“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
Easter Sunday in the year of our Lord Two Thousand Twenty will be marked – solely we pray – as an historic, sadly memorable event in the history of the church. So early into the church’s third millennia, the assembly of the saints is, almost worldwide, disassembled. Most markedly, most lamentably, the saints will, in most congregations, not be congregated to worship the Lord on the day when His resurrection is particularly celebrated, on the day when His incarnate gospel work, confirmed by His final cross-uttered words “It is finished” (John 19:30), was capped by the angelic words “He is risen” (Matt. 28:6).
Superficially, the church is not gathered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not gathered, in some places, by its submission, per Romans 13, to the request of civil authorities hoping to limit the spread of the virus. In others it is not gathered by the outright mandate of the government under whose legal jurisdiction the local congregation falls. But from whatever motivation, in many places, the church founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, the church against which the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18), will not be gathered to worship on Easter Sunday.
So this Easter the church is not gathered. However, it is not primarily those obvious and evident reasons that have prompted the church’s hiatus from assembled worship. It is not the gates of hell that have prevailed against the church. Rather, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not assembled on this Easter Sunday to celebrate His resurrection because the Lord Jesus Christ, the only One who can – and does – prevail over His church, has done so. The Lord Himself has shuttered His church, and this ought bring us humbly to our knees.
The Lord has brought chastening, chastisement, discipline upon His church. This pandemic, though it has a different divine purpose on the unbelieving world, demands from the church a biblically informed and humbly faithful response. If on the world this event brings divine judgment, if there it points to the futility of prideful man exalting himself as though there were no God, to the church its purpose is much different.
As Don Green, pastor of Truth Community Church recently preached in his message “When God Stops The Church” (Please listen to his sermon HERE or HERE), if believers are viewing this pandemic circumstance in the same way the world is viewing it, then “We are considering it too superficially. We are considering it too lightly. We are not taking into account the fact that our heavenly Father, our holy God, has sent this to us with a purpose.”
When we consider the divine purpose for the world, this pandemic may have two intended effects. In the first, the Lord is righteously judging the wicked. Though His judgment of condemnation is not random and intermittent on those who do not believe, for astute believers may see His Romans 1 hand of judgment regularly, if not increasingly in our recent times, the pestilence that God has now brought is no different from those He wrought throughout the annals of scriptural history. He brings such things for judgment on sinners because of their sin.
The other effect for some in the world at large will be the glorious lavishing of His grace upon sinners whom He has sovereignly chosen to save. This world-stopping moment has forced many to face mortality, to realize their hopelessness in the face of an uncertain eternity. Without hope and God in this world (Eph. 2:12), many, we pray, will have a “but God” (Eph. 2:4) moment when the Lord will intervene with the grace of His saving gospel, and rescue souls from the kingdom of darkness and into His marvelous kingdom of light (Col. 1:13). In this, the saints will rejoice and be further motivated to faithfully proclaim His gospel to the fearful and hopeless.
But for the genuinely redeemed, for the church of Jesus Christ, this divine event is not for the purpose for eternal condemnation. It does not jeopardize our salvation, for no one can take us out of our Savior’s hand (John 10:28). Though, as Don Green states, “It’s always impossible to read the fullness of God’s motives in His providence,” we can clearly and biblically discern that “there is an element of chastening to a time like this” for the church.
Asking the question, “Why has God stopped the church?” pastor Green directs us to Hebrews for clarifying biblical guidance:
3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Hebrews 12:3-11
Green reminds believers of a critical truth from this text. “In salvation God adopted us into His family and now treats us like sons, and that means that our heavenly Father exercises towards us a disciplining and chastening hand in order that we might go in the direction that He wants us to go. He does this because He loves us.”
The Hebrews text points us to consider Christ in the midst of our afflictions. Though He was without sin, so that the suffering He endured was not prompted by a need for discipline, the example of our Lord is encouragement for us. But, as Green says, “For us with the remnants of our carnal flesh, with the remaining wicked inclinations of our heart and the sinful habits and patterns that we develop,” there is an unarguable need that we have for the Father’s discipline, for His loving chastening. The Lord disciplines us through afflictions and suffering. “We need to humble ourselves,” says Green, “enough to realize, ’Yes, do you know what? There are things in my life that need to be corrected’.”
So then, Green asks, “why has God stopped the church? Why would He do that?” He proceeds to candidly point out several observations of the contemporary church that should rightly demand the chastening of the Lord.
First consider the contemporary church’s teaching. Because evangelicalism seems to be so enamored with, and influenced by, “the so-called mega-churches,” it is proper to consider them in the context of the teaching they promulgate. As the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), do the most visible and influential churches in our evangelical midst stand uncompromisingly for biblical truth? The pithy answer is: they do not.
“What’s the nature of the teaching that comes from their pulpit?” asks Green. It’s not “the faith once delivered,” but rather something quite contrary. “They teach the idea that God wants you to be happy and God exists to make life go well for you.” In other words, they teach moralistic therapeutic deism. You are the center of the faith, Christ is the genie in the sky who’s begging to be your BFF so that He can make all your dreams come true. This aberrant theology may sound biblical and might be sufficient enough to quench the “check mark” Sunday Christian, but it is not salvific and it is not biblical Christianity.
Indeed, given the current world pandemic, moralistic therapeutic deism falls flat on its face. While it promotes a Christianity in which “God wants you to have a happy life and He is there to fix all of your problems,” as Green bluntly points out, “God isn’t fixing this problem right now.” He rightly notes that “we are in the midst of a severity of situation that undermines the very premise of their teaching … it’s contradicted by the affliction that God has sent into the world right now.” The popular mega-church theology that so prominently touts your happiness as God’s motive for waking up every morning has just been divinely thwarted by global unhappiness produced by pandemic fear. It’s biblically false teaching, and it's worthy of judgment.
