It would appear that one of the many ways in which God punishes the sins of men and nations is to give them over at times to widespread perplexity and confusion. Life in a perfect world would be ideally simple. We should all instinctively seek first the glory of God and he would unfailingly supply our every need. Supply would always providentially balance demand. Men would never know want. As they delighted themselves in God as their highest and only good, so he would manage their private and social affairs for them, anticipating their requirements and tailoring all circumstances to their comfort, convenience and capacities. As a wise and kind parent foresees the needs of his children in their nursery and arranges everything for their safe and profitable enjoyment, so God would dispose all events (if we were still in our first paradise) so that nothing would terrify or confuse us. That the world we live in is not so now, is a reflection, not on the power, wisdom or goodness of God, but on our deeply sinful state.
Sin made all things complicated upon earth. Every human enterprise is now beset with labour, sweat and tears. We are not to be surprised by that. Our Maker foretold us that it would be so when he informed Adam that from the first hour of man’s Fall all his labour would henceforth be with ‘the sweat of his face’ (Gen. 3:19). The testimony of history is that God’s words have most assuredly come to pass. Look where we may on earth ‘all things are full of labour; man cannot utter it’ (Eccles. 1:8). There is a crook in every lot, a twist in every path, a thorn under every rose. Foolish man calls it the cursed spite of Fate. The Apostle calls it by the name of Vanity, that frustration appointed by God for the whole world in its present state under the discipline of God’s judgement upon sin (Rom. 8:20).
But God’s judgements intensify when sinners grow worse. Men are perversely blind when they refuse to pause in the course of their frenzied lives to observe the perfection of God’s judgements in this world. The judgements of providence are not as complete as they are going to be on the Last Day. But they are not entirely mysterious or inscrutable either. They are proportioned, more or less, to the conduct of men in this life. The more sinful society becomes, the heavier God’s judgements become. This at any rate is the general tendency of God’s dealing with us in society. The many exceptions to the rule are to remind us all that an ultimate judgement on men’s sins awaits them at another time and in another place.
It should not surprise us to hear that God proportions his blessings and curses to men and nations according to their conduct (generally speaking), even in this life. The more wicked a society becomes, the more it provokes God and fetches down his wrath upon itself. For the Almighty is not an idle spectator of mankind’s behaviour but is daily on the watch, taking constant notice of the way public policies and private attitudes are altering for the worse, or for the better. We should not suppose therefore that he has reserved all his punishment for the last great judgement. Even in the course of mankind’s history, he takes out his weapons to punish men’s sins. Sometimes he removes from his quiver a sheaf of arrows with which to wound men and nations, and at other times he lays aside his bow and gives a respite to sinners when they relent and plead for mercy.
If perplexity and confusion are, as we think, judgements of God on sinful nations, we need to confess that God’s hand is manifestly ‘stretched out’ (Isa. 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4) upon us at this hour. For confusion and perplexity are everywhere to be seen — from the throne to the poor-house and from the prince to the prelate. In just about every sphere of life there is a widespread uncertainty and agony of distress. Our jobs and our currencies are about as unsteady as our morals. Those who lead us appear frequently to be without any sense of vision. Too often they are found wanting in their private lives. Our modern world has become sophisticated and clever. But the problem is that God is cleverer still and he frustrates us at every stroke by turning our unblessed efforts to vanity and futility. Concerning very few of our modern societies would it be true to say: ‘Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the Lord is his treasure’ (Isa. 33:6). God has set his face against us and thrown over us the mantle of confusion.
Those who take the Bible seriously are in no doubt as to how and why this modern confusion has become so widespread. Men are attempting to live without any understanding of the principles of righteousness. Society is stampeding towards greater and greater misery and damage because it will not stop to listen to the voice of God speaking in Scripture and in providence. When each new crack appears in the wall, instead of examining the fault to its foundation, men are content simply to ‘daub it with untempered mortar’ (Ezek. 13:10).
What ought to be happening to us as a society when so many problems are enveloping us is to question the prevailing philosophy of life as a whole. But that is, sadly, the last course of action which men welcome. The pretence is kept up on every side that our troubles have nothing to do with our sins. Prosperity is always ‘just around the corner’. Tomorrow, or the next day, our national debts will be paid off, jobs will be here for all and peace and plenty will be on hand for every citizen. But this hollow optimism is itself nothing more than a symptom of our tragic confusion. Massive questions call for an answer but are presently meeting only a deafening silence: What new factor in tomorrow’s world is going to make our vast populations industrious, law-loving, neighbourly, upright, wise and moral? What new influences deriving from our prevailing philosophy of Atheism are capable of making the society of tomorrow any happier or better than the society of today?
