It is entirely possible for the church to look alive, but be dead. It may have all the appearance, sound, and praise of a living church. It may have outreach and programs. Yet, it may be dead, and that death may show in what it avoids, deemphasizes, or neglects—or especially when it starts chastising others who do not. In such a situation, the church needs to be called to repent of its apathy and misguided offense.
Preaching on Revelation 3:4, concerning a church that has a reputation for being alive, but is dead, Spurgeon began:
I do think [Dr. Gill] was correct when he declared that the church in Sardis was a most fitting emblem of the church in his days, as also in these. The good old doctor says, “When we shall find any period in which the church was more like the state of Sardis as described here, than it is now?” And he points out the different particulars in which the church of his day (and I am sure it is yet more true of the church at the present day) was exactly like the church in Sardis. I shall use the church in Sardis as a figure of what I conceive to be the sad condition of Christendom at the present moment. . . .
So he’s laid the general foundation for the need to call the church to repentance, and is clear he is applying the words of Revelation to the church of his own day. Now, the charges must come. The first defilement decried is a general hypocrisy:
The first charge of general defilement he brings against the church in Sardis was that they had a vast deal of open profession, and but little of sincere religion. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.”
That is the crying sin of the present age. I am not inclined to be morbid in my temperament, or to take a melancholy view of the church of God. I would wish at all times to exhibit a liberality of spirit, and to speak as well as I can of the church at large; but God forbid that any minister should shrink from declaring what he believes to be the truth.
While Spurgeon suggests his natural desire to be positive and get along may tempt him to avoid stepping across the line of brotherly decorum, the demand that a preacher tell the whole truth must win out. Thus,
In going up and down this land, I am obliged to come to this conclusion, that throughout the churches there are multitudes who have “a name to live, and are dead.” Religion has become fashionable. The shopkeeper could scarcely succeed in a respectable business if he were not united with a church. It is reckoned to be reputable and honorable to attend a place of worship; and hence men are made religious in shoals. And especially now that parliament itself doth in some measure sanction religion, we may expect that hypocrisy will abound yet more and more, and formality everywhere take the place of true religion. You can scarcely meet with a man who does not call himself a Christian, and yet it is equally hard to meet with one who is in the very marrow of his bones thoroughly sanctified to the good work of the kingdom of heaven. We meet with professors by hundreds; but me must expect still to meet with possessors by units. The whole nation appears to have been Christianized in an hour. But is this real? Is this sincere? Ah! we fear not.
In such a world of socially-acceptable, surface Christianity, you will find many professing Christians more skilled at polishing their Christian veneer and marketing their Christian brand-name, while at the same time practicing overt sins and insulating themselves from accountability. In the meantime, you’ll often see God using infidels to carry out the real work of the Kingdom because professing Christians, with good doctrine on their lips, kick against the goads. Spurgeon:
How is it that professors can live like other men? How is it that there is so little distinction between the church and the world? Or, that if there is any difference, you are frequently safer in dealing with an ungodly man than with one who is professedly righteous?
Yes, it is often a great shame when unbelievers, or the unorthodox, exhibit Christian ethics—and I would add, activism for issues Christians ought to be advancing—more faithfully than so many professing Christians. Why is it that the culture war for certain basic rights and truths was so much more righteously waged by rationalists like William Lloyd Garrison or quasi-marxists like Martin Luther King, Jr.? When, meanwhile, most of the Christians who had their doctrinal ducks in a row, perfect ecclesiology, sola scriptura and the whole Reformed bit, were the ones degrading and defiling blacks in the 1860s, and fighting for segregation in the 1960s?
Answer Spurgeon’s question: why was it frequently safer with the unorthodox, or even ungodly?
The problem was so widespread, keep in mind, Spurgeon was applying this call to repentance the churches generally:
Take our churches at large—there is no lack of names, but there is a lack of life. Else, how is it that our prayer-meetings are so badly attended? Where is the zeal or the energy shown by the apostles? Where is the Spirit of the living God? Is he not departed? Might not “Ichabod” be written on the walls of many a sanctuary? They have a name to live, but are dead. They have their piety? Where is sincere religion? Where is practical godliness? Where is firm, decisive, puritanical piety? Thank God, there are a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; but charity itself will not allow us to say that the church generally possesses the Spirit of God.
But then Spurgeon calls for something more than piety and doctrine alone. This something must have zeal and action for the kingdom:
Then the next charge was, that there was a want of zeal throughout the church of Sardis. He says, “Be watchful.” He looked on the church and saw the bishops slumbering, the elders slumbering, and the people slumbering; they were not, as once they were, watchful for the faith, striving together and earnestly contending for it, not wrestling against the enemy of souls, laboring to spread their Master’s kingdom, but the apostle saw sleepiness, coldness, lethargy; therefore he said, “Be watchful.”
But that’s not my church, right? Not my elders, right? Spurgeon seems to think there was an overabundance of such Christians:
Oh! John, if from thy grave thou couldst start up, and see the church as thou didst at Sardis, having thine eyes anointed by the Spirit, thou wouldst say it is even so now. Ah! we have abundance of cold, calculating Christians, multitudes of professors; but where are the zealous ones? where are the leaders of the children of God? where are your heroes who stand in the day of battle? where are your men who “count not their lives dear unto them,” that they might win Christ, and be found in him? where are those who have an impassioned love for souls? . . . We go into our chapels now, and we see everything in good taste: we hear the organ play; the psalmody is in keeping with the most correct ear; the gown and the noble vestments are there, and everything is grand and goodly, and we think that God is honored.
Yes, we need more than a nice worship service on Sundays! We need more. We need heroes in battles—which means, we need to get involved in “battles.”
