It seems that in each generation, especially the really dark ones, God raises up a prophetic voice to speak into them. It may be a handful of voices, or perhaps just one, but God will not leave us without a witness. Because of their important role, no wonder Moses could pray, “I wish that all God’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:29).
One recent prophetic voice was Francis Schaeffer. I have just re-read Schaeffer’s Death in the City which is based on lectures given at Wheaton College back in 1968. Wow – powerful, prophetic and soul-stirring stuff. If you still have a copy, pull it off the shelves, blow off the dust, and be challenged and blessed once again.
It is based mainly on Jeremiah and the opening chapters of Romans. It deals with the “lostness” of modern man, and what our attitude to this should be. Modern man is alone in the universe, says Schaeffer. “What marks our own generation? It is the fact that modern man thinks there is nobody home in the universe. Nobody to love man, nobody to comfort him, even while he seeks desperately to find comfort in the limited, finite, horizontal relationships of life.”
With the death of God in modern times comes the death of man, and the death of culture. Like Jeremiah, it was something which deeply grieved Schaeffer: “Do not take this lightly! It is a horrible thing for a man like myself to look back and see my country and my culture go down the drain in my own lifetime.”
Like Jeremiah, we must weep over a culture bent on self-destruction. And we must also weep for God’s people who have gone astray. Jeremiah’s “attitude must be ours: we must weep over the church as it has turned away and weep over the culture that has followed it.”
If God’s people were judged in Old Testament times, can we expect anything less? “Those people were going off into the Babylonian captivity not just for military reasons or economic reasons. God, as a holy God, judged them as they had turned away from Him. He will do the same in our generation.”
In both cases there has been a clear rejection of God and the knowledge of God. Where does that put us in the divine scheme of things? It resulted in judgment for Israel and it surely must do so for us as well. In Jeremiah’s day the people presumed upon the grace of God. We must not do so today:
“Our generation needs to be told that man cannot disregard God, that a culture like ours that has had such light and then has deliberately turned away stands under God’s judgment. God is a God of grace, but the other side of the coin of grace is judgment. If God is there, if God is holy (and we need a holy God or we have no absolutes), there must be judgment.”
Schaeffer rightly notes that in such a situation, we best not plead for justice: “I must say that when I pray for my country and my culture, I do not pray for God’s justice. I can only plead for His mercy. If we had the justice of God, we would not have peace. We would have a situation like Jeremiah’s. How dare we pray for justice upon our culture when we have so deliberately turned from God and His revelation? Why should God bless us?”
How then is the gospel to be presented in such a culture as this? I think Schaeffer was correct to say that it is quite unhelpful today telling people the good news of the gospel without first clearly letting them know the bad news. He draws upon Jer 1:9-10: “Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant’.”
“Notice the order,” says Schaeffer. “First, there was to be a strong negative message – and then the positive one. But the negative message was primary.” He says that if he had just an hour on a train to tell someone the gospel, he would do it this way:
“I would spend forty-five or fifty minutes on the negative, to show him his real dilemma – to show him that he is more dead than even he thinks he is…Then I would take ten or fifteen minutes to tell him the gospel…Unless he understands what is wrong, he will not be ready to listen to and understand the positive.”
He draws upon the first several chapters of Romans to show us our condition without God: we are all lost. So what do we do? Using Jer. 6:14 he says, “With love we must face squarely the fact that our culture really is under the judgment of God. We must not heal the sickness lightly. We must emphasize the reality. We must proclaim the message with tears and give it with love.”
Schaeffer implored the students at Wheaton to get the father heart of God on all this. Do we weep for the lost like Jeremiah did? Do we pronounce the just deserts of God, yet do so with tears in our eyes? Sadly most of us do not. “There is a loss of missionary drive.”
We have lost our concern for the lost. Why? Because “we have lost the sense of the lostness of the lost,” and “we have also lost compassion.” We say we believe in a biblical worldview, but we really live quite differently. We affirm the supernatural, but live as if we are simply naturalists.
Having the right beliefs must be matched by the right actions and attitudes. In Jeremiah’s time, the people said the right words, and had all the religious trappings, but their hearts were far from God. Are we really all that different today?
We need to have the same heart that Jeremiah did. And doing so will not make things easy. It is a heavy burden to carry. Indeed, it will result in much grief, and much discouragement. But that is ever the way it is: “And you say, how can a man of God be discouraged? Anybody who asks that has never been in the midst of the battle; he understands nothing about a real struggle for God.”
Speaking of Jer 20:14-18 he says, “There is no contradiction here. It is possible to be faithful to God and yet be overwhelmed with discouragement as we face the world. In fact, if we are never overwhelmed, I wonder if we are fighting the battle with compassion and reality.”
This was the heartfelt plea he gave to those students 40 years ago. I wonder how much of it sunk in. I wonder how much of it took root. The same can be asked of today’s believers. What do we make of Schaeffer’s words? Do we take them as the words of a prophet, showing forth the heart of God, or do they mean nothing to us?
I must say, rereading this book after first reading it nearly four decades ago, the words impacted me now much more than they did then. I greatly appreciated Schaeffer then, especially for his apologetic method. But I appreciate him even more now for his soft and humble heart, broken for the lost, and reflecting the heart of God.
He had the right mix: a love for God, a love for truth, and a love for people. He can teach us all a lot.