“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
“For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” 1 Peter 4:17
“I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.” Isaiah 42:8
This Lord’s Day, coming to worship will, for many, mean sitting in front of a digital screen. In many cases, it is at least the second week in which the ekklesia, the assembly of the saints, will be unassembled as the world continues to find itself under the grip of a global pandemic.
One report stated that one-third of the global population is under quarantine. The social impact of this health event is unparalleled in recent history, even if its mortality rate so far is substantially less than other rapidly spread diseases. But if its impact is historically pronounced in the world, it is perhaps more pronounced within the church of Christ.
The question for the believer is, naturally, what does it mean? While we should avoid biblically spurious rantings about the apocalyptic import of this plague, and though we must exercise the utmost humble caution in presuming to know God’s specific purpose in allowing this event to bring the world to its knees, if not to the grave, and the church to shutter its doors, the believer may, and must only, turn to God’s Word for insight.
Throughout the Old Testament, God used pestilences, or plagues – referenced some 100 times – in judgment on the world in general and on His chosen nation Israel in particular. When God’s judgment is levied against the unbelieving, “condemned already” (John 3:18) world, it is understandable to the believer. The Lord destroys the wicked (Psalm 94:3). Imprecatory Psalms even plead with the Lord for just this sort of divine judgment in protection of His chosen people (Psalm 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137, and 139). We realize with solemn gravity the eternal fate awaiting the unbeliever and, when God’s judgment on them comes, as it will, we are not unaware of its meaning.
Yet when judgment comes on His chosen people, it is not for the purpose of utter and eternal destruction. The Lord, rather, chastens His children. John MacArthur, commenting on 1 Peter 4:17, has written, “Divine judgment on believers is the decision God renders on their sin, which includes chastening and leads to cleansing of the household of God, but not eternal condemnation.” Paul affirms this for us:
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” Romans 8:1
“But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world” 1 Corinthians 11:32
When the Lord disciplines His own, there are at least two purposes Scripture reveals to us. The undergirding principle for all God does is His own glory (Isaiah 42:8). Everything He does is a display of His glory that demands the praise of His creation. Judgment is no less a display pointing to the manifest glory of His power, holiness, and righteousness.
But Scripture teaches another purpose for the Lord’s chastening of His people: to conform us to the image of His Son, which is the very purpose of His salvation of us (Romans 8:29). The author of Hebrews helpfully teaches us about the Lord’s chastening, or discipline:
“ … He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. 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 12:7-11
The desirable result of the Lord’s discipline is “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” in the lives of believers. It allows us to “share His holiness.” Peter adds the additional, “more precious than gold,” effect of God’s discipline: “that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). It is for this cause that James says “consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials …” (James 1:2-4).
While we may find it difficult to “rejoice always” (1 Thes. 5:16), especially in the midst of trials of discipline at the Lord’s hand, the very presence of His chastisement is evidence of the “so great a salvation” (Heb. 2:3) that has been graciously granted to us. The assurance we gain from such chastening is founded upon nothing less than the sovereignty of God. As Charles Spurgeon said, “There is no attribute of God more comforting to His saints than the doctrine of Divine Sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe troubles, they believe that Sovereignty hath ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all.”
But the divine effect of this global pandemic has not been isolated to the random believer dealing with matters of personal sin. It has impacted almost all believers. For at least the second consecutive week, the gathering of the saints, which Scripture clearly forbids us to forsake (Hebrews 10:25), has been forsaken. Yet this interruption of Lord’s Day worship was not unknown to God. As Spurgeon notes, we believe that even in this disassembling of ourselves together, “Sovereignty hath ordained … overrules … and will sanctify” it.
God chastises individual believers for sin in order to continue conforming them to Christlikeness, thus glorifying Himself. Yet what then must be considered when God has providentially brought a halt to the gathered worship of the church? Scripture compels individual believers to “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Cor. 13:5). So too must the church engage in self-examination.
What ecclesiastical sin or sins might have brought God’s judgment to His church? Consider what the visible church, which is to be the pillar and buttress of the truth, has done with the gospel. Consider what it puts forth as important for professing believers to be engaged in, and what it doesn’t. Consider what it has done with the very matter of worship.
Here are a few observations. Might these rightly prompt the sovereign chastisement of God?
The gospel, in many evangelical corners, has been reduced to a repeatable sinner’s prayer because the choice of your salvation is up to you, not to the sovereign God to whom it belongs (Psalm 3:8, Jonah 2:9, John 14:6). (Decisional regeneration is, by and large, the standard soteriology of the visible church. It is a theological novelty within evangelicalism. Before the early 19th century, the phrase “decisions for Christ” is absent from church history.)
Repentance, when it is even mentioned, has become reduced to an altar mumbled apology that is quickly forgotten, rather than the daily self-denial of a life devoted to following Christ (Luke 9:23) and the regular putting to death of sin (Rom. 8:13).