Green then points to the prosperity gospel that has been an ear-tickling plague on and in the modern church. “The prosperity gospel sure seems awfully empty right now, doesn’t it, as men are dying and as the economy collapses.” Though there is never a good time for bad theology, and regardless of how winsome your smile is, now is surely not the time to sign up for classes at Joel Osteen’s “Your Best Life Now” seminary. God has emphatically made the point that your temporal health and your worldly wealth is not remotely what He’s interested in.
Another dangerous development that has increasingly moved from the fringes of theological aberrancy and into the mainstream of evangelicalism is the charismatic movement. Green asks the constantly appropriate question of this unbiblical movement, “Why is it, why is it that their faith healers aren’t flying on their private jets to New York City and other hotspots of the coronavirus and waving their hands and making this virus fall over like they do their manipulated crowds during their great services?” The pastor answers his own question with the response biblically informed believers understand: “They are not doing that because they cannot do that.”
Green next suggests that we “look at denominational conventions.” He says, “Let’s look at men who form coalitions to work together for the Gospel. What can we say about that? Well, many of them are promoting or at the very least permitting the dead-end of the social justice gospel and critical race theory teaching that is wreaking havoc and being so destructive on the body of Christ.”
Pastor Green is acutely accurate in his assessment of why our Lord has cause to bring chastening on the church. In the categories he has highlighted, two features are common. While a viral plague divinely assaults the world, the church has been victimized at the hands of men bringing on it a plague of worldliness borne of ecclesiastical Word-lessness. For decades now the visible church has exhibited an insatiable lust for cultural relevance. That pursuit has been temporally successful, filling the church with countless scores of worldlings who will happily repeat a prayer but have been told nothing about, and want nothing of, sharing in His holiness (Heb. 12:10).
In his richly helpful book, When God’s Children Suffer, 19th-century pastor Horatius Bonar laments the worldliness of the church in his day. With the passing of time, given the evangelical antics for relevance that have become the ecclesiastic status-quo in our day, this glaring lack of holiness is even more pronounced.
“There is much worldliness among the saints. There is worldliness in their motives and actions, worldliness in their domestic life and in their intercourse with society, there is worldliness in the arrangements of their households and in the education of their families; there is worldliness in their expenditure, so much being laid out for self, so little for God; there is worldliness in their religious schemes, and movements, and societies; there is worldliness in their reading and in their conversation; there is, in short, too much of the spirit of earnest worldliness about their whole deportment, and little of calm, happy superiority to the things of earth. They are fretted, disturbed, bustled just like the world. They grudge labor, or fatigue or expense, or annoyance in the cause of Christ, or in serving their fellow-men. They have much of earth, little of heaven about them. They are not large-hearted, open-handed—willing to spend and be spent, unmoved and unruffled, as those whose eye is ever set on the incorruptible inheritance on which they so soon shall enter. They are low and unaspiring in the things of God.”
The seeker-sensitive, social justice, evangelical quest for relevance via prayer-repeating professors of faith, themselves unconvicted by the Word, but emotionally motivated to quench their inner legalist, has been produced because the church at large has largely abandoned the fundamental command of the Lord’s apostle, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim.4:2) Instead, the visible church has brought itself under judgment by fulfilling something else about which that apostle warned: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Evangelicalism today is rich with accumulated ear-tickling teachers adept at teasing goats, and in desperate need of “Preach the Word” shepherds feeding sound doctrine to sheep.
“God has sent discipline to His people,” proclaims Green. And there are multiple reasons such discipline is warranted, as he has correctly noted. The real question isn’t “why has God stopped the church,” but rather, “why didn’t He do it sooner?” Green posits, “Why didn’t He intervene sooner to slow down the momentum of all these things that are anti-biblical and destructive to His people and such an awful testimony to the world around us in denying the glory of Christ? Why didn’t He do it before now?”
We cannot know or answer for God’s timing in such chastisement on His church. But we can be certain that His discipline is now here. The Lord of the church has shut down the assembled worship of His church, and on Easter Sunday no less. But believers can be certain of this, “whom the Lord loves He disciplines” (Heb. 12:6). That discipline has a divine and glorious result: “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:10). And that discipline, we are promised, “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11).
What, then, is the believer’s response to these pandemic times? As Green says, “there is no place for panic in this.” We must “see this affliction in light” of what the text of Hebrews teaches. We must recognize that the Lord reproves individually and collectively and that our humble response must be to not “regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (Heb. 12:5). As Paul has urged, we must examine ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5) and be diligent to mortify the sin of the flesh (Rom. 8:13). “You and I should mourn our lack of holiness,” says Green, “and humbly repent.” God “is calling us, He is disciplining us to repent of the sin in our lives and in our own congregation.”
For most believers this Easter Sunday, gathered worship won’t be possible, but personal worship will be. Indeed, we desire to “bless the Lord at all times” with “His praise …continually in my mouth” (Ps. 34:1). During this unusual time, may we worship by rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks to God in everything (1 Thes. 5:16-18). Most importantly, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us” (Heb. 12:1). When, in the good and gracious timing of the Lord, these pandemic times end, may we then be zealous ministers of the faith once delivered, eager to proclaim His truth to a world that will still sorely need it. May we be found faithful, ready to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Luke 9:23) … for He IS risen. He is risen indeed.