The Church in Decline

by Dick Hill

 

I was sitting with a good friend on the porch at the Ponderosa years ago. He asked me a very searching question. “Spiritually speaking, where do you think local churches are today?” This was long before the Covid pandemic which has been devastating on the church. I have thought about his question many times. I could only answer from my observations as a pastor of many churches here in the south over the last forty years.

 

Jesus Christ has not ceased to build His church – His spiritual kingdom – and will do so throughout history. That thought comforts this writer (Matthew 16:13-17).

 

  1. There are Birds in the Branches (Matthew 13:31-32)

 

There are many birds (unbelievers) positioned in the branches of the tree (or bats in the belfry if you please) that Christ is building. The birds represent unbelievers (verse 31). We are to continue to preach the gospel. Why? There are many who comfortably sit in the congregation year after year who have never embraced the gospel of God’s magnificent grace. They have learned to speak often repeated Bible language – I call it “Christianese” – but do not know the meaning of the language. They can use words like saved, redemption, regeneration, justification, or sanctification; but have no clue what they mean or where they are found in the Bible. They have become comfortable with their “profession of faith in Christ” – punched their ticket to heaven – but in truth they may be clinging to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). They would be numbered in the category of those mentioned by Jesus who had said to Him “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name (taught in your name), cast out demons in your name, and in your name done many wonderful works. Jesus responded, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-22). This confirms to me that God’s great adversary Satan is very good at blinding people to the truth of the gospel – very good (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

 

  1. Babes on the Benches

 

There are many who have truly embraced the gospel but have remained baby Christians. They have failed to grow to maturity. Peter wrote, “As newborn babies desire the pure milk of the word that by it you may grow” (1 Peter 2:2). Note the phrase “the pure milk of the word.” The Greek word “pure” means unadulterated or not watered down. Many in the local church have become dependent on what others say the Bible says and have come to lean on that alone as their source of Bible truth. These teachers may have watered down the pure milk of Scripture. Weak Christians are drawn first to one teacher then to another. They vacillate and are never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Many have never truly learned the doctrines of grace. This prevents other believers from ever receiving the necessary milk. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual (people) but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).  The word “carnal” is translated “fleshly.” Paul had taught the people the ABC’s of grace and they received it quickly, but when he began to feed them solid food, they spit it out. He had given the people ample time and necessary teaching for them to have grown up and become profitable to God, but they had failed to do so on all counts.  The result was constant division and strife in the body. Some claimed to be followers of Paul; others claimed to be disciples of Apollos. According to Paul, the indication that there were babes in the congregation is that there was jealousy and the tendency to follow human leaders. This becomes the source of constant turmoil.

 

The writer of Hebrews speaks of this same truth. The subject was Melchizedek. This teaching is hard truth. It would be considered by Paul to be strong meat of the word. The result was the same. The hearers did not understand the truth of Melchizedek. They had become “dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:10-11). They spit out the meat. The people had been given sufficient time and teaching to have become teachers themselves, but they still needed someone to teach them again the first principles of the oracles of God.  They had never learned the ABC’s of scripture. They still needed milk and not solid food. Those who receive only a steady diet of milk are unskilled in the word of righteousness, for they are babes. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. I’ve heard these words repeatedly from congregations: “That teaching is too hard.” The result should be obvious.  Christians have become content with drinking the milk of the word time and again and never have moved into the realm of spiritual meat – the steak.

 

  1. Blending with the Bandits

 

Go along to get along! We, the church, have failed to so live our lives and speak the gospel so that the Holy Spirit can use us to convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and a coming judgement (John 16:8). We have failed to become salt and light. We have lost our savor and our shine. We no longer convict the world; we are in competition with the world. We are here to impact the world with the gospel of God’s grace and the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. As Dr. Donald Barnhouse used to say, “We are never commanded in the Bible to clean up the fishpond, we are told to fish in it.” Many people that I have had the privilege of sharing the gospel with and seeing them come to faith in Christ have been people that were members of local churches for many years, but they had missed the gospel. We are living with these results in many local churches today. How do we motivate the congregation to keep coming?  We entertain the sheep! We compete with the world for their attention and their loyalty. When we stop entertaining, the sheep quit coming. We are supposed to change the world; but the world has changed us.

