GOD’S SOLEMN ENQUIRY
B. A. Warburton
“Hast thou procured this unto thyself, in that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, when he led thee by the way?” Jeremiah 2:17.
These words are the call of God; His solemn and searching enquiry to the nation as a whole, that it might be led to look into, and to look back upon, its life and conduct, if perchance there still remained sufficient consciousness in the breasts of the people to realize what relationship these bore to the condition wherein they then stood. There was no question that their condition was a sad and pitiable one in its outward appearance. All the former glory which had shone forth so brightly had faded away. That witness which had been borne by the nation amongst those by which it was surrounded had ceased. Its rulers were not little more than serfs. Its priests had become time-servers, its prophets men-pleasers, and the life of the people had sunk down to a level little higher than that of the heathen nations around. The contrast between the present and the past was too palpable to be ignored, and nothing but a deliberate self-blinding could hide it from their eyes. The literature they possessed portrayed it too vividly for it not to be seen. The voices from the past echoed it too loudly in their ears for it not to be heard unless they chose, in a spirit of self-will, to close their ears. Once they were the glory of the nations. Now they were debased to the lowest degradation amongst them. Once they stood triumphant over all who opposed them. Now they had become a scorn to their enemies and a by-word of mockery amongst those whom they had once reviled.
Such a change in its position and conditions might surely have been expected to be sufficient to have caused the people to examine what the procuring causes of this sore declension could be, but the people, and their leaders, seemed to have lost the power of thought and to have fallen into an apathetic condition little short of a deadening fatalism, whereby all their powers of reasoning were numbered.
Yet the solution was a simple one. A score of contributory causes may have helped forward the process of decline, but the main reason was not far to seek. The nation had forsaken God. A form of religion was still observed, but to what purpose was all the outward ceremonialism when the inner life was wrong? God is not served with dead sacrifices, but with a sanctified life. Mere formalism, however rigid in its observances, is not a living religion. To own God with the lips and to dishonour Him with the life is the most hideous of mockeries. Yet this was what the nation had done. It had followed the ways of the godless nations round about, indulged in their flesh-gratifying pleasures, sought after their carnal allurements and given itself over to their sinful practices. Its life was the very reverse of what it had been, and of what it ought to have been. Could it be wondered at, then, that decline had come, that a deadly blight had fallen? How could it be otherwise? Blessings despised are blessings which must ultimately be withdrawn. Commands disobeyed must bring retribution. God is not mocked, however much, or however long. He is disregarded. Whether it be the individual, the collective society or the nation at large, whatsoever is sown must ultimately be reaped. Could the nation not see it? Could the leaders not observe it? Were they too blind, or too dense in understanding, to realize that they had brought it all upon themselves? So the voice of God rang out with its solemn and searching message of enquiry, “Hast thou not procured this unto thyself?”
Grace does not mean lawlessness
The message may be an old one, but do we not read that “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning”? Just because it is old, is it any the less pertinent to the days wherein we live and to the circumstances and conditions which surround us in our national, denominational and individual lives at the present day? We talk too flippantly of living in a dispensation of grace; as though grace meant there was no restraint, no binding authority, no guiding counsel; that every man could do what was right in his own eyes and follow out the dictates of his own self-conceived opinions. We forget there must be a law of divine government; that grace does not mean lawlessness. Where God bestows blessings He makes demands. He has the right so to do. Man has not been left to walk in darkness; God has given His counsel. He has placed in our hands His Word, replete with all the guidance which man can need, whether in corporate or individual life; whether as touching nations, churches, or the private Christian; and our neglect of, or disobedience to, that which has been revealed can but operate in bringing upon us the frowns of Almighty God and the evident tokens of His displeasure. It is folly on our part to complain and equally foolish even to express surprise. We are only reaping what we have sown. We bring upon ourselves our decline and decay. We lay up for ourselves the righteous judgments of God. The divine Word still stands true, and the solemn enquiry of our text still calls for our most earnest consideration: “Hast thou not procured this unto thyself?”
