THE CHURCH MILITANT
A sermon preached by the Rev. Murdoch Cambell, M.A., in 1957.*
“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds”, 2 Cor. 10.4.
The world in which Paul lived lay in the deep shadows of spiritual death and moral decay. An idolatrous paganism was eating like a canker through every grade of society. Black despair was beginning to take possesson of the minds of men everywhere. The great Roman Empire was pining towards dissolution. Evil forces were everywhere in command, and as the Gospel began to make its saving impact on men and nations, those forces became even more alert and militant. Paul knew that every manifestation of evil in the world of human thought and conduct had its source in the deeper and more terrible world of the supernatural. He knew that his warfare was not against mere flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this world and against spiritual wickedness in high places. Yet he was not dismayed. Weak in himself, and bearing all the infirmities incidental to this mortal life. God had put at his command spiritual resources and weapons against which no power on earth or in hell could prevail.
In the words of our text, he reaffirms the great truth of God’s word that the Church of Christ in this world is militant. Her warfare is continuous. It rages today around the banner of Truth as in former ages. There can be no respite or retreat.
The words remind us, therefore, that in this world the Church is engaged in an unceasing warfare.
The great enemies of God and His Church are invisible and spiritual. Our fallen world is the scene of evil powers which work in and through the children of disobedience. Our Lord calls Satan “the strong man armed,” the subtlety of whose ways is even more to be dreaded than his power. Who can read about man’s Fall, or of the temptations with which the soul of the Redeemer was assailed without gaining some insight into the depths of Satan? The real and deeper conflict between Light and Darkness takes place not so much in the arena of history as in the realm of the spirit. And because man is a fallen creature, his entire personality – mind, heart and will – is a stronghold of Satan and sin.The Scriptures teach that
because of man’s Fall his mind is darkened, since through ignorance he is separated from the light and life of God. His heart is blind, and the disposition of his whole nature is enmity against God. His will is therefore destitute of any movement God-ward. This appalling description of man in a state of sin shows that he is without spiritual sympathy, life, ability or apprehension.
Although, however, man is thus dead in trespass and sin, his mind is endlessly active in opposing God and the knowledge of His Will. This conscious or unconscious antagonism to God he expresses in manifold reasonings and speculations. Whatever cloud-land such reasonings may touch, or whatever form they may assume within their respective systems, the same strands of enmity and pride, and of spiritual blindness to God’s Will and Word, run through them all.
Such reasonings often oppose the truth of God’s Revelation at points which are vital to true Christian existence. They may have to do with the Person and Work of our Lord, the nature of man, the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the validity of Christian experience, the government of Christ in the Church or in the world, or the Christian hope of heaven and eternal life. Nearly every aspect of revealed Truth has been denied and attacked, sometimes with the weapons of ridicule and often with a pretence to superior spiritual enlightenment.
Throughout the centuries, and especially in the last two hundred years, many books have been written which aimed at the destruction of the Church’s faith in the Bible as God’s perfect Word. How often has the Church trembled as some imposing giant in the world of thought, science, or theology, appeared on the scene with a book in his hands, and, as it often happened, with words of blasphemy on his lips. Those reasonings were not only the works of men who stood aloof from the Church, but, more frequently, the destructive weapons of unbelief and opposition to God’s Word were found in the hands of men who professed to be her friends. If many of these reasonings have perished in the clearer light of Scripture and greater knowledge, others take their place. The devil is versatile in presenting old lies in new garments. We no longer, like Paul, fight against such systems as Gnosticism, but under new names we still fight against such hoary evils as paganism, Materialism, and Pelagianism. And in these modern times we should remind ourselves that the spiritual distance, for example, between theological liberalism and emerging ideologies, in whatever context they stand, is not so great as so many imagine. They may all be traced to the radical enmity within man’s heart to God’s Self-revelation in His Works and in His Word.
Are we not now also aware of the danger signals which warn us against the dangerous tendencies implicit not only in so many
schools of modern thought, but also in the incoherent and often anti-Biblical reasonings of modern theologies? The same may be said of the compromising shiftiness of some so-called evangelical movements.
The great stronghold of evil confronting the Church of Christ today, which even threatens to engulf the nations, is not a mere political idea. Modern atheism is an active evil which has assumed the form of a religion based on enmity to God and Christian principles. One could go on enumerating the ever-increasing evils in the world of human thought and conduct which directly imperil the Church of God in the world; but whether these evils are found within the heart of man, or within the systems which his enmity creates. God has, on the other hand, provided her with His Divine equipment.
