The Church and the World
By Ian Hamilton, Editor, The Banner of Truth
Reprinted from: The Banner of Truth
The opening words of E. M. Bounds’ classic work Power Through Prayer are memorable:
We are constantly on a stretch, if not a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than anything else. Men are God’s method.
Bounds’ little book (it is barely fifty pages long) is a stinging corrective to the church in every age. Although it was written in the late nineteenth century, it could have been written yesterday. Bounds was no antiquarian. Like all of us he was a man of his time, but he understood that God’s truth is trans-generational. His language at times may be deemed ‘old fashioned’, but his understanding of the church and its calling to bear witness to the gospel of God has the authentic ring of biblical relevance.
It is a truism that times change and that we change with the times. It is, or should also be, a truism that Christians are called to live out their faith in the here and now, not looking back to days gone by. There is, however, a danger in living in the here and now: the danger of becoming disconnected from the past. When modernity ceases to learn from history, it becomes a prey to every new fad and fashion (C. S. Lewis wittily said, ‘Fads and fashions come and go, but they mainly go’).
The desire of Christians to engage with the world as it is and not as it was is commendable and right. But the right desire for relevance in the church can blind the church to the true nature of relevance.
In the first place, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is natively relevant.
It does not need to be made relevant, it is relevant. I don’t mean we are not to think very carefully about how we preach the gospel or witness to Christ. We must address the people in front of us, people who live in a world where society is being compelled not simply to tolerate ‘diversity’, but to affirm it and celebrate it. Young people in particular are growing up in a world where sexual perversion is the norm not the exception. We cannot and must not ignore that. However, the gospel is, natively by virtue of what it is, ‘the power of God for salvation’,
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, we are given a snapshot of the composition of the church in Corinth:
do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by the Spirit of our God.
How did people like that come to be washed and sanctified and justified before God? Earlier in 2:1-5 Paul explained how it happened:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
How did Paul go about making the gospel relevant to this imperial, emperor-worshipping, notoriously sexually permissive city? He preached Jesus Christ crucified ‘in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’.
This takes us back to E. M. Bounds. The church has many pressing needs today, but one stands out. Like the apostles in the early church, we must give ourselves ‘to prayer and to the ministry of the word‘ ( Acts 6:4 ). The order of the words may or may not be significant, but they do highlight the apostolic conviction that the ministry of the word without being saturated in prayer is futile. Futile? God is sovereign and can accomplish his saving and sanctifying purposes as it pleases him. But ordinarily God has tied our prayerful dependence on him to his blessings.
Some years ago a church contacted me, asking if I would be willing to be a candidate for the position of senior pastor. I was sent a bundle of papers informing me about the church and its many, many activities. It was a conservative, Bible-believing, Reformed church. It was a church with a multitude of outreach activities; it even had an ‘evangelistic Valentine’s Day dinner’. The one thing this church did not have was a corporate gathering for prayer.
The early church we are told ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ ( Acts 2:42 ). The verb Luke uses is the strongest he could have chosen. Commitment to ‘the prayers’ was not an option for them to consider, it was a necessity they committed themselves to. Prayer was fundamental, not supplemental; it was central, not peripheral. Is the neglect of corporate prayer the reason why the church today is so lacking in power? Amidst all the other activities professedly biblical churches commit themselves to, why is corporate prayer at best marginalized and at worst simply neglected?
in my early years as a Christian, I was encouraged to have three ‘non-negotiables’ in my life: (i) morning and (ii) evening worship on the Lords’ Day, and (iii) the church’s midweek gathering for prayer. When a church gathers to pray is of little consequence. What is of great consequence is that a church does gather to pray.
Is the rapid demise of the church prayer meeting simply a sign that we live in different times from our Reformed forebears? Or is the demise a sign that the church is spiritually, and theologically, removed from that of our Reformed forebears? Corporate prayer is the church acknowledging that without God we can do nothing; it is a corporate confession of heartfelt dependence on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. May our churches devote themselves, like those in the early church, to prayer. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’
Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
Because it is the chief part of the thankfulness which God requires of us; (1) and because God will give his grace and his and his Holy Spirit only to such as earnestly and without ceasing beg them from him, and render thanks unto him for them.(2)
HEIDELBERG CATECHISM, Q&A 116
(1) Psalm 50: 50;14-15
Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-13; Acts 6:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:17 – 18); Hebrews 13:5.