed adultery with the harlot of modernity? Why should we expect a free pass from the One who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29)? We have forgotten the One who has blessed us with our wealth and prosperity. We have exchanged the worship of the God of Israel for the god of science, pop psychology, and deistic moralism. Consequently we are utterly bankrupt. We have shamelessly incurred mountains of debt, leaving it for our children and grandchildren. We still slaughter the innocent. We tolerate wickedness and perversion that would make the ancient Greco-Roman world blush. 

Is there any hope? Yes, there is always hope in Jesus. The question, however, is whether or not we are willing to pay the price to see that hope realized. I will take up that issue next week.

  1.  The Sin of Hypocrisy, L.R. Shelton, Jr. The Chapel Library, page 4

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