Assurance has become based on the utterance of a prayer inviting Jesus into one’s heart, and is bolstered by the memory of an aisle walked and a pastorally signed baptismal certificate, suitable for framing. The evidence and expectation of spiritual fruit has been abandoned. Go read the date on your framed certificate and be assured, you’re saved. You said the prayer, and, if you weren’t sincere enough, say it again. Now, please go back to your pew.
The gospel message has become distilled to the forgiveness of sins in order to go to heaven when you die. It’s become the heavenly mechanism for a better life now with the added bonus of a “he or she’s in a better place” eulogy at our funeral. Glaringly untaught is that forgiveness alone won’t get you into heaven; you must also be made righteous, or, as Jesus said, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Forgiveness is glorious, but sanctification is critical.
The gospel is less about the propositional truth of the atoning work of Christ on behalf of helpless sinners and His imputed righteousness to the redeemed, and more about being a tagline added alongside some ecclesiastically endorsed agenda. Anything worth doing (and some that decidedly aren’t) have become “gospel issues.” We’ve taken the gospel and turned it into a guilt-inducing means to motivate professing believers to achieve – almost always and only – some secular, rather than spiritually eternal, purpose.
Sharing the gospel has become telling someone about what Jesus has done in my life, not telling them about what He did in His life … and His death, and how I stand guilty and condemned before a holy God if I don’t repent and believe in His gospel.
The “good news” is any Scripture that makes me feel good, creating of God’s Word a point and click holy book of motivational maxims that may be randomly accessed to bolster emotions on days when I’m feeling vulnerable and needy. We don’t need “reproof or correction” from it for the gospel that saved us assures us, more or less, that God needs us, loves us, and accepts us “just as I am.” Thus God’s book is hardly needed for “training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). I just need to know how esteemed I am – as I am – in the eyes of God who oozes only love for me. Find me a verse for that.
The pursuit of holiness (synergistic sanctification) is almost invisible in the visible church and where it may show up is often merely a legalistic “check-mark” Christianity. Regularly going to church (and you define what's “regular”)qualifies quite enough for holiness, but mortifying sin? Rarely discussed.
Worship has become an “experience” designed to please the preferences of the crowd, not a reverent submission of the gathered, elect saints before God for the pleasing of God.
There are soup kitchens in the back of the church while the Bread Of Life goes unserved in the pulpit of the church.
There are clothes’ closets for the needy in the community but the pews of the church are filled with those who have no concept of their need to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
There are well-funded denominational lobbying efforts to defend religious liberty, while scores of pew occupants remain evident slaves of unrighteousness.
Church discipline, so largely abandoned in evangelicalism, might be reserved for the most egregious, and public, of sins – those like sexual abuse that might end up in a court room somewhere or splashed across the media – but preaching against sin is too indelicate for the contemporary church culture. Putting someone on a path of excommunication? Seriously. Who does that? Besides, everybody’s got a conscience. We can just let the Lord sort things out there. We’ll all be pure when we get to heaven anyway.
There are calls, resolutions, and statements for racial reconciliation while reconciliation with God is so easily affirmed to anyone who will sincerely ask Jesus into their heart … but just not to the point where their heart is actually, divinely, and expectedly transformed.
(Note: If you actually need to reconcile the “races” in your church, you can be sure that those in need of such reconciling have not themselves been reconciled to God. The genuine gospel genuinely transforms when God genuinely saves. You’re probably dealing with prayer-repeating unregenerate sinners, but not with the redeemed of God who have been indwelt by the transformative Spirit of love … Romans 5:5. And, if you are dealing with genuine believers exhibiting such sinful behavior, employ church discipline, as the Lord commands. )
There is vigorous lip service to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture by the same denominations, seminaries, pastors, and evangelical leaders who are eagerly embracing analytical tools born of atheistic ideologies and are promoted as perfectly complementary for use alongside Scripture. “Preach the Word” has become “Preach the Word … PLUS whatever else is popular and seems to work.”
There is a band on the stage orchestrated by a “worship leader” who leads not by Word-enriched hymnody, but most often by drumbeat, urging the audience by volume and repetition to offer self-pleasing, bouncing-ball sing-along praise all the while the broken and contrite heart which God will not reject (Ps. 51:17) goes without appeal.
There are more and more “churches” that embrace and endorse “gay Christianity,” because Romans 1 has been stripped of ecclesiastical consequence.
God’s patriarchal and complementarian order in human society and within the church, established since the days of Eden, has been willfully abandoned by many churches because “women have gifts too.” So women occupy pulpits, teach the church, write its most used curriculum, produce its bestselling books, and, with increasing applause, usurp the clear “I do not allow a woman to teach” instruction of Christ’s own apostle (1 Tim. 2:12).
