Biblical history seems to me to indicate that the full impact of the redemptive force of the Gospel comes only once to a nation or people. The Old Testament is itself a witness to this. From King David to the final prophets Israel slides into succeeding generations of apathy until the judgment of God is fully felt, Jerusalem falls, the temple is destroyed and the majority of people are carried away in waves of forced exile.
A trip to Europe today bears witness too to the same conclusion. The Church in Protestant Europe for all intents does not exist. England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, Holland, The Netherlands, and so on, all felt at one point the full impact of the Gospel. Thousands of people became true followers of Jesus. Churches were planted in every village and neighborhood of every city. Social institutions were begun, and even laws were transformed by the tenacious actions of people of the redemptive community, the Church. Catholic Europe has not been immune from the same reality. Nations recorded in history as being fully under the sway of the Catholic Church, today are as nominal and pagan as any of the nations to which they sent missionaries in centuries past.
This is one way to take the words of Paul in Romans 11, and especially verse 22, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”
The Geneva Study Bible says of this passage, “Many are now for a season cut off, that is, are without the root, who in their time will be grafted in: and again there are a great number who after a certain manner, and with regard to the outward show seem to be engrafted, who nonetheless through their own fault afterwards are cut off, and completely cast away: which thing is especially to be considered in nations and peoples, as in the Gentiles and Jews.
The People’s New Testament says, “Gentile believers will be cut off unless they ‘continue in the goodness of God,’ so the Jews, if they abandon their unbelief, shall again be grafted in. They are not cut off by a decree of God casting them away, but by their own unbelief. 24. For if thou, etc. This argument is to the Gentile. If wild branches were grafted into the good olive tree, the Gentiles grafted into the spiritual stock of Abraham, how much more likely is it that the natural branches, the Jews, shall be grafted again into their own olive tree, the seed of Abraham to which they belong by nature.”
How long the full impact of the Gospel lasts (decades or even centuries) in a people or place depends upon how well each succeeding generation is nurtured in the fundamentals of God’s creative purposes for human creation. In Deuteronomy, God reminds Israel just how important this passing on is: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, "Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children." (4:9-10)
Israel is a witness that it only takes one generation of people disobedient to God’s revelation, and the slide is not just slight, but proportional. Once the intensity of the fundamentals is reduced the number of people truly in the redemptive community declines. As the number of people truly in the redemptive community declines the restraining and purifying effect of the redemptive community on that people or place correspondingly decreases, and the wrath of God sits on them. As Paul says in Romans 1:18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”
The results of this wrath are not so much because eternal judgment has set in, but because when a people reject the primary call of God of obedience to the revelation of Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ, they have chosen wrath rather than God. As Jesus Himself says in John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.”
Or, as John the Baptist put it: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36)
The full effects of a society in the grip of spiraling disobedience come upon the people and their way of life. Wickedness increases and will not cease except by the final collapse of the culture or the return of Jesus.
In the face of this, what then is the role of the Church in such a reality? In fact, the role of the Church does not change. As the redemptive community they are to live and declare the message of reconciliation to God in His Son, Jesus Christ. For we never know if God Himself in His sovereignty over this world and all that it is in it, might not break the evident pattern of Biblical and human history of unrestrained decline when once the full impact of the Gospel as felt in the lives of the redemptive community is rejected by succeeding generations. In such a case, a time of broad repentance in a wavering generation will at least have the effect of restraining for a time the full force that comes over a people or place when once a significant number of people in it have rejected obedience to God’s invitation back to Himself in His Son, Jesus.
I am pondering whether America has crossed the line of disobedience to God’s invitation. We see in this day, a rapid increase of people who say that they are a part of God’s redemptive community, but are living incomplete to their verbal confession, and producing succeeding generations who show no signs of having been nurtured in God’s purposes for His human creation. If this is true then the full impacts of a people unrestrained in sin, and under the wrath of God will increase. And, such does indeed appear to be the growing reality in the American culture. Any and every disobedience of which mankind is capable is already abundantly evident and increasing.
But, as one still committed to seeing the redemptive community carry out its creative design, what am I to suggest. The context does not change the role of the redemptive community found today in and through the Church, it only intensifies its importance and demands concerted effort. The importance of the effort is abundantly clear from Scripture. As the redemptive community four very important effects remain, inspite of growing lawlessness in the culture.
One, there are still individuals in the people or place that God will woo to Himself through the life and witness of the people of the redemptive community. Their numbers will decrease, but they will still be found. Second, the restraining impact of the salt and light nature of the people of God will keep the culture from falling into total and complete lawlessness, or at least slow its demise. Third, God will continue to build His eternal testimony against that people and place for their disregard of the witness of Himself, and His offering of reconciliation that He has given in His Son, and through His people. Fourth, the true redemptive community is God’s sign for any and all to see so that they will not be carried into nominalizing Christian bodies masquerading as true people of Christ.
This moment in time demands a greater effort of those who truly are in the redemptive community. One, the effectual nurturing of their own extended biological family demands a greater effort in such surroundings. It is of greater importance if they are to see their personal next generations nurtured in the creative purposes of God for His creation. It will take more time and effort than a more cooperative culture would have afforded. It will take more purposeful protection of them against the seducing culture around them, and yet, doing so without cutting them off from their full participation in the redemptive ministry of the people of Christ in the world. It will take purposeful rejection of the values in the world around us, and our participation in them.