Love of pleasure has swept every principle of solemn character out of court. As for the Bible itself, it is torn into shreds, its true and divine inspiration is denied, and it is relegated to the level of common literature in lecture halls, divinity schools and in hundreds of pulpits throughout the land. Once regarded as “the secret of England’s greatness,” it is now despised and neglected. In no single phase of our national life do we stand where we stood in years past, and our political leaders – though forced to acknowledge some power more than human in the deliverances wrought for us – seem too ashamed to acknowledge God in an open way, while the few who do openly acknowledge Him are regarded by the many as old-fashioned and out-of-date, and their public utterances cut down to a few vague phrases in the public press.
“Therefore I will punish you”
We cannot get away from these facts. They stand out too plainly for us to disregard them, and the message they convey sounds out too loudly for them to be ignored. We, no less than Israel of old, have forsaken God. Wealth, pleasure, sport and a thousand other follies have sapped away our one-time virile religious life; and if an open acknowledgment of God, a reverence for His Word and a sanctifying of His day are to be made the test of our faith and belief in God – as they should be if the testimony of God’s Word is to be the authority – the result is of such a negative character as to justify the charge that we are perilously near becoming an infidel nation. A nation which has never known God may have an excuse for its sins, but a nation which has forsaken God is without excuse, and renders itself subject to punishment. This is the divine law of government. It was exemplified in Israel’s history: “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth; therefore I will punish you.” Nor is it only a divine law, but one which operates in every sphere of life. Those to whom has been given a position of trust and privilege suffer all the sorer punishment if that trust is neglected or betrayed. It is folly on our part to blame God for our sufferings if we have forsaken Him. God is not mocked. What have been proved to be the choicest and richest blessings which a nation can enjoy – blessings which have been the foundation of our past prosperity – have been spurned and trampled beneath our feet. Well may it be said of us, as we look upon the sorrows and sufferings now rife in the land, “Hast thou not procured this unto thyself?” One can but pray that this great conflict [World War II] may be sanctified to us, and that we may at length be found asking for the “old paths” where is the “good way.”
There are some, we know, who would resolve everything into the secret will and purpose of God, and who would forbid the making of any enquiry. For such, the utterance of God in the passage before us can have no real meaning. Israel’s woeful condition must simply and solely have been the outworking of God’s secret will and purpose, without any relationship to the sins and failures of the people. Such an attitude turns the truth of God into a lie and makes man unaccountable for any of the actions of his life, which would plunge us ultimately into a licentious fatalism. If Scripture, however, is to be our guide, it is vitally incumbent upon us to make enquiry, to search and try our ways, and to ask, with all the earnestness possible, whether there has been, whether there still is, that associated with or lying within our denominational life whereby we have procured this decline which has taken place in our midst. . .
Failure in the ministry
Can it be said that the ministry of the day wherein we live, viewed in a broad aspect, possesses the fervent life and unction of the days past? Can it be said that the Gospel is preached now with the same intensity of conviction, and with the same earnestness of soul, as in former days? Is Christ exalted with that same passionate sense of a living experience of His supreme worth and glory wherewith He was once exalted? Is there now, not in words merely, but in the innermost depths of a living reality, that spirit which burned in the breast of the apostle when he said, “I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified”? We only need to ask these questions before the answers come rolling back upon us in the complaints so often made by those whose souls are most alive. How often one has heard the plaintive remark that the name of Christ and the work of Christ have never even been mentioned throughout an entire discourse. A mere sentimental appeal to fleshly feelings, relative to the trials and burdens of life, has taken the place of those spiritual realities which concern the salvation of the soul and its assurance of the possession of eternal life. Describe this as men may under the name of experimental preaching, it is nothing at all of the sort.
Again, how little we hear of the work of the Holy Spirit, of His operations in the soul in His convicting and convincing power, or in those gentler operations of His gracious teachings and leadings in bringing the quickened soul to behold the preciousness and suitability of Christ to meet all its needs, cleanse it from all its sins and satisfy all its desires. It has caused one to wonder at times how many stand in the position of those disciples of John, whom Paul met at Ephesus, who had not heard whether there be a Holy Ghost or no.
