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Volume 14, Issue 1: Eschaton

150 Years of Driving in Reverse

Jack Van Deventer

If one were to ponder God's judicial sanctions in history, what might they look like? Stated another way, if you were to make a list of the ways in which God punishes His covenant people for disobedience, what specific curses might be poured out? Although God's judgments could (and possibly will) be worse, the trends in Christianity over the last century and a half indicate judgment, not blessing. Through disobedience the Church has become plagued by such things as liberalism, feminism, anti-intellectualism, emotionalism, etc. More and more, the Church has left its first love and failed in its mission.

Until repentance in the Church takes root and God restores His blessing to His people, these sins will continue to plague the Church. Below, are listed five historical trends in the Christian church that suggest God's displeasure.
Trend 1: Pessimism. The idea that the Church would fail in its God-ordained mission of discipling the nations seemed a foreign concept in the first half of the 19th century. God was understood to be sovereign and He ruled the nations; so who could stop Him? In the early 1800's, doctrines began to be formed anticipating the Lord's soon return, despite the fact that the nations hadn't been discipled yet. Gradually the focus of the Church shifted from the long-term (cultural transformation through gospel preaching) to the short term ("Come rescue me quickly, Lord Jesus"). Christ's lordship, it seems, no longer extended to all nations but merely to the hearts of men. Mankind "invariably fails the test" and could not be viewed as a reliable vehicle for global evangelism. God was perceived as playing a diminishing role in human history while Satan was expected to become increasingly active in world affairs. Thus, the traditional doctrines of God's sovereignty and providence are no longer relevant in this pessimistic worldview.
Trend 2: End Times Speculation. Beginning with the French Revolution, date-setting concerning the Lord's return became popular, if not frenzied. Much of the date-setting speculation took place by lay people, people outside the Established Church, or renegades of one type or another who lacked doctrinal accountability. The belief among the speculators was that one only needed to find the hidden prophetic key in Scripture that would unlock the secret code necessary for predicting the Lord's return. J.N. Darby, the father of dispensationalism, had his unique strategies for prophetic interpretation and believed that God had shown him truths hidden since the times of the Apostles. Darby rejected the advice of knowledgeable counselors who criticized his doctrinal inventions as "speculative nonsense." About the same time in America, an uneducated farmer named William Miller came up with similar sounding doctrines, predicted the Lord's return in 1843, and had more than 50,000 followers within 5 years. Dispensational prophetic speculation remains wildly popular today with the success of authors like Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and Jerry B. Jenkins, the chief spokesmen and theologians for these fanciful doctrines.
Trend 3: End Times Anticipation. Edward Irving's emotionally-charged preaching on the imminent second coming led to an expectation of the return of supernatural gifts of the Spirit. When an outbreak of "tongues" occurred among the women of Irving's church, all London was in an uproar. Observers noted uncontrolled outbursts and shrieks sounding like "Lall lall lall!" Irving, described as "a ship without a keel," was powerless to stop it. Many Englishmen agreed with Irving's friend, Thomas Carlyle, who wondered, "Why was there not a bucket of cold water to fling on that lah-lalling hysterical madwoman?" Good question. The modern charismatic movement, the outgrowth of unrestrained prophetic anticipation at Irving's church, remains with us today.
Trend 4: Anti-intellectualism. Charles Finney popularized preaching which emphasized emotionalism and sentimentality. D.L. Moody applied Finney's techniques as well, while de-emphasizing doctrinal content. Emotional preaching, it seemed, was viewed as the essential catalyst for leading people to Christ. When Billy Sunday, a former professional baseball player, sat for his Presbyterian ordination exam in 1903, his typical response to questions of theology and history were "That's too deep for me" or "I'll have to pass that one up." But emotion won the day as Sunday confessed, "I don't know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit knows about ping-pong, but I'm on my way to glory!" Is it any wonder that spurious teachings, especially with regard to "end times" speculation, remain with us today?
Trend 5: The Erosion of Doctrinal Integrity. Few things have changed more in the last 150 years than the proclamation of the gospel. Sermons on the God's power to draw all men to Himself have been replaced by man-centered sermons on personal pietism (the narrow scope to which Christ's lordship is still acknowledged). Most modern evangelicals now dismiss the notion of winning the world to Christ. To this day, even the foundational doctrines of Christendom are unpopular in most churches.
These trends suggest the Church, due to disobedience, is under the judgment of God. The Church must repent and regain the strength that comes from rightly worshipping an all-powerful and sovereign God.

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