Let Us Look Now at the All-sufficient Equipment
To her enemies, the Church, and the Word which she proclaims, have often appeared feeble, defenceless and easily destroyed. How often have they sought to bury the Truth only to find that, in its infinite power, it continues to spring out of the earth! How often have they been led to bewilderment and disaster through not knowing that God is ever within her palaces and that her invisible Captain, with His drawn sword in His hand, is ever beside her!
Perhaps there is not in the whole of Scripture a more significant episode than that of David challenging the giant of Gath. By the law of mathematics David was doomed, but by the law of faith he was unconquerable. He had wrapped himself up in God’s Name, and before that Name – the Shield and Banner of the Church – the enemies of the Lord became as chaff. God was his weapon supreme. His modern counterpart, Martin Luther, as he thought of the Roman system, whose awful power over the minds and consciences of men he had challenged, would in moments of anxiety grasp his Bible and encourage himself in the Lord by singing his victory song:
“A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon.”
The weapon with which they overcame is none other than God’s infallible and unchangeable Word, which is quick and powerful. It was with this weapon that the Lord of glory Himself engaged the great Adversary and nothing less can suffice His servants in their warfare. The Gospel which we preach is His power unto salvation. Present in the Gospel is God Himself and ever present with those who truly proclaim it. His presence and power with us are conditional on our faithfully proclaiming His word of salvation. “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, and lo, I am with you always.”
The message which Paul preached ever centred round the great theme of Christ’s redemptive work. “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness, but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” This is the message which the Holy Ghost will honour in the salvation of men. It is the message which declares that God is righteous in justifying the sinner who believes in Jesus as his only hope of justification, righteousness and acceptance with God. Paul himself is a shining example of how the Gospel reduces every stronghold of prejudice, enmity and self-righteousness, humbles the soul in repentance and leads the affections, will and mind into new channels of obedience and love to God. The Word of reconciliation – the weapon which made Paul himself the willing captive of his Lord – was that which he employed in the conversion of his fellow men.
While we preach this Gospel we should ever remind ourselves that unless that message is accompanied to the minds of men with the converting power of the Holy Ghost, it can avail nothing. It is mighty only through God. It is through Him that it grows mightily and prevails. It is when God’s Word becomes the sword of the Lord, and not merely the sword of Gideon, that it triumphs. A sound theology or a correct apologetic, however valuable in itself, can never be a substitute for the outpouring of the Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit through the preaching of Whitefield, Wesley and many others that saved this land from the peril of atheism and moral corruption in other days. Nothing else can avail to-day.
This leads us to say that the invocation of God’s power is a distinct part of our ministry. The effectual proclamation of the Gospel has ever behind it the weapon of “All Prayer”. If Paul’s own preaching, with its emphasis on God’s eternal sovereign love in Christ, was so effectual in bringing men out of darkness into light, it was because he prayed without ceasing that God the Holy Spirit would bless the Word to that end.
We have instances in the Bible of how in answer to the effectual fervent prayer of His people, the very forces of the universe have been either unleashed or arrested to save and advance the Cause of God. Moses prayed silently by the Red Sea, and God made the winds and the waves to serve him. The prayers of Joshua in his warfare against God’s enemies arrested those laws which govern the worlds. The stars in their courses fought against Sisera, and the righteous are in league with the stones of the field. But prayer can set in motion a greater power than mere physical forces.
The vision of the prophet, for example, as he stood before the valley of dry bones is fraught with solemn meaning for all who would
see God’s wonders in the spiritual resurrection and revival of His cause. Through the word and exhortation of the prophet all the bones came together in their order, and not without impressive noise and stir. But it was still the congregation of the dead. It is comparatively easy to gather the people together, to organise meetings, and to preach eloquent sermons. Inflated statistics may be produced of men and women brought within the pale of the visible Church. It is, however, through the travail, the faith and the secret wrestlings of God’s people that the Living Breath of God’s Spirit comes and the dead are raised. Before the apostles appeared clothed in power on the streets of Jerusalem they had spent many days praying and waiting for the promised gift of the Holy Ghost. Before the Beloved came into His garden, the Bride was pleading in her chambers: “Awake, O north wind, and come thou south, blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden and eat of his pleasant fruits.” The answer was immediate: “I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse.” There is thus a point at which God’s free and sovereign acts of saving power meet the desires and prayers of His own waiting people. His delays are not denials, for though the vision should tarry if we wait for it, it shall at last speak.