Ministers not called of God
That these features have found – and still may find – a place in the ministry should lead us to enquire what principle lies behind the sending forth of ministers. We must admit there is no calling so solemn, none more vitally important, than that of the Christian ministry. In our denominational constitution the responsibility for the “sending forth” of men into the ministry centres mainly, if not absolutely, in the hands of the churches. Has there crept in amongst us a laxity which ill befits loyalty to the truth? Has a mere desire to preach been accepted as the vital qualification and the evidence of a divine call? That there is a sore need of ministers we readily admit; that many pulpits stand empty is but too sadly apparent; but this in itself, however deep our anxiety, does not justify any relaxation regarding the sending forth of men to fill the most solemn of all positions in the Christian church. Surely the most primary demand is that the churches should earnestly, and prayerfully, consider whether those who are anxious to go forth have received that anointing of the Holy Spirit, apart from which a man – whatever his fluency or seeming earnestness may be – can be but as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. It is in relationship to this very matter that one of the saddest features in our church life, relative to our decline, springs up into view. Sad though it be to admit it, the fact nevertheless remains that, in many directions, the spirit of true, enlightened, sanctified and sound judgment, exercised in solemn faithfulness to the Word of God, has declined. We have lost, in no small measure, the full realization of the sacred character and vital importance of the ministerial office. The filling of the pulpit has become of more important consequence in some quarters than the feeding of souls; and, in not a few cases, those who have need to be taught which be the first principles of the doctrine of Christ are thrust into the pulpits to teach others.
Pastorless apathetic churches
It may seem dangerous to touch upon the question of the pastoral office, but are there no features in our present decline which bear no remote relationship to this matter? We are not dealing with individuals, but with general principles. There can surely be no doubt in any quarter that the pastoral office is not only of God’s appointment, but that it is, rightly held, the most beneficial for the life of any church. Not only, however, do the great majority of the churches stand pastorless, but it is a question how many of the churches show any real desire for this office to be established in their midst. Nor is it, in all cases, a matter of financial inability. In some cases there would seem a total unconcern about the question. The church, equally with those in authority over it, has settled down into a condition of apathetic indifference, or is afflicted with that saddest of religious diseases – itching ears. In some few cases also, it would almost appear that those who exercise the present authority are opposed to the establishing of any other authority such as would nullify or weaken the prestige which they now possess…
Fear of men rather than fear of God
There is another aspect of the case, however, as touching the pastoral office. This centres in the light-hearted and almost careless way in which some churches have acted. Forgetful of the divine warning to “lay hands suddenly on no man,” they have thrust untried and untested men, lacking any wide or deep experience in church affairs, into the office of pastor. The possession of grace, or of some ability to preach, does not necessarily betoken the possession of wisdom. All men are not fitted either to rule or guide, and it is generally those who are the most unfitted who display the greatest self-will in the exercise of authority. Many a church has been wrecked by an unwise appointment brought about through over-hasty action, lack of prayer and due consideration. Failing to wait for God’s guidance, it has carelessly rushed upon its own ruin.
There is another feature which, though not related to the exercise of the ministry, does touch the ministry itself, and which, we feel, is not only a source of weakness but must be a grieving of the Holy Spirit. Professedly fellow-labourers in the gospel of Christ and workers together in the fellowship of the truth, there is a definite lack of unity in their relationship to, and with each other. It might almost appear that in some quarters there are definite attempts made to rend that divinely ordained unity into fragments by the sowing of suspicion. Surely it is not by such means nor by that isolation of one from another, that the honour and glory of God is to be, or can be sought. Nor can the divine blessing rest upon us if such is the spirit which entrenches itself in our midst. Are not those who have been truly sent forth of God into the ministry brethren in a sense more real than that which pertains to many other relationships of life? Are they not, or, at least, should they not be, one in aim and in object; and one too in the display of that vital unity .which is so solemnly declared to be the great end of the Christian life? Is the fear of God, or the fear of men, to be the ruling power amongst those who are the professed servants of Christ? Is the divine glory of less importance than the approval of men? Are we not reminded, and that by the divine Word itself, that if we are the servants of men, we are no longer the servants of Christ, whatever our outward position or the profession of our lips may be? These are solemn matters we are called upon to consider. The one and only fellowship in the ministry is that which binds in and to the service of Christ, and if any matters of mere fleshly consideration are to mar or break that sacred unity which should bind the servants of Christ together, we can no longer hope to receive the blessing of God upon our labours. We only need to consider for a few moments to realize how meagre is that blessing which is resting upon the preached Word at the present day. Where is there any true moving of the waters in the churches? One might instance churches where the pulpit has been occupied regularly every Sunday for the past fifteen years, but where there has not been one single addition to the church, nor does the church itself display any greater liveliness now than it did then. Can it be said that we have not procured this unto ourselves? Is there not solemn and imperative need for us to turn our eyes in upon the course we are taking and the spirit of separation now existing amongst us, and to ask ourselves whether the blight of God has fallen upon us because of our deliberate neglect of the counsel of the divine Word? It is the basest of all folly and the grossest of all fatalism or us to resolve it all into the secret counsel of God’s will and fold our arms in careless resignation. This is to cast all the blame on the Almighty and acquit ourselves of all failure. God may still have His seven thousand hidden from our sight, but He holds them back from open manifestation because we have departed from the counsel of His Word.
