Anyone who has idled some time away in a watercraft loosened from its moorings knows how quickly and surprisingly it is possible to drift a long way without being aware of the considerable distance the vessel has traveled from the point of embarkation. Suddenly the view is quite different and there is moment of incredulity expressed in the words, "How on earth did we get here?" The mind quickly adjusts itself and efforts are made to steer the boat back on course. Drifting is easy and imperceptible until reference is made to familiar landmarks, or reliable navigational charts are consulted. The movement was not consciously felt but the journey on the tide has definitely been made.
Tides and tendencies in the life and thought of the church of God are not always clearly recognized and carefully analyzed. A ripple bumps against the ecclesiastical barque and scarcely any notice is taken by the sleeping crew and trustful passengers. The ripples multiply and the surface of the water begins to roll and currents increase in strength and soon bigger waves begin to carry the craft more rapidly along until the ship of faith finds itself in seas unfamiliar to previous voyagers, or streams of thought and practice they had encountered and then studiously avoided. For a safe sense of direction the church of today needs to constantly compare its progress with the charts and maps of the past and pay heed to the comments and warnings of its previous pilots and skillful navigators.
A close scrutiny of the distinctive trends of the contemporary church, especially in its evangelical expression, seems to suggest a significant drift away from the doctrinal moorings of the past that were scrupulously anchored in Holy Scripture. There is a sense of enthusiastic plain sailing accompanied by a naivite concerning hazards ahead or eventual arrival at, and resting in, wrong harbours that will not afford genuine security and peace for hopeful souls. The wind that impels us must be the breath of the Holy Spirit, our Pilot must be the Lord Jesus Christ, and the captains who fulfill their shifts in steering the church must follow every instruction in the word of God.
The character and convictions of the movement that calls itself Evangelical seem to have changed. It seeks, and has even gained a certain vitality, and apparent relevance, that is disconnected from the historic verities of Scripture as previous generations of believers have understood them, and its popular support is derived from a selective and skewed re-reading of the Scriptures. Our great fathers of any preceding era seem to be scorned or ignored as if the modern church is all that matters and its wisdom and methodology in worship and evangelism is superior. A drift away from the sound doctrine, mature piety, and rich and profound devotion of our forebears in the faith has produced a packed and flimsy liner that will not be able to withstand the storms of persecution and adversity ahead or protect its passengers from the shoals and reefs of disappointment when they come. The trivialities of superficial religion, effortless and entertaining worship, comfortable churchgoing, easy-believism, and cheap grace will not suffice for our endurance when the time of tribulation comes. The gathering storm will rage and the billows overwhelm the jerry-built vessels of our day.
Folk, self identified as Evangelicals, no longer seem to believe in the range of gospel truth subscribed to and died for by our worthy predecessors. Ours is comfortable "living-room" Christianity furnished with sofas and easy chairs. Their's was the faith of the battle fields and heroic martyrdom. Their prize was peace with God through the cross of Christ, ours is a piece of the prosperity and pride of this sinful and alluring world. They embraced the reality that the path to glory passed through the terrain of temptation, suffering, persecution, and affliction. We reach out for the crowns without first grasping the cross, the key to triumph. Anglicanism's "soul father", Martin Luther, distinguished between the theology of the cross (our reading and experience of things here in this sinful world), and the theology of glory (the victory and acclaim of King Jesus in his redemptive accomplishment on our behalf, celebrated in heaven with shouts of gladness at the consummation of earthly history).
The modern church looks toward enterprise without enemy resistance, success without setbacks, and triumph without the trials, inward and outward. It is all glossy brochures and glitzy performance without the fierce grappling with sin and Satan that tests our spiritual mettle to the limit and tires the spirits of the saints. We must acquaint ourselves with the candid biographies and tough experiences of the acknowledged giants of the faith. We want to be covered with glory in the eyes of the world rather than be covered with gore in our conflict with the world that raises its ensigns against the armies of Christ. We have forgotten the watchwords of original sin, human corruption and inability, divine wrath, sovereign election, divine redemption, human repentance, saving faith, human frailty, divine grace, in all their original Biblical strength and force as expressed in the great Confessions of the Reformation. We are purveyors of a watered down and tepid "gospel" that would have caused our ancestors to retch in disgust (Revelation 3:16). Never before has there been such an urgency to return to our roots before we look for the fruits. Until people tremble and are broken before God we cannot be sure of the effect of our message. Until folk are condemned they cannot be consoled by the gospel. We are adept at healing wounds "slightly": "They all dress the wounds of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14 &8:11 – notice Jeremiah’s double emphasis on demolition before reconstruction, ch 1 v 10).
It is in our sense of entitlement and immunity from adversity that our drift from the real gospel manifests itself – the laid on benefits of the church without personal exertion, the luxuries of life as a right without any delay. We have contempt for God's method of maturation, discipline and spiritual development. It is even ridiculed in some modern witness and conversation. Some thoughts from Daniel Rowland, the great Anglican evangelist of Wales in the 18th century, and oratorical equal of Whitefield, from his sermon on Romans 8:28 may help us to detect the shift in Christian attitude: "The Almighty may seem for a season to be your enemy, in order that he may become your eternal friend. Oh! believers, after all your tribulation and anguish , you must conclude with David, 'It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes'. He (God) sent a horror of great darkness on Abraham, when he was preparing to give him the best light, He touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh, and lamed him, when he was going to bless him. He smote Paul with blindness, when he was intending to open the eyes of his mind. He refused the request of the woman of Canaan for a while, but afterwords she obtained her desire. See, therefore, that all the paths of the Lord are mercy, and that all things work together for good to them that love him. Even affliction is very useful and profitable to the godly. The prodigal son had no thought of returning to his father's house till he had been humbled by adversity. Hagar was haughty under Abraham's roof and despised her mistress; but in the wilderness she was meek and lowly. Jonah sleeps on board ship, but in the whale's belly he watches and prays. Manasseh lived as a libertine at Jerusalem, and committed the most enormous crimes; but when he was bound in chains in the prison at Babylon his heart was turned to seek the Lord his God. Bodily pain and disease have been instrumental in rousing many to seek Christ, when those who were in high health have given themselves no concern about him. The ground which is not rent and torn by the plough bears nothing but thistles and thorns. So would our wild hearts be overrun with filthy poisonous weeds, if the true Vinedresser did not often check their growth by crosses and sanctified troubles. There can be no gold or silver finely wrought without being first purified with fire, and no elegant houses built with stones till the hammers have squared and smoothed them. So we can neither become vessels of honor in the house of our Father till we are melted in the furnace of affliction, nor lively stones in the walls of new Jerusalem till the hand of the Lord has beaten off our proud excrescences and tumors with his own hammers. Every illness and infirmity that may seize you , every loss you may meet with, every reproach you may endure, every shame that may color your faces, every sorrow in your hearts, every agony and pain in your flesh. Every change in your condition – your fine weather and your rough weather, your sunny weather and your cloudy weather, your ebbing and your flowing, your liberty and your imprisonment, all turn out for good. Oh, dear Lord Jesus, what hast thou seen in us that thou shouldest order things so wondrously for us, and make all things - all things to work for our good.?". Our doctrine is diluted, our expectations are different, our endurance is low. Current trends reveal a trail away from ancient truths – truths that strengthened believers in their conviction, righteousness, resolve, and readiness for testing. May the engines of our ancient faith, turned on once again, reverse the drift of modern times. Amen.