He continues in this strain, then turns a corner. He doesn’t just want zeal, but excited zeal—the kind that draws disapproval from the mainstream:
Do I speak fierce things? . . . WE do believe that the church has lost her zeal and her energy. But what do men say of us? “Oh! you are too excited.” Good God! excited! when men are being damned; Excited! When we have the mission of heaven to preach to dying souls. EXCITED! preaching too much! when souls are lost. Why should it come to pass that one man should be perpetually laboring all the week, while others are lolling upon their couches, and preach only upon the Sabbath-day? Can I bear to see the laziness, the slothfulness, the indifference of ministers, and of churches, without speaking?
There are indeed too many lazy—too many indifferent—ministers. There are too many who, when they see another Christian engaged in excited action for the kingdom, will revile, insult, and chide: “settle down!” “You’ve lost it!” “Where’s the balance?” And if those excited kingdom men don’t immediately settle back into their assigned pews, you can rest assured the ruffled ministers will call them “disobedient.” They may even spread rumors that these energetic, faithful ones have “despised the authority of the church.”
What are we to do about this “indifference”? Spurgeon says, “protest” and preach church repent “now”:
No! there must be a protest entered, and we enter it now. Oh! Church of God, thou hast a name to live, and art dead; thou art not watchful. Awake! awake! arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
In this process of discerning the active, zealous church from the merely professing, ducks-in-a-row church, Spurgeon suggests (solidly) something that may make even lovers of Spurgeon uncomfortable: perhaps the most profitable and active work in the kingdom is actually being done by people we would consider (rightly or wrongly) the less orthodox among us—perhaps even those rejected, insulted, and despised by the theologically healthy, and, yes, by the ministers! Yes, he did:
Mark whether, if ye stand out prominently in the truth, you will not be abhorred and scouted. If you go into a village, and hear of poor people who are said to be doing a deal of mischief, are they not the people who understand most of the gospel? Go and ask the minister who are the persons that he most dislikes? and he will say, “We have a nasty lot of Antinomians here.” What does he mean by that? Men who love the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and will have it, and are therefore called a nasty set of Antinomians. Ah! we have lost what once we had.
Note clearly Spurgeon’s view: when local ministers despise the active zeal of effective Christian parachurch work, they not only condemn it in general, but will be moved to find specific theological objections by which to malign it—even if they are not necessarily true! You can rest assured such leaders will call the work of those nasty unorthodox nutters “mischief”—perhaps even “dangerous.”
Imagine Spurgeon’s point here! A local church pastor thinks a group of Christians is being too active or too focused or too “imbalanced”; instead of reasoning with them from Scripture (which may prove that he is the one wrong), he instead accuses them (perhaps falsely) of some doctrinal deficiency. This will be enough to demonize them in the minds of those who implicitly trust that minister. It will be enough for him to self-justify his inaction, opposition, stubbornness, apathy, jealousy, and/or lies. But note well: it is not the activists here who are in error, but the elder.
Believe it or not, merely stating this fact will be enough for some discernment warriors to conclude I am opposed to authority! But I am only following a principle praised by Spurgeon here: the courage of those who refuse to compromise and bow when we should not!
We do not now “strengthen the things that remain and are ready to die;” they are not looked after as they ought to be, not beloved, not fostered. The salt of the earth are now the offscouring of all things; men whom God has loved, and who have attained a high standing in godliness—these are the men who will not bow the knee to Baal, and who therefore are cast into the fiery furnace of persecution and slander.
Note: Spurgeon is not here speaking of literal furnaces, but of the fires of “persecution and slander.” Read that: slander. And remember the context: some of those involved in this persecution and slander are Christians and ministers.
Spurgeon was not done. His critique was not limited to the Church of England, the Presbyterians, or anyone else. It was Church Repent across the board:
But now I have lifted up the whip, I must have another lash. Look on any section of the church you like to mention, not excepting that to which I belong; and let me ask you whether they have not defiled their garments. Look at the church of England. Her articles are pure and right in most respects; yet see how her garments are defiled. She hath made the Queen her Head instead of God; she bows before the state, and worships the golden calf that is set up before her. . . . But good churchmen themselves weep, because what I say is true.
Then look at John Wesley’s body; have not they defiled their garments? See how they have lately been contending with a despotism as accursed as any that ever brooded over the slaves in America? See how they have been rent in sunder, and how imperfect in doctrine they are too after all, professedly at least, not holding the truth of God.
Look into what denomination you please, Independent, or Baptist, or any other—have they not all defiled their garments in some way or other? Look at the churches around, and see how they have defiled their garments by giving baptism to those who whom it was never intended, and degrading a holy church ordinance to become a mere sop with which they feed their babes. And see how they have taken away Christ’s honor, how they have taken the bread that was meant for the children, and cast it to ungodly persons.
Look at our own denomination: see how it has deserted the leading truths of the gospel. For a proof hereof, I refer you to hundreds of our pulpits. Oh church of God! I am but a voice crying in the wilderness, but I must cry still, “How art thou fallen from heaven, thou son of the morning! how art thou fallen!” “Remember how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent.”
“And repent.” “Repent.” “Repent!”
Spurgeon says, Church Repent. So do I. Spurgeon says, when you’re doing good, energetic, excited ministry, you should expected established leaders and moderates to disapprove, call you names, nitpick your theology, and spread rumors. So do I. Spurgeon says, repent, and be encouraged and provoked to what is good and right. So do I.
Now, let’s take odds on how long it takes the village discerners to tell us all that Spurgeon didn’t really mean what he said, or that it only applies to saving souls. Or, we could ignore them and get some more excited work done.
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