'O the Depth!'
Perhaps the greatest disservice done to the Christian religion in the past hundred years by churches in the Western world has been to trivialise it. This sin has always been present in the church at every age. But in previous eras there have been factors of restraint which have not been present of late in the West. We may suppose it was difficult for the early church to trivialise the gospel because they lived so very close to the time of Christ himself and the Apostles. Furthermore, they were often face to face with the stern realities of martyrdom. In such a situation, they could not help but believe the gospel in its grandeur and mystery, even if they often misstated it theologically.
The Middle Ages was a period when miracle, mystery and sin were looked upon as everyday factors of the world in which man lives. The fault in this age was to exaggerate the miraculous and to invest buildings, relics, martyrs and saints with a quality of mystery which was superstitious and unwarrantable. This was their error and their sin. It was a great fault and one from which the modern world may be thankful to have escaped. But there is at least this much to be said for the medieval outlook, that it did not, generally speaking, evaporate away all the mystery of the faith or reduce it to 'the light of common day.'
It is very much to the honour and credit of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century that they exorcised the ghost of superstition from the church of their day without destroying a proper appreciation of the supernatural. The Reformers were first and foremost religious men. That is to say, they were not primarily scholars or technical experts in the letter of Scripture. They were not even primarily academic theologians. They had all of these skills and many more. But they were supremely the men they were because they were men of God and ministers of Christ. Their writings are the evidence of this fact. None more so than Calvin's Institutes, which is a book about religion rather than a textbook on theology. The pages of Calvin's writings are instinct with a sense of the ineffable greatness of God and of our consequent obligation to love, serve, obey and enjoy him. Calvin is not content to inform the mind. He challenges the conscience and warms the heart. His motive is to save his hearers, not just to educate them.
A high sense of the mystery of the faith was maintained by the great divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But in the last century a change came. Apart from certain more privileged areas — especially those favoured by religious revivals — the tendency in the past hundred years in the West has been for Christians to lose a sense of the mystery of the faith. The consequence has inevitably been that the gospel has been brought down to man's level.
Its profundities have not been appreciated. Its sublimities have not been scaled by the modern Christian mind. Its fulness has not been appreciated by our busy age. And therefore our character, as Christians, has reflected less and less of that 'other-worldliness' which was once the hallmark of the believer and which former generations always expected to find in men professing to be converted.
It is to be feared that a future generation, when it looks back on our age of Christianity, will have to make the dreadful assessment of us that we were an age of shallowness in the things of God. That is not to deny that we have attained to a fair degree of soundness in the letter of doctrinal understanding as evangelical believers. But our age has been sadly deficient in what may be termed spiritual greatness. At the root of this is the modern disease of shallowness. We are all too impatient to meditate on the faith we profess. We cannot say, 'O the depth!'
Modern Christians quickly feel they have 'had enough' when they meet with a more serious attitude towards gospel mysteries than they are used to. But men deceive themselves if they imagine they can flit like a butterfly from one religious excitement to another and consider they have done their duty to God without ever pausing to be amazed at the heights and depths of God's grace. It is not the busy skimming over religious books or the careless hastening through religious duties which makes for a strong Christian faith. Rather, it is unhurried meditation on gospel truths and the exposing of our minds to these truths that yields the fruit of sanctified character.
There are a number of areas where it would be profitable for us as modern Christians to recover more 'depth' in our grasp of the gospel. We may notice the following:
1. A Deeper Sense of the Sinfulness of Sin
This is one area in which we today have parted company with earlier evangelicals. Modern Christianity is impatient of anything beyond a perfunctory confession of sin. It is generally felt that a believer is entitled to live for hours and days in the pursuit of secular duties and interests with little pause for private prayer or worship. Many Christians of this class are content to utter a cheery 'Father, forgive me' and go on their way through life. But such a Christianity is too 'healthy' and too confident by half.
Ought not a believer regularly to call himself to account for his sins in the presence of God? Ought he not frequently in life to stir himself up to reflect on the odiousness of sin and its guiltiness in God's sight? Shall Christ be brought to a state of death and damnation because of sin, and shall the Christian not remind himself on occasion that every sin he commits deserves God's wrath and curse both in this life and in that to come? There is a place in the life of a real Christian for self-loathing for our sin (Ezekiel 36:31). There is a place for feeling our uncleanness as well as confessing it (Isaiah 6:5). If our earlier Protestant divines could speak of their sin as 'infinity on infinity' and 'infinity multiplied by infinity', what ought other believers not to say of theirs?
It is the besetting sin of our age to trivialise sin. The remedy is to meditate on the holiness and righteousness of God himself, on the strictness and perfection of his laws, on the agonies of the damned in hell and, above all, on the sufferings of our blessed Redeemer on the Cross of Calvary. The Christian stops making spiritual progress as soon as he stops repenting. The modern fashion is to skip through a few words of confession as though sin were no more serious to God than the omission of some detail of etiquette or the infringement of table-manners.