For example, we need to reject notions in the hoarding mentality that surrounds us. We need to give away more of all that we possess. In order to do so, we need to reject the bigger house, the better car, the better paying job, the better vacation. We may need to clear our houses and lives of the ready made access to any and every thought, commodity, novelty that invades it and us through the proliferating media means. There are ways to stay abreast of the most important facts that take place in our history without succumbing to the seducing DNA attached to so much of what we touch in what appears to be “neutral” technology.
Two, the constant vigilance of our own hearts demands a greater effort. Correct understandings of why God has revealed Himself and the ways that He has given to us to relate to Him, are imperative. If it ever was a luxury that in past generations Christ’s people could count on the Christian culture around them to carry them in relationship to God, that day is long gone. We will need to dedicate ourselves more fully to learning to listen to God through His word for ourselves, and not just allowing teachers and worship experiences to carry our intimacy with God.
In the midst of the busy life in which most live, we will be called on more than ever to learn the disciplines that nurture our priesthood as believers. When so many among us find themselves with few hours each month among other Christians, and, when so many among us are continuously surrounded by people with no God consciousness, and, when so many among us live in unchecked connection to the culture around us, then, the importance of each learning to practice the disciples of relationship with God on their own is not just luxury, it is survival!
We need to learn to: 1. Read Scripture more often, 2. Listen to God in what we read by greater meditation and reflection on what is said, and what it means for each new day. 3. Chose local churches that teach us how to live in communion with God, and not just participate in their program or listen to their leaders talk and sing about relationship to God. We can no longer afford to allow others to substitute anything for what we, every one of us, must learn to practice. 4. Invite God to invade our consciousness more often throughout the day. 5. Seek occasional but regular retreats when we can once again allow the Spirit of God to reset our spiritual compass.
Richard Foster says of this listening to God: “What does lectio divina mean? Well, it means listening to the text of Scripture— really listening; listening yielded and still. It means submitting to the text of Scripture; allowing its message to flow into us rather than our attempting to master it. It means reflecting on the text of Scripture; permitting ourselves to become fully engaged—both mind and heart—by the drama of the passage. It means praying the text of Scripture; letting the biblical reality of this with-God life give rise to our heart cry of gratitude or confession or complaint or petition. It means applying the text of Scripture; seeing how God’s Holy Word provides a personal word for our life circumstances. And, it means obeying the text of Scripture; turning, always turning, from our wicked way and into the way everlasting (Ps 139:23-24).”
In reference to the importance of people learning to listen to God, Andrew Murray in The Lord’s Table, says: “I am convinced that one chief cause why some do not grow more in grace is that they do not take time to hold converse with the Lord in secret. Spiritual, divine truth does not thus become our possession at once. Although I understand what I read, although I consent heartily to it, although I receive it, it may speedily fade away and be forgotten, unless by private meditation I give it time to become fixed and rooted in me, to become united and identified with me. Christians, give yourselves, give your Lord time to transfer His heavenly thoughts to your inner, spiritual life. When you have read a portion, set yourselves in silence before God.”
Third, meaningful investment in the Kingdom of God is of greater importance. It is more important for two reasons. Our society has convinced us of the “things” that make life meaningful and many among us have bought the argument. We have been seduced into at least three lies.
One that whatever it is that our culture is selling will make us happy. The bigger house, the better school for our children, the job in the marketplace for mothers, and so much more must be sought and possessed if we are truly to be happy. And, yet, if these things make so many people happy, why are we surrounded by so many broken marriages, emotionally wounded, etc..
Two, whatever it is that will make us happier, we deserve. It is amazing how such a relatively small number of people in the West have come to a point in history that everything that they can think, everything that they can possess, they deserve. It is a seductive argument for example that you work, or you vote, or you have saved, therefore you deserve it, whatever it is. It makes us a demanding, self-serving people.
Three, whatever it is that we sought after, possess, deserve, etc. is built to last. This nonsense exists in spite of the evident proof all around us that nothing is built to last. The cars begin to deteriorate from day one. The house needs constant repair. Everything we touch is disappearing.
All three lies are in desperate need of being exposed for the lies that they are. We will need to be much more vigilant to guard ourselves from being seduced, unawares, into the lies! Even more importantly, we will need to be diligent in training and protecting our children from being seduced by the glut of media instruments marketing non-stop the lies. And yet, we will need to do this without defrauding the world of the incarnational impact of the redemptive community constantly moving in their midst.
Maybe the greatest sadness of these lies and any sway that they hold over the people of God is that pursuit of these things deprives the Kingdom of God of the wholehearted investment needed to fulfill the purposes of God for this world.
And so, fourth, meaningful investment in the needs of the Kingdom of God is of greater importance because we are slowly deprived of growing a conviction of eternity and its more important investments. Will I be happy? Will I be fulfilled? Will I be used? The center of our questioning has become “I”. Go just about anywhere in Scripture and you find words similar to the writer of Hebrews as he describes those of faith of past generations. He says of their faith and faith acts, that by these they were demonstrating that the home they were looking for they had not found. For if they had wanted a home in this world, they could have returned. But, they kept seeking that place promised to them, and us by God our Father.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:13-16
I suspect that the full impact of the Gospel comes only once to a people or place. Whether we in America are sliding into this reality, we are suspiciously close. In this day, those who truly are in the redemptive community need to: 1. Reflect on their heart and life. 2. Take corrective action. 3. Build disciplines of relationship to God through His Word. 4. Protect the unprotected in their midst. 5. Teach them to listen to God and discern Him and His ways for themselves. 6. Aggressively restructure their expectations and investments in light of eternity, not time.