Lukewarmness in the pew
We turn to the pew. We wish to speak gently and lovingly, but can those who sit in the pews be wholly acquitted? It may be that weariness of some of our preaching has caused their love to wane and lukewarmness to find a place in their breasts. It may be that the seeming lack of feeling evidenced in the pulpit has made their hearts unfeeling also. It may be that some who sit in the pews have come again and again with the cry in their hearts, “Sirs, we would see Jesus!” and we have failed to lead them to His feet, and have disappointed their longing souls with a tirade against errors of which they have never heard, or by a pitiful unfolding of our own doubts and fears and trials, of which their own lives have only been too full. Yet, despite all these failures of which we who occupy the pulpit may be only too guilty, can we say there are not those in the pews who have helped to contribute to our present weakness and decay? A living religion is a personal matter. It embodies personal relationships, not to the ministry alone, nor to the church merely with which membership is held, but to that Master into whose service they had been called by divine grace. To each, and to all such, the message is clear, “Ye serve the Lord Christ.” Has that service been faithfully rendered? Has that service been regarded as having precedence over all the things of self?
Weakened personal convictions
Another feature presents itself in relationship to a number of churches, and one, too, which has need to cause grave concern and intensify our solemn enquiry. We have strong reasons to believe there are many in our congregations in whose hearts God has implanted His grace, but who make no public confession of His Name. Their loyalty and devotion often put to shame that of those who have made a profession. That they long to have a name and place among the people of God is revealed by their conversation, but they are held back by a restraining influence which they themselves seem unable to define. They wait and wait, but receive no message to “go forward”; no leadings are given, no sweet constrainings are felt. How are we to understand this? Can it be that this withholding of divine power is God’s rebuke and another evidence of His displeasure against those things which have crept into our midst? Many of the churches are on the very verge of extinction, especially so far as membership is concerned, and yet these men and women, the subjects of divine grace by whom the churches could, and should be built up, remain outside.
All these factors should cause deep searching of heart and a solemn examination of our ways. God does not afflict without cause. Whenever weakness and decay set in amongst those who have been the heritage of God, whether nationally or spiritually, the divine warning and rebuke ever goes forth, “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself!” Nations and churches are in almost every case self-destroyed. Failing to bring forth those fruits of righteousness which should accompany the bestowal of God’s blessings upon them, they sink lower and lower.
Regarding the churches, we cannot conceal our present weakness and evidences of declension and decay, however much we may seek to close our eyes to them. Neither a self-righteous isolationism nor a latitudinarian charity can restore to us the divine blessings. True Christian life must be evidenced by the manifestation of divinely ordained fruits, and if these are absent all human projects and schemes can only plunge us deeper into the abyss of divine disapproval. God’s message calls for a solemn standing still, a prayerful searching of our own hearts and ways, and a turning again to God with that true confession which is not of the lips only, but which proceeds from hearts made humble and sincere and which have been brought to desire only the knowledge of God’s ways,
May that much-needed grace of God be granted unto us, and in the realization that He has revived His work in the midst of the years, may we see fuller and richer returns of His abounding mercy towards us. His promise still remains, “Then shall ye find Me if ye seek Me with your whole heart.” Then, and then only, will the desolations of Zion cease and true prosperity, unity and peace abound in our midst.