 

The Way of the Lord

No one is comfortable with the thought of being born into slavery through no fault or choice of their own or being dead in sin through being connected to someone and something that happened thousands of years ago. There is little doubt that slaves will look for answers to get around being incarcerated, forever lost in slavery, dead in sin, and totally blind to that fact. 

 

It is far easier to believe and teach the songwriter’s words “Calvary covers it all” or “God’s love reaches to the highest mountain and it reaches to the lowest hell.” It is far easier to teach and believe that any slave to sin can at any time freely(catch that word) hear the gospel, freely believe the gospel, and freely trust in Christ, anywhere and anytime. If this is true, then our slavery is not a big deal at all; we are not blind at all; and we are not spiritually dead at all!

 

The truth of salvation is that God must make the first move, making the gospel known and removing the blindness, and making those who are born unwilling, willing to be saved. If God does not act, no one will be released from slavery – no one.

 

Many people believe that we are all locked in a slave market of sin, but not locked so tight that we cannot hear and believe the gospel. They believe that Satan is, in fact, blinding everyone’s mind to sin and death but that none are so blind that they cannot at least catch a glimpse of the gospel and be saved. Their thinking is that we are all born dead in sin, but not so dead that we cannot hear and believe. It is as though the Bible’s warning that Satan is sadistically blinding the entire world to the gospel is just not taken seriously. This is plainly stated in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, but many just do not really believe it.

 

Said a different way, the comfort zone of eternal salvation comes to many through a belief system that is overwhelmed with the truth that “God so loved the world that He gave” (John 3:15-16). And I get this! God is certainly said to love the world. In fact, God is said to actually be love (1 Jn. 4:8). God’s love is His strong motive for our salvation. “Herein is love, not that we loved God but that He love us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sin” (1 Jn. 4:10).

 

But for God’s love to trump all of His other attributes (Bible characteristics that make Him God), is just not true to the word of God. The entire fallen human race seems to require that God’s love stand as the pinnacle of truth that governs all His other traits. I personally admit that just the thought of this age-old passage of John 3:16 does wonders for me, and because of my personal feelings about myself, my wife, my children, my grandchildren, and their children; and all of my family members who have gone before, my neighbors and many personal friends whom I love who have left this world –this passage gives me a solid rock steadfast hope. And I use it most every time I present the precious benefits of the cross work of the Lord Jesus Christ and it (along with Ephesians 2:8-10 and 1 Jn. 5:13) are among the first passages that my grandchildren are encouraged to memorize.

 

Let’s just cut to the chase. God’s steadfast plumbline made up of His righteousness and justice should stand firm in every believer’s thinking.  God must remain faithful and true to this truth (Isa. 28:17).  He must be completely fair in His dealings with every member of the human race according to His divine standard of fairness, not fallen man’s sense of fairness. And God cannot overwhelmingly love at the expense of diminishing the value of any of His other attributes.

 

Not to belabor the point, but to make it crystal clear, let us revisit in a slightly different way God’s characteristics of righteousness (His rightness) and justice (His fairness).  God’s righteousness is mentioned in the Bible well over 200 times, and always within close proximity to His justice.

 

God’s righteousness and justice are cited together so often that they are called, “the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:19). God’s love is never said to be the way of the Lord. To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (Prov. 21:3). The Bible never says that to do love is more acceptable to God than sacrifice. The Bible says that God loves righteousness and justice (Psa. 33:5). The Bible does not say that God loves His love!  

 

King David says twice that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; Mercy and truth go before His face” (Psa. 89:14). “Clouds and darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne” (Psa. 97:2).

 

The foundation of God’s righteousness and justice upon which His throne rests must bear the weight of all of God’s other characteristics and this is only foundation for these characteristics to rest upon. The Bible never credits God’s love as the foundation for His throne. The Bible does not say that God’s holiness – and God is holy, holy, holy (Isa. 6: 1-3) – is the foundation of His throne, nor for that matter is His sovereignty, His eternal life, the fact that He is all powerful, and all knowing, and everywhere present. God’s righteousness and His justice stand alone as the foundation for His Godness. 

 

God’s love for this world, along with all that God is, is built on the foundation of His righteousness and His justice. God cannot exercise any of His attributes (including love) at the expense of any of His other attributes. This would not be right nor fair. It would not be righteous, and it would not be just.  And built upon that foundation of righteousness and justice – is God’s love. Nowhere does God limit the value of His love. It was God’s love that motivated Him to provide the God-Man as the eternal satisfactory sacrifice for our sin (1 Jn. 4:10).  Blessings!