Brethren, the most effective ministry is often carried on in secret before the Lord. The reward is often given openly; but behind every visible demonstration of God’s saving power are the holy exercises and lively faith of His people. It was in the remote stillness of Mount Carmel that the prophet prayed seven times before the cloud that was to refresh the land appeared out of the sea. The victory over Jericho began in quiet faith and prayerfulness. The stronghold yielded, and the shout of victory was heard, only after a season of waiting for God’s promised hour of deliverance. Here then is a weapon which we can employ in our Study, or in our Church Vestry, during the six days which precede our appearance before the people on the Lord’s Day. “Pray,” said our Lord, “to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” And what greater reward can be given to any true servant of Christ than that through his secret and public ministry the arrows of truth from the King’s bow should convert the Lord’s enemies into friends.
It is exactly here that the glory of the Church’s warfare is seen. All other conflicts, whether in the political or spiritual sphere, aim at the physical or spiritual destruction of men. But one great end of her warfare is to save men from the vast prison house of sin, where they lie in despair, darkness and death, and to make them taste of the glorious liberty and life of the sons of God.
One would mention another weapon which can be mighty
through God in drawing men to Himself and within the wholesome orbit of His Church. It is the power of Christian love and loveliness. The Church of Christ in her ministry and witness is described by her Lord as radiant and warm as the morning sun. Not only is she the most lovely object the eye can behold, but her heart, warmed by the love of Christ, radiates sympathy, kindness and affection toward all men. The first love of the Church was, by the blessing of the Spirit, a potent weapon in drawing men to her side. To the heathen who had lived in the world of outer darkness, with all its cold hatreds, this heavenly glow from the heart of the Church was, when they came to share it, a new and unspeakably sweet thing. It was the compelling power of the love of Christ that made Paul’s ministry the untold blessing it was, and which it shall continue to be, to multitudes to the end of time. This superlative grace, in its irresistible efficacy and attractiveness, he describes in illustrious words: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love I … am nothing . . . Love never fails; but whether there be prophecies they shall fail, whether tongues they shall cease, whether knowledge it shall vanish away.” “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye love one another.”
To-day the world is rent and pained because of the deep destructive hatreds which men and nations nurse against each other. Under the destroying power of this black poison of hate the world is reeling to disaster. And how sad to think that within the professing Church of God, so many seek to preserve and speak the truth in a spirit alien to this, and that sometimes in our personal relationships we fail in this our supreme and first duty toward God and our fellowmen. But if we fail in this we fail in everything. God’s ministers, as Robert M’Cheyne used to say, can have no greater power in their lives than that which comes through the love of Christ in the heart, and through the awe-inspiring holiness which that love never fails to produce.
Brethren, by such marks as these we may identify the true Church of God in the world. We may know her by the use of those means, by the exercise of those graces, and by the employment of those divinely appointed weapons with which God has blessed and equipped her. She may be known by her zeal in contending earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. We may identify her by her refusal to compromise with error in any shape or form, and by her rejection of every weapon, however attractive or deceptive, except that which God in His word provides.
The Church which answers to such marks as these is given the promise of a sure victory.
That promise is contained in the words: “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper, and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.” Great victories have already been won. Her visible identity under both dispensations had its beginning in triumph over her enemies. God’s presence, promise and salvation are the source of her comfort and the secret of her victory: “Happy art thou, O Israel, who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thine excellency; and thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee, and thou shalt tread upon their high places.” The Spirit with which God had baptized her, who shall remain with her for ever, has sustained her in varying degrees throughout the ages. The pages of her history are replete with the stories of her victories over many and mighty enemies. The glorious Reformation was a new Pentecost on a wider scale. The day of power with which God visited Europe was the token of her final victory over all the dark evils which, like thorns, continue to inflict her in the world. In the present evil forces are again threatening her very existence. In her power and witness she may be much diminished. At this hour, through the slumbering spirit of a faithless ministry, the Church which was once the glory of the land is rapidly coming under the dark shadow of a Romeward Episcopacy. But the prospects of the True Church are as fair and bright as God’s immutable promises. Her greatest triumph is yet to come. We look forward to the day – and it may be near – when Christ shall again march through the nations in power, and when through the outpouring of the Spirit, the Church, whose prayers He will answer, shall again be terrible as an army with banners in her holy warfare against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. Men shall then become the willing captives of Him who is the Desire of the nations, and they shall become the willing servants of His Zion. In that day the thought of men everywhere shall centre round the one sweet theme:
‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us his ways and we will walk in his paths, for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
In this warfare each of us has his part to play. And whatever the present discouragements, if the weapons of our warfare are those of the prophets, apostles and reformers, the Lord will prosper us also, and give each of us at last to say: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” May God bless our meditation in His Word.
* First published in the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland.