Christianity: A Study in Contrasts

I read this interesting bit of news recently: evidently there are 150 revivals taking place in the world right now, but almost none of them are happening in the West. While I have not got a good source for this statistic, assuming it is more or less true, it is most telling.

There would be nothing at all surprising about this if it is in fact the case. The church in the West is in so many respects a mere shadow of what it is supposed to be. It is characterised by carnality, compromise and cravenness. It has basically allowed the world to set the agenda rather than transforming the world.

It has slavishly copied the fads and trends of the world, and thought the most important thing is to be relevant, cool and inoffensive. It lacks the basic necessities of a strong church: the careful preaching of God’s word; the fear of a holy and righteous God; the need for continual repentance and renewal; and the repudiation of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

It lacks the power of God and the Spirit of God. As A. W. Tozer so rightly said so long ago, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”

Yep, that pretty well sums things up. I could conclude my article with that, and enough would have been said. But I want to speak to this just a bit further. That is because I am currently reading through the book of Acts, and the contrast there could not be greater. What we find happening there and what we find happening today in the West is light-years apart.

I think that if the early believers were teleported into any Western church today they would be utterly dumbfounded. They simply would not recognise New Testament Christianity. They would see plenty of our entertainment and celebrity culture. They would find churches looking identical to discos, and pastors seeking to emulate rock stars.

They would hear all sorts of feel-good, self-help therapeutic mumbo jumbo, and be shocked to find the regular, in-depth exposition of Scripture to be almost non-existent. They would see that the primary message of Jesus and the disciples – repentance, taking up one’s cross, and the cruciform life – replaced with New Age baloney about how you can become a better you.

They would not recognise their own faith in other words if they walked into so many of our churches in the West today. We have moved that far away from the real deal, substituting all of our man-made rituals, gimmicks, gadgets and worldly trends to keep the masses amused and entertained.

What a marked contrast when you simply read through the book of Acts. There we find certain key themes and realities reoccurring. The fear of God, the place of repentance, the power of the Holy Ghost, and the urgent need to proclaim the gospel to a dying world are some of the hallmarks of the early church.

God was an ever present reality for these early believers. He had to be, given all the intense persecution and opposition they faced almost daily. They had to trust and depend upon God with their very lives. He was their only rock, and he was more than sufficient.

And he was no celestial Jeeves, or chummy pal that most Western churchians today make God out to be. He was the Holy One, the Lord, the perfectly righteous God who deserved to be feared and obeyed. And when folks back then toyed with his majesty and holiness, everyone knew the results.

Whether it was Ananias and Saphira falling dead – with the instant result that “great fear seized the whole church” (Acts 5:11) – or Herod being struck down dead, with the result that “the word of God continued to increase and spread” (12:24), the early church and her God were not something to be trifled with.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins was of course a common message heard from the early evangelists. There was nothing in their gospel proclamation about finding your best life now, or losing weight for Jesus. It was all very serious stuff – life and death stuff.

And even more surprisingly perhaps is the rather strange absence of the very concept of love in the book of Acts. The disciples did not dwell on the love of God – in fact it is never even mentioned once in all of its 28 chapters. Now most believers today would argue that the early church must have gotten it wrong.

Surely the love of God is central, they would insist. Well, yes it is certainly a key part of the gospel message of course. But it is not the only part. And the New Testament understanding of love is a far cry from our understanding. We think in very humanistic terms when we think about love – it is all so much feel-good mushy sentimental sap.

Biblical love is much sterner stuff than that. It is always associated with God’s holiness and utter hatred of sin. These are just two concepts almost never heard in today’s churches. So just stop for a moment and consider all this: here we have the most fundamental example of what gospel-preaching must be all about.

Yet in the entire book of Acts we never once find the apostles appealing to the love of God – never once. Yet that is all we hear about in most Western churches today. Now again, I am not saying God’s love is unimportant or to be minimised.

I am simply contrasting the early church – which was as close to Jesus and his will as ever could be – with our own tepid, anaemic, watered-down and compromised church today. By all means let us proclaim the love of God – but let us do it biblically, not humanisticly.

And the love of God is everywhere connected with obedience in the New Testament. We cannot claim to love God if we refuse to obey him. But I speak to this at length elsewhere. billmuehlenberg.com/2011/06/18/loving-god-and-keeping-the-commandments/

There is so much more to say about this contrast between the early church and our church. The power of the Holy Spirit was everywhere on display, with miracles, healings and exorcisms on constant display. We still see that today as well – but overwhelmingly in the non-Western world.

The church today which is the closest to the church in the book of Acts is overwhelmingly found not in the West but in the rest of the world – in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is almost as if God has abandoned the Western church. I am not saying that he has, and many great things are still happening for Christ and the Kingdom in the Western churches.

But overwhelmingly, if we want to see what New Testament Christianity looks like, we have to look elsewhere than in the West. That reality should break the hearts of every single one of us, and drive us all to our knees, crying out for some Holy Ghost-sent revival and repentance.