The Conundrum

If I heard him say it once, I heard him say it one hundred times. “He made the unwilling, willing! Halleluiah.” And he said it just like that! These words came from the mouth of an old mentor, S. Lewis Johnson, a former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and for many years pastor of Believer’s Chapel in Dallas, Texas. He is with His Lord now, but He has left a lifelong mark upon this writer’s life for which I am forever grateful.

 

Dr. Donald Barnhouse used the book of Galatians to help me – as a babe in Christ – learn to stand on my own spiritual feet, really learn to fly freely. It was years later that Dr. Johnson – along with others – picked up that mantle for me. And it was also quite a few years later while driving on a freeway outside of Atlanta that I learned that Dr. Barnhouse had in fact, years earlier, explained the gospel of God’s grace to Lewis Johnson. I almost had a wreck trying to remove the tears from my eyes.  I could not help but say audibly to myself, “God, you are The Great Genius of history.” I have used this line many times since then, and it is safe to say that I will use it again.

 

In math, to find the answer to a particular equation, the right formula must be applied. Let’s think back to God’s formula for sin. Why? Because it is so easy to get lost wandering in the weeds of words. The more words there are for some, the easier it is to lose their way. Remember, God’s underlying formula for sin is that we all sinned and died in Adam (Rom. 5:12).  “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” goes much deeper and wider than we at first realize. We do not become sinners when or if we sin; we sin because we are already sinners, born in sin, born dead in sin. Thus, we are all, every nation, tribe, tongue, every citizen of planet earth, a sinner before God before we ever personally choose to sin against Him. This is true because we were all there in the garden in Adam at the moment he sinned.  Some call this “original sin.”  We are sinners because we are inextricably (means it cannot be broken) connected to the corrupt seed of our first parents, the first Adam and his wife Eve. 

 

Our initial act of personal sin, far from taking a bite from a piece of forbidden fruit, may have been throwing our bottle across the room in a temper tantrum, or jumping up and down in our crib, or shaking and writhing on the floor holding our breath and screaming our heads off – simply because we did not get our way. We will all do something similar to this because we are born in Adam (like me stealing the candy bar). We are all bathed in Adam’s sinful shadow (Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:1).

 

I recognize that all do not believe in original sin. But what are some of the ramifications if the sin formula spoken above is true to God’s word? Then we are all born into the slave market of sin. The only way out is death – physical and spiritual. Our final destiny – if the Holy Spirit does not invade this world of darkness and bring to us the gospel – will be to go physically back to the dust of the grave, meet with millions of other sinners at God’s Great White Throne Judgment, face our Maker, and then be cast bodily, soul, and spirit into hell forever and ever (Rev. 20:11-15). And all are, in fact, being spiritually blinded to all of this (2 Cor. 4:3-4). This does not sound encouraging in the least bit.

 

There is absolutely nothing we can do to free ourselves from this prison, and many add that we can’t even pray for the slaves. Wait! What? Why? Because it is thought by some that if sinners are not first willing to be saved, then not even God can save them. If we are not willing to repent, then God cannot give this repentance! God must not intervene! The choice must be freely and firstly ours to make and ours alone. Not even the odor of anything unfair can be laid at God’s feet. And He cannot intervene for some if not for all. This would mean that God is not righteous and not just.  This places the choice to trust Christ or reject him solely at the feet of the slave – the spiritually dead slave.

 

There are questions hanging silently in the background that will not go away. How can we move to the point of being willing to be saved if we are truly dead in sin? How can we decide to repent – change our minds about our sin and God’s goodness, and turn to Him – if we are dead in sin? I guess the question must be asked “just how dead is dead?”

 

How can the dead do anything? Remember Jesus’ words to a young wanna-be disciple who asked Jesus to first let him go and bury his father and then he would follow Jesus (he was no doubt the heir of his father’s estate). This young man did not get the response from the Savior that he expected. Jesus told him “Let the dead bury their own dead. As for you, you follow Me” (Matt. 8:18-22). Ouch!