The frank and honest answer — for those who are prepared to hear it — is that there is none. Society is spiralling ever further downwards because of the bankruptcy of its moral and religious outlook. Men need to have the mists of spiritual ignorance dispelled from their minds by a new vision of the world, as God has given it to us in his Word. Nothing novel is needed to lift our modern civilisation out of its moral quagmire. No new formulas are required to put the ship of state back on a safe and prosperous course. What is needed is to return to an understanding of those ancient truths of revelation which our forefathers cherished in their day but which have been sinfully neglected and ridiculed for so long.
The need of the hour, to put matters plainly, is for society to be renewed and reformed from the pulpit outward. Let all who enter pulpits see it as their unique calling to labour in Christ’s name to lift society up by giving it large doses of biblical teaching. When fogs and mists overspread the face of society the only power that will dispel them is the genial sunshine of pure evangelical preaching. Let us be convinced of that more than ever in the light of the evident failure of political humanism or social science to heal the troubles of mankind. What the modern man needs to hear is the old curriculum of religious truths which used popularly to be referred to as the ‘three Rs’: ruin by the Fall; redemption by the blood of Christ; and regeneration by the Spirit of God. If the reader feels a momentary disappointment that we have nothing else to offer as a remedy for present ills in the world, let him ponder the historic and undeniable fact that this is the apostolic message which God has blessed times without number in the past to ‘turn the world upside down’. Nothing else is the ‘power of God unto salvation’ (Rom. 1:16). If society today is to be raised again from its acknowledged depravity and confusion, it must be done in the same way as in the past. God will bless what he has given to man as the gospel, and he will bless nothing else.
But it is at this point that the churches of Christ are generally failing today. Preachers are themselves confused. The true message is not sounding forth from even one pulpit in twenty. The generality of preachers do not tell their people of their sinful and lost state. The wrath of God is not pronounced against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Jesus Christ is not being held forth as the only Saviour of hell-deserving sinners. And the New Birth is not being preached as indispensably necessary to men. Those preachers who do proclaim these old truths are few and precious. Even once evangelical pulpits are sliding into the sleepy confusion and apathy which has come to be the prevailing norm. Preaching has given way to something akin to entertainment. The trumpet has been muted. Heaven and hell are not felt realities in the consciences of most preachers. We are all in danger of becoming so polite that the sinners who come to listen to us will never hear one awakening sermon till they die in their blood.
The sight of a perishing and miserable world must be a stimulus to all who go to church to seek a fresh baptism of spiritual enlightenment and power to come upon the preachers of our modern world. This is no age for the fooleries of ecclesiastical pantomime or charade. We cannot afford the dubious luxuries of religious plays produced in the name of evangelicalism. Even the exercise of speaking in angelic tongues may have to wait till another world arrives. Our business today is clear enough — to preach righteousness and to confront men’s consciences and their reason with the claims of God and truth. In short, we need to get to as many ears as possible the plain message that they are called on to ‘flee from the wrath to come’ (Luke 3:7). Other matters are secondary to that and need to be looked at as secondary. To put smaller things at the top of our agenda is to fiddle while Rome is burning.
As Christians, we will not be able to see above the general confusion if we live only at the level of the world around us. The prophet must climb the high mountain and dwell in a watch-tower. The smoke of modern permissiveness and ungodly entertainment can only blind us unless we shun it and discipline ourselves to live apart and only for God. The call of the hour is to live near to Christ and to get ever closer to him till we have that power with God which will prevail and which will call down the fire of fresh authority on this generation of preachers.
God has darkened our age very extensively with judicial blindness at every level of society. The mists of confusion thicken visibly. But our glorious confidence is that the same God is well able to remove the veil of obscurity which covers the eyes of the multitudes. This he always does, when he does it to mankind, only by one means: by the old gospel preached faithfully and ‘with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven’ (1 Pet. 1:12).
Let us labour steadfastly to have this judgement on society removed to the eternal glory of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This article was first published in the December 1992 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine, and remains pertinent to our day.