Where Have the Saints Gone?
Sin has had two remarkable effects on our critical powers. It has made us supersensitive to the faults of others and insensitive to our own. We are born experts at seeing the shortcomings of our neighbour. But a spiritual long-sightedness renders us oblivious to the same shortcomings in ourselves. Why is it so much easier for us to advise our brother of the speck in his eye than to remove the beam from our own? 'Show me myself' is not a common prayer.
'Know thyself' has been a maxim of the philosophers and sages from early times. But, for all that, which of them really knew himself? Robert Burns was no saint but he felt the need to exclaim:
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
Burns sighed, as we all sigh in our better moments, at the sobering realisation that self-knowledge is that form of knowledge which we attain to last.
The consciousness that we are partly unknown to ourselves is fully confirmed by the Word of God. 'Who can understand his errors?' asks David (Psalm 19:12). 'All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the Lord weigheth the spirits, affirms Solomon' (Proverbs 16:2). 'Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man', argues the apostle Paul, 'whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things ... And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?' (Romans 2:1, 3). It was to his own people and not to strangers that our Lord could say, 'Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of' (Luke 9:55). These texts have something in them for us all.
Protestants we may be, and evangelicals we may be, but into our Protestantism and into our evangelicalism we each import a hidden something which belongs to neither but is the blind spot in our own personal religion.
From Extreme to Extreme
Every generation of Christians has its besetting sins. Ours is no exception. Perhaps we should say that we witness today an abuse of biblical principles among Christians not very different from the abuses of the Mediaeval Church in its own peculiar way. Mediaeval Christianity, with its monkish cells and hours of solitary introspection, represented the movement of the pendulum to one extreme. We, however, have erred in swinging to the opposite extreme. They made religion to consist solely of meditation. We have produced a type of Christianity that is all extrovert and which has little or no interest in the cultivation of the soul. The Mediaeval Christians were morbid; we have idolised 'happiness'. They abandoned preaching for praying; we have made 'witnessing' everything. They fled from 'the world'; we live in it and we are in danger of urging the principle of 'Christian liberty' for being too much in it and too much like it.
We in our day see the folly of monkishness and we are right to deplore their extremism, their false view of the world, their failure to preach to sinners, their superstitious theology — in a word, their inability to see their own shortcomings. It is humbling and salutary therefore for us to recall that the next age of believers will in its day write a history of our own times and will do so with that perception of our sinfulness which now eludes us because we live too close to ourselves to see it.
Our Mortal Wound
If we could see ourselves as we should, what would we see? 'What is the glaring fault of the modern Christian?' we might ask. It is our duty to ask it. Is there one thing more than another which is conspicuous by its absence in Christian circles today? Given that we all come short in all things, what in particular are we to look to as the gravest wound in the modern church's body?
We may comfort ourselves that the fault is not in our Reformation principles. The modern Calvinist has a notional theology which surpasses all the theologies of the Middle Ages and of the early church. Reformation principles are not our weakness but our tower of strength. No siren voice which urges us to soften our Puritan creeds, either by subtraction or addition, deserves a moment's attention. The fault is not in our creed. It lies elsewhere.
Again, knowledge, ability and articulation are not our mortal wound. The contemporary Christian mind is informed from a hundred sources. We analyse, evaluate, comment and discuss. There is not a continent and scarcely a mission field of which we are ignorant. All doctrine comes under our review. We are meticulously well-informed. Our weakness is not in information. It is elsewhere.
Where have all the saints gone? Surely we live in an age in which Christianity has parted company with holiness. Religion has become a thing rather of the mind than of the soul. Provided a man can say the right things, knows the right language, makes the right noises, he passes muster for a Christian. There is little demand made of modern Christians to 'work out your own salvation'. Fear of God is rare. Not many rise above the level of being 'ordinary'.
What we need, besides better preaching, is better living. Our attitude towards the Reformers, Puritans and early Methodists is rather one of wonderment at their amazing spirituality than a serious attempt to emulate it. We have somehow isolated those aspects of our Reformed heritage which we find congenial and have left unattempted those parts which are irksome to flesh and blood. The result is that when we call ourselves 'Reformed' we too often mean that we have embraced a set of theological ideas rather than the holier type of life that once went with them. The first we should do without leaving the second undone.
The Cultivation of the Soul
Generally speaking, churches, seminaries and Christian movements are only as good as the persons who are in them. They will rise no higher than the level of their leaderships and memberships. The truth of the gospel is the same in every age. It is a constant factor. What varies so greatly is the human factor that accompanies it.
Admittedly, it is what we preach rather than what we are that will turn the world upside down. But if we preach what we conspicuously are not then we do no more than bring the truth into contempt. Sadly this aspect of the modern church has been highlighted in the case of some television evangelists in recent times.
Scripture should teach us, and if not, then painful experience will teach us, that God will not normally bless even his own truth when it is held with a bad conscience and with an unrighteous life. Good doctrine with bad living does not lead to the spread of Christianity but to a society which becomes sceptical and eventually pagan. There are not lacking signs that this process is already at an advanced stage in lands once famous for the gospel.
Where do we begin, if we mean to repair the ruin we see all around us? Surely there can be only one answer. We must pay more attention to the soul. Holiness begins with the 'inner man' and proceeds outwards to every aspect of life. The soul is the man himself. Neither sound confession nor larger libraries nor anything else will preserve our churches from the sins of this age if we ourselves do not become better men.
There will be no marked growth in Christian holiness if we do not labour to overcome our natural disinclination towards secret spiritual exercises. Our forefathers kept honest diaries where the soul's battles were recorded. Thomas Shepard, Pilgrim Father and founder of Harvard, wrote in his printed papers, 'It is sometimes so with me that I will rather die than pray'. So is it with us all. But this honesty is not commonplace. Such men climbed high only as they laboured with sweat and tears to cultivate the soul. We, too, must 'exercise ourselves unto godliness' (1Timothy 4:7).
There is a good to be got from our spiritual exercises which nothing will make up for if neglected. It is in soaking our spirits daily in Scripture to the point of fatigue and in daily secret wrestlings with the Almighty to the point of tears and crying that the soul is made strong. Even Christ himself was not exempted from the necessity of such regular experiences of anguish in his devotions (Hebrews 5:7-8). We recoil from the challenge which such a passage beckons us to enter. But all the great souls of our Reformed and Puritan tradition, and some in less privileged traditions too, have found the secret of the Lord as they learned to wait in his presence.
Where have the saints gone? There is no substitute for godliness. It is the best thing that can be said of any man when it can be said of him that he is 'a man of God'. Great spiritual movements begin when men take seriously the claims of truth upon themselves and their churches. Truth has a chemistry all of its own. It has a way of transforming the ordinary mind and the average tongue into instruments of awful power for God. It is not only the geniuses of history whom God has used to begin a revival. It has often been men of modest talent, yet men who had a surpassing personal knowledge of God, learned in the secret place and made molten with the holy desire to do something which would make the mountains tremble. Real holiness is not the pale and passive Mediaeval kind but that which kindles with a consuming passion in the regenerate soul and cries, in the face of our decadent and indifferent society, 'Let God arise! I shall give Thee no rest, O Lord, till thou come!' Such saints this world sorely needs. Perhaps more now than ever.