 

Yet we are told to pray for the lost; pray for their salvation; ask God to save them; ask God to release them from the bondage of their slavery. How can He if sinners are dead and cannot become willing. Can God change their willingness and His throne remain solidly absolutely righteous and just?  Is this a forever contradiction? No! Is there an answer? Yes! Please hang with me!

 

 

 

All that the Father Gives to Me

I truly love these words written in red in my red-letter addition of the Bible. “All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of Him Who sent Me. And this the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day” (John 6:37-38).

 

Let’s look more closely at Jesus’ words! If the reader believes, like me, that God says exactly what He means, that He never misspeaks, and that every word is placed exactly where He wants it to be….then, “all” means……well, all!

 

But in this case Jesus qualified the “all.” He did not mean all as in “everybody.” He put a gigantic monumental big water swell condition upon it. He said “all that the Father gives Me.” I am sure these words gave many people listening that day pause. I have meditated on this portion of God’s word for many years with the understanding that each and every word in the Bible matters. Every word!

 

The truth that it conveys at one point in my life gave me pause, but now it gives me praise. Since I have come to Christ by placing my faith in Him, His words mean that I am a gift given by God the Father to Him. Wow! Then I pondered this piercing question: Which came first, the giving by the Father or the coming to the Son? First came the giving! This means that those of us who have come to the Son by faith were first given to the Son. Again, we are gifts given to God the Son by God the Father. No giving, no coming! Jesus confirmed this truth in John 17. This is why the people were not believing. They missed the “spiritual.”

 

As miraculous as this may sound, this truth is verified by God speaking to God in prayer. Hold it! Did you understand that right? God praying to God!  Yes! As my good friend Danny Forrest once said to me, when we read John 17, we are eves-dropping on a conversation of God talking to God. That entire chapter is a is a jaw-dropper of information.

 

The second person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ, is praying to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. He said that He had given eternal life to as many as God the Father had given to Him. The exact same line from John 6. Of course, He was speaking in John 17 only of the disciples…… I thought? After all, He continued by saying that He had manifested the name of God the Father to as many as He (God the Father) had given to God the Son out to the world.

 

Speaking again of the disciples, Jesus made it crystal clear.  “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world.” We cannot deny this. Jesus confirmed this truth to them. He told His disciples,“You did not choose Me but I chose you out of the world” (John 15:16-19). I thought at the time, “That’s it! He just chose the disciples.” And then I thought, “Wait, do not underestimate the weight of this truth.” HE CHOSE THE DISCIPLES. HE WENT TO SPECIFIC ONES. HE CALLED THEM BY THEIR NAMES. HE KNEW THEIR PROFESSIONS. HE PERSONALLY CHOSE THEM.

 

Speaking of them, Jesus said, “They were Yours!” Note again meaning of the words, their tenses and their order. “They were (past tense) yours” means that they were always yours. They did not become yours at the moment or after I called them. Even before Jesus went to them and called them, they already belonged to the Father. The Lord Jesus Christ simply went only to God’s select group of men. He already knew their names, everything there was to know about them, every blemish of their skin and the number of hairs on their head.  The second person of the Trinity also said that He had prayed for them and them only.  “I pray for them (the disciples), I do not pray for the world but for those whom you have given Me!” The reason once again: “For they are Yours.”

 

And then He said, “I do not pray for the world!” That sounds strange, does it not? Are we not told to go into the world with the gospel and to pray for the unsaved of the world that they may hear the gospel and believe? Are we not to pray for the lost? Certainly! We are compelled! Why? Because there are many other “gifts” out there waiting for the good news. God has many waiting and wanting, hungering to hear, longing to learn the gospel! The Good Shepherd has many sheep waiting to hear His call. They will not recognize the voice of a stranger, but they will know His voice when He calls them by their own name (John 10:1-4; 24-31). Incredible!

 

Recall God’s words to Paul. God knew that Paul was afraid because of the treatment that he had received in response to the message God had given him to speak. “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city.’ And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:9-11).  Paul was not to worry because God already had many in the city who were waiting for the truth of the gospel. They were already gifts.

 

Continuing Jesus’ prayer, we discover that it was not just the disciples whom He would call. Jesus said in His prayer, “I do not pray for these alone (the disciples) but also for those who will believe in Me through their word.” That’s us! This includes numerous people throughout history. As we will see later, the seed of the gospel will spread like spiritual seeds blown in the wind throughout the world, generation after generation. “That they may all be one; as You, Father, are in Me and I in You; that they may be one of Us and the world may believe that You sent Me” (Jn. 17:20-21). Amazing!