Pastors are most likely to preach an ear-pleasing therapeutic message of God’s great esteem for your self-esteem, while the God who they think is just like them (Ps. 50:21) goes unknown in their presence, unsought in His Word, and ignored in their ambitions.
There are churches on Sunday morning that sound like the nightclub on Friday night, but there’s no sense of the Job-like insignificance of ourselves, laying our hands across our mouths (Job 40:4) because we’ve beheld something of the sovereign majesty of a thrice-holy God (Isaiah 6:3).
Worship is deemed successful when the aura is right, when the feelings are flowing, and the circumstance convenient, but falling on our face before God in repentant, reverent, and holy worship isn’t an evangelical thing.
While there is no golden Sinai calf at the center of our worship frolics, there is the ubiquitous idol of self in its place, and God’s apparently okay with that. “Turn to your neighbor and say ‘I am loved greatly’” but don’t turn to your Bibles to find out why or … even worse … that you just may not be.
There are video screens where snippets of Scripture flash before our uplifted eyes, while the breadth and depth of the Word of God goes unneeded and unheeded in the pews because its exegesis has been evacuated from the pulpit. Just give us enough to make us feel like it’s church.
When God through the prophet Malachi completed His divine message, He went silent and the Old Testament canon came to a close. For four hundred years of the intertestamental period, God’s people had a final word from God that was not unfettered love and encouragement from heaven. Though His words through Malachi reaffirmed His love for His chosen people, His faithfulness to His covenant, and His promise of a coming Messiah, God also severely rebuked His people. He rendered judgment on the priests and the people for their numerous transgressions against Him.
The MacArthur Bible Handbook gives an insightful and timely summary of God’s cause for chastening His priesthood and His people.
“Malachi indicted the priests and the people on at least six counts of willful sin: (1) repudiating God’s love (1:2-5); (2) refusing God His due honor (1:6-2:9); (3) rejecting God’s faithfulness (2:10-16); (4) redefining God’s righteousness (2:17-3:5); (5) robbing God’s riches (3:6-12); and (6) reviling God’s grace (3:13-15). There are three interludes in which Malachi rendered God’s judgment: (1) to the priests (2:1-9); (2) to the nation (3:1-6); and (3) to the remnant (3:16-4:6).”
For four hundred years the people of God had this indictment from God as His last word to them. John the Baptist, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, would arrive in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming an obviously necessary message of repentance for sin, preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. The Baptist preached a fiery message that continued God’s indictment from Malachi four hundred years earlier. God’s people had not heeded God’s warning.
When Jesus, the Messiah, arrives on the scene, He comes not with a soothing message of peace, calm, and unconditional divine love. Rather He comes continuing the indictment of the Lord in Malachi. He preaches a culturally uncomfortable message and proclaims plainly, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Thus it is no surprise when we see Jesus, in one of the first official acts of His ministry, cleansing the temple of God of those who had defiled it.
MacArthur writes about it in Twelve Ordinary Men:
“Jesus went to the temple mount, made a whip of small cords, drove the thieving money-changers out of the temple, poured out their money, overturned their tables, and chased their animals away (John 2:13-16). In doing that, He struck a devastating blow at institutionalized Judaism. He unmasked the religious nobility as thieves and hypocrites. He condemned their spiritual bankruptcy. He exposed their apostasy. He publicly rebuked their sin. He indicted them for gross corruption. He denounced their deception. That is how He began His ministry. It was an all-out assault on the religion of the Jewish establishment.”
For believers today, facing the God-orchestrated hiatus of holy, assembled worship, we cannot but ask if the Lord is again waging an “all-out assault on the religion” of the evangelical establishment. Has the visible church not also been largely spiritually bankrupt, seditious in secularism, and fixated on the temporal? Has there not been tolerable levels of religious apostasy? Has not doctrinal corruption, pulpit-proclaimed deception, and irreverent worship marked much of the contemporary evangelical church? We must examine ourselves, repent of the sin which so evidently, corporately, afflicts us, and submit ourselves to the obedience of the Word of God.
It has been five hundred years since the Lord reawakened His church through the Reformation. From that event He brought a refocus on the Word, a recovery of – and reemphasis on – the biblical gospel, and a reinstitution of Scriptural, sacred worship. Believers ought pray that these things be recovered in our day.
Salvation belongs to the Lord, but the faith does not belong to the pulpits. The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). In the midst of these times, we must determine, shall we repent and return, or shall we presume further on the grace and patience of our sovereign Lord? May He humble our hearts in obedience, and may He purge His church of those who falsely profess His name, but proudly profess no need of His mercy and exhibit no obeisance to His authority. Then may the redeemed of the Lord rejoice in His gracious, righteous, and purposeful judgment for He shall be glorified in all these things.
“Against You, You only, I have sinned,
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak,
And blameless when You judge.”
“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16