Let us recall that sin is the contradiction of God. The best saints have looked into their own hearts as into a bottomless pit of corruption or an ocean of depravity. They were right to do so. It is something we need to learn from them all over again. Of our sins, we might say, 'O the depth!'
2. A Deeper Attitude of Reverence in Worship
It was said of the early church that its attitude to God was characterised by 'fear' (Acts 2:43) and sometimes by 'great fear' (Acts 5:5, 11). The Apostle Paul instructs the Christians of his day to behave in their congregational worship services in such a way that the outsider may have the secrets of his heart made manifest. The awareness of God's being was to lead him to fall down on his face confessing,
God is in you of a truth.1 Corinthians 14:25
The whole tone of apostolic teaching with regard to God's service and worship is that it should be 'with reverence and godly fear' (Hebrews 12:28). Indeed, our whole salvation is to be worked out with 'fear and trembling' (Philippians 2:12). Fear must never be absent.
However, this 'fear' or reverence has very largely been lost in modern services of worship. It is partly because the spirit of our age is one of superficiality. The modern man rushes in 'where angels fear to tread'. He goes to God confidently and in a flurry of unprepared thoughts, words and emotions. Indeed, the older practice of preparing for worship at God's house by first spending time in secret prayer is generally discounted as an unwelcome and a burdensome addition to the day's religious agenda.
It is greatly to be deplored that many evangelical church services appear to be entirely unmarked by reverence or godly fear. It is a thousand pities that deep seriousness in public worship is a thing of the past almost everywhere. A vast deal of culpable ignorance lies behind the bustle of modern church services. But the deepest fault of all is our lack of appreciation of the glory, greatness and majesty of the God whom we have come to worship.
It ought to be a rule that when we come to God's house we do not talk about our ordinary affairs more than is strictly essential and that even our exchange of greetings be made with a respectful hush. Our whole attention is to be taken up with the duty of the hour, which is to exercise our souls and voices in giving devout praise to the Almighty and careful audience to his Word.
Our thoughts must be re-educated to have a high view of God, especially when we are in the house of prayer. Our attitude to minister and elders is to be one of respect, love and honour (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13). When we pray to God, we are to put ourselves down low in his presence and bend our minds to the task of concentrating on his infinite greatness. This is the way to have our hearts warmed and cheered, because God 'giveth grace to the humble' (James 4:6). But the careless and the impertinent go away unblessed because they have not 'sanctified him in their hearts' (1 Peter 3:15).
We are to pay heed to what we sing to God and pour out our hearts to him with grace and not in an unthinking torrent of sound, as if God listened only to the voice and not to the music of our hearts. In hearing sermons, we are to give heed to the doctrine and its application to our lives, not allowing ourselves to be distracted by any supposed infirmity in the preacher's voice, style or delivery. If we get little from the sermon, let us augment it by gathering later with Christian friends to discuss the main points. By gathering up the crumbs afterwards we may greatly increase what we received in church.
'Holiness becomes God's house' always (Psalm 93:5). We need to remember that when we come to public worship we are coming to something excellent and heavenly. Of true worship, it might be said: 'O the depth!'
3. We are to have a High View of God's Intention to Bless the World
This is very evidently what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he originally penned the words which form the title of this article. The sweep of Paul's mind takes in the entire course of human history. God, he declares, is planning to bless all mankind. In the Old Testament he confined his blessing to Israel. In the present age of the New Testament he is largely confining his blessing to the Gentiles. In a coming day, before the end, Israel is to be spiritually revived. There will be a 'fulness' of salvation for Israel and for the whole world.
It is an astounding assertion which Paul makes here when he contemplates the plan of God as it becomes effectual in human history:
God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.Romans 11:32
This does not, of course, mean that all will be saved but that all believers will be saved. They will come to Christ out of all nations and they will all attribute their deliverance from unbelief to the mere mercy and grace of God.
Out of the depths of sin and guilt is being called a new, redeemed humanity, elect according to divine purpose. No force on earth will stop them from hearing the gospel or from believing it and persevering to the end. They will be called to the foot of the Cross in spite of every prejudice of their upbringing and disadvantages of their personal circumstances. Grace will not only make them surrender to the Saviour. It will make them do so gladly, voluntarily, lovingly.
The bigoted devotee to false religion will be brought by grace to bow the knee to Christ and the former materialist will be turned into a heavenly-minded worshipper of the one true God. Every barrier which formerly separated between them will be abolished. No consideration of colour, creed or rank will spoil the unity in Christ which God's redeemed people will enjoy at last. This is the destiny which awaits the true people of God and their righteousness is all of him.
It is no wonder, with such thoughts before him as these, that Paul can cry out: 'O the depth!' Our God is the only God. His purpose alone will succeed and triumph on earth. All his opponents and haters will come to nothing. All who love and serve him will inherit glory and immortality. God has many elect persons still to be called by the gospel. Our labour is not in vain in the Lord. Let courage characterise our witness for Jesus and let us pray for a larger vision of God's purpose. Only in that way will our modern churches rise above the shallow spirit of this age.