 

God’s Plumbline

This question is now hanging in the air: Do we really believe that God is absolutely righteous and just in everything – everything that He has done and everything that He is determined to do? Do we really believe that His righteousness and justice are the very foundation upon which His deity rests?

Like Christ’s disciples learned so long ago, it does not take long as we navigate God’s Word for us to run into some savage, stormy headwind swells of what is often called by sailors “big water,” and sizable speed bumps that severely shake our faith. These are swells of strange Bible truths that will challenge what we truly believe about God’s goodness and fairness. And really what we truly believe about God. It is truth that may weed out those who are not really “in.” It is these truths that become the motivation for much of the world’s hatred of Christians.

New believers soon come to realize that God did not choose to eradicate our sin natures the moment we were saved. Though we become a new creation and are given God the Holy Spirit to teach us and to become our spiritual GPS, we are still sinners and we live shoulder to shoulder with millions of other sinner/slaves – all trapped in a slave market.  Our sin nature is so powerful that it touches and affects every thought that we think, every word that we say, every choice that we make, and everything that we do. One of my mentors said that evil touches even the good that we do. God’s Word wielded by His Spirit is the only real, unchangeable truth that we possess.

Not one of us is in the position to judge God’s righteousness and justice on the basis of what we may think is just and fair. For example, we must never think that an action of God is good, fair, and just according to our fallen standards of fairness, and that is why God wills it. Or said another way, we should never think that God wills it because we think it is right.  We must bow to the fact that it is just, good, and fair because God wills it. Why? Remember, He is the God who gave us goodness, righteousness, justice, and truth! God’s character rests on it! It is truth because He says it! It is right because He does it! It is just because He says it is! He is the Rock! All His ways are just no matter how they appear to our sin-fogged minds (Deuteronomy 32:4).

God’s righteousness is the plumbline for all righteousness. God’s justice is the plumbline for all that is just. If we are seeking true “right,” we must learn what is right from God’s Word. If we are seeking true justice, we must go to God’s Word. God’s Word is the unchangeable Rock of our salvation (2 Samuel 22:47). Blessed be our Rock! Let God be true and exalted and every man a liar.   

We must all give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever (1 Chronicles 16:34). He is light and in Him dwells no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:5). Jesus said that He had come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Him should not abide in darkness (John 12:46). John wrote, “In Him is life, and the life was the light of men (1 Jn. 1:4).

God created us to believe He exists and that He is the God that we are to worship! He created us with an eternal nature like His (Eccl. 3:11). God also stamped within every heart a belief that there exists an eternal right and wrong, and that all will be judged against this eternal standard (Rom. 2:14-15). God demands from us worship and praise (Psa. 33:8; 96:9). 

God says of Himself that He is always just and always fair. And here is the big idea, no matter how any of His truth may appear to us: If all the above is true, all should gladly worship and honor Him. He is truly a God worthy of our love and our worship. “Let everything that has breath praise this Lord. Praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6)!

But even with His eternal nature (His holiness) in mind, many do not choose to worship Him. The reason is clear. They apply their own human standards to Him. They desire to worship a God who would never choose to do anything that they themselves would not choose to do.

Jesus’ disciples recognized that no one had ever taught things like Jesus Christ. Following His miraculous feeding of the thousands with just the use of a small boy’s lunch of fish and bread, the people – His disciples included – were absolutely amazed. The disciples who had just been standing around suddenly became waiters, running back and forth feeding the people and returning to refill their baskets with a delicious fish and bread. The food just kept on coming. Wow! Some probably ate all they wanted for the first time in their lives. They loved that satisfied feeling. Their hunger was gone. Others saw the gravity of the miracle and said, “Surely this is the Prophet that God promised us.” Jesus reminded them of the miracle of the manna in wilderness that God the Father had given to them that they would not die. I get that! Then He told them that that the manna was speaking of Him. Speaking of Him?

This was a spiritual truth that had to be seen with spiritual eyes and heard with spiritual ears. This truth had never entered the minds of men before (1 Cor. 2:9).  Jesus told the crowd that He was the very bread of life, and if they would just come to Him by faith they would hunger and thirst no more (John 6:1-35).