The Church Captive (7)
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Matthew 6.33
Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21.5
“What the church has been used to, is not a rule by which we are to judge; because there may be new and extraordinary works of God, and He has heretofore evidently wrought in an extraordinary manner. He has brought to pass new things, strange works; and has wrought in such a manner as to surprise both men and angels. And as God has done thus in times past, so we have no reason to think but that He will do so still. The prophecies of Scripture give us reason to think that God has things to accomplish, which have never yet been seen.”
- Jonathan Edwards, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God
Impediments to revival
Church leaders can sometimes be slow to embrace change. In many churches, the way things are done has not changed for years, and this is true not only of smaller and more traditional churches, but also of larger, contemporary churches, and even mega-churches. At some point in the past, we found what seemed to us like a groove, and we have failed to note that our groove has become a rut. But since we don’t see it that way, anything that threatens our status quo must be resisted and rejected.
“We never saw it that way before” – the “seven last words of the church” are for many church leaders the first line of defense against adjusting the status quo, even if only subconsciously. This is not a recent phenomenon, nor one unique to the Church in our day.
As the First Great Awakening (1730s and 40s) gathered momentum, many established New England pastors offered resistance, and refused to open their minds or churches to the reviving winds of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards took it in hand to explain the Awakening to these pastors, and to consider and respond to their reasons for wanting to preserve the status quo.
Edwards noted that these church leaders were skeptical of sudden changes, especially in young people –changes emphasizing an enhanced sense of God’s presence, the fear of being without Christ, the absolute certainty of Scripture, and an extraordinary upwelling of affections. These challenges to what they had “been used to” in worship and Christian life suggested that what they had been doing for many years was insufficient, if not wrong. So, to preserve their familiar ways and practices against what they regarded as “new things” and “strange works,” many church leaders discouraged their congregations from seeking the Awakening power of the Spirit, and thus became an impediment to revival in their communities.
These church leaders had become captive to a kind of status quo Christianity; the vision they held out for their people, both of the life of the church and the life of faith, was one of perpetuating the status quo indefinitely into the future. Rather than seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness wherever the winds of the Spirit might be blowing, these church leaders had become status quo seekers, and were not taking their congregations into, what Edwards and many others regarded as, an undeniable and transformative work of the Spirit of God.
Symptoms of status quocaptivity
Edwards took reluctant church leaders to the Scriptures, challenging them to examine their position in the light of the plain teaching of God’s Word. He wrote that they should not balk at things merely because they were unfamiliar, things “which they have never been used to in their day.” Edwards argued that the Spirit moved in new and unfamiliar ways in the days of the apostles: “The work was then carried on with more visible and remarkable power than ever; nor had there been seen before such mighty and wonderful effects of the Spirit of God in sudden changes, and such great engagedness and zeal in great multitudes--such a sudden alteration in towns, cities, and countries; such a swift progress, and vast extent of the work--and many other extraordinary circumstances might be mentioned.” We should expect even more of such unfamiliar emphases and fruit in the latter days, Edwards insisted.
These church leaders were also suspicious of the new enthusiasm for things spiritual and religious, and the excited talking about the Lord on the part of many. They were used to an unfanatical, merely personal kind of Christianity, and this was not what they saw in the Awakening. Edwards explained that this is only what we should expect: “Not that the kingdom of God shall be set up in the world, on the ruin of Satan’s kingdom, without a very observable, great effect: a mighty change in the state of things, to the observation and astonishment of the whole world: for such an effect as this is even held forth in the prophecies of Scripture, and is so by Christ Himself... ‘For as the lightning that lightneth out of one part under heaven, shineth unto another part under heaven, so shall also the Son of man be in his day.’”
During the Awakening, those coming under the influence of the Holy Spirit began experiencing new visions of Christian possibility, of Christ working for His Kingdom in new, enlarged, and exciting ways. The pastors to whom Edwards wrote were suspicious of this, and he called them to think again about the greatness of our salvation and Christ’s Kingdom: “Such is our nature, that we cannot think of things invisible, without a degree of imagination. I dare appeal to any man, of the greatest powers of mind, whether he is able to fix his thoughts on God, or Christ, or the things of another world, without imaginary ideas attending his meditations? And the more engaged the mind is, and the more intense the contemplation and affection, still the more lively and strong the imaginary idea will ordinarily be; especially when attended with surprise.”
I will mention one other aspect of the Awakening that gave these status quo church leaders pause: They objected to preaching about sin, hell, and the Law and fear of God. They wanted preaching that presented God as loving, and Christians as forgiven and in the process of being healed. But Edwards insisted that the kindest thing any preacher could do for one who was dying in sins and heading to eternal damnation was to scare the sin out of him, so as to launch him into the loving arms of his heavenly Father.
For these and various other reasons, church leaders sought to preserve their status quoministries against the new winds of the Spirit that were clearly blowing through churches throughout New England. Edwards wrote to expose their captivity, to call church leaders to shake off their fears and chains, and to hoist their sails into the clearly Biblical evidences of the work of the Spirit of God.
It’s easy for all of us to fall into a status quo approach to Christian life and ministry. Only by examining ourselves, renewing our focus on Christ and His Kingdom, and seeking those distinguishing marks of the work of the Spirit of God in our own lives and churches, can we determine whether we are being carried along by the brisk winds of the Holy Spirit, or are stuck in the doldrums of the status quo.
Whether your ministry is new or of long standing, your church small or large, traditional or contemporary, the unexamined status quo can take you captive, and lead to stagnation, failure of mission, and a Christianity that is without vigor, vision, vitality, or validity.
Don’t let this happen to you.
The Spirit that is at work, takes off persons’ minds from the vanities of the world, and engages them in a deep concern about eternal happiness, and puts them upon earnestly seeking their salvation, and convinces them of the dreadfulness of sin, and of their own guilty and miserable state as they are by nature. It awakens men’s consciences, and makes them sensible of the dreadfulness of God’s anger, and causes in them a great desire and earnest care and endeavour to obtain his favour. It puts them upon a more diligent improvement of the means of grace which God has appointed; accompanied with a greater regard to the word of God, a desire of hearing and reading it, and of being more conversant with it than they used to be. And it is notoriously manifest, that the spirit that is at work, in general, operates as a spirit of truth, making persons more sensible of what is really true in those things that concern their eternal salvation: as, that they must die, and that life is very short and uncertain; that there is a great sin-hating God, to whom they are accountable, and who will fix them in an eternal state in another world; and that they stand in great need of a Saviour.
- Jonathan Edwards, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).
All quotations are from Jonathan Edwards,Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, in Edward Hickman, ed.,The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834, 1995), Vol. Two, pp. 257ff. I have taken the liberty, for clarification, of capitalizing the pronouns referring to God.