Without this, we will simply be spinning our wheels. Sure, we will still be drawing the crowds – they love their entertainment and amusements. But we will continue to drive God away from his beloved church. It most certainly happened to Israel of old, and there is no reason why it cannot happen to us today.

If you want just a quick refresher course on this, try reading 1 Samuel 4:21-22 for starters, where we read about Ichabod: “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured”. The word means literally “inglorious” or “no glory,” and that was a damning reality for Israel.

We also see this played out much more dramatically in Ezekiel 10, where the glory of God departs from Jerusalem. That is a horrific reality for God’s people to have to face. So the question we all need to ask ourselves today is this:

Is the glory of God departing from the Western church today? If so, what can be done to turn it around?

[1383 words]

10 Replies to “Christianity: A Study in Contrasts”

  1. I might summarise the problem by saying that peripherals have become central and that which is central has become peripheral.

    I have no problem with churches and preachers looking like things in modern culture but I do have a problem with that “dressing” for the gospel becoming central and even replacing the gospel in the life of that church. There’s a big difference but you can’t always see it at a quick glance.

    It seems to me that peoples understanding of “salvation” is critical in this. People even think that Jesus came and died and rose so that we can go to heaven. Not so! Jesus came and died and rose *so that we can have a relationship with God*. Going to heaven is s side effect of that. The result of knowing what salvation is really for changes everything in the way a believer behaves. If they think that it’s just about them going to heaven they “get saved” and then wait to go to heaven. On the other hand if they realise that it’s actually about having a relationship with God, their life begins to produce solid evidence of the salvation which has taken place.

    John Symons

  2. Corrie Ten Boom and Mother Teresa both commented along the same lines that the Western church was spiritually decrepit – and that was quite some years ago. Too many Christian of great faith who love truth have been kicked out of today’s churches – it’s getting hard to find those that unequivocally preaches Jesus, and Him resurrected.

    But while God’s glory may have left quite a while ago, on the upside, shiny big buildings are sprouting everywhere and music & book sales have never been so high.

    Garth Penglase

  3. I’m seeing a lot of secular, humanist, ‘new age’ & generally non Biblical thinking has crept into our congregations’ lives. When we go back to the original teachings (such as in Acts), and apply it to our own lives, there is always scope for Revival – I’ve seen this in the past – what I call ‘the glory days’ They were wonderful times! That’s why I’m more recently enjoying the refreshment of attending Bible based gatherings again, with people enthusiastic to discuss the scriptures together, currently with some Adventists. It’s been like a breath of fresh air after decades of not enough of this. However, as the salt & light in this world we can help to make a difference wherever we are meant to be. I also believe Revival is a sovereign move of God, not of ourselves, except that we can bring it about with earnest and extensive prayer. It’s never too late!

    Mardi Muirson

  4. Tozer is right. What evidence do we see of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of believers today? We must keep asking that question. Do we see the Spirit working with the eyes of faith and God working out His purposes? All the recorded events in Acts show to me that God allowed them or initiated them with godly believers willing to participate. The Holy Spirit was able to direct Philip to witness. He went where the Holy Spirit via an Angel directed. Leave the crowd in Samaria and go off down a desert road. Likewise with Paul. Even the persecutions and sufferings were opportunities to demonstrate God’s grace but the church needs humble and willing servants of the Lord. So yes Bill, in contrast there seems no great rush by many Christians in the local church to do the menial and less upfront tasks. There seems a great deal of slackness and little desire to learn to share our faith. And I agree with John Symons that living life as a disciple is about being in relationship with God but further to that is the rationale of being a disciple. Christians are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. Of course that means for the here and now – knowing we are seen by God and living with a clear conscience – without the condemnation and stain from sin – having fellowship in Christ and also the sure hope of eternal life for heaven and the new Heavens and Earth. The solution then to turning the Western Church around from its Laodecean amnesia in forgetting its first love – would simply be getting back to prayer, learning from God’s word and heeding the call to be witnesses. God could abandon us, send the plagues etc but we must pray He would be merciful and allow us to make the most of the opportunities. Thanks Bill for your insights.

    Robert Finster

  5. The most striking contrast between ACTS and the modern church is, I think, the fact that whenever Peter preached to the crowds, he did not shrink from telling them the truth, that wicked men put Jesus to death and “they were cut to the heart” not by the explosion of love towards them, but the conviction of truth, that without the mercy of God we are condemned. And yet, God added to their number daily.
    I believe the love of God is foremost for believers, to those who have first responded to the truth of God and in humility and utter dependence acknowledged their sinfulness and need of forgiveness.
    Jesus and Paul when speaking about love or doing good deeds always put the household of faith first. Jesus said that because of the love “you have for one another” the world would see that “you are my disciples”. He didn’t say, because you bend over backwards and love them out there in the world, they will see… no, to the world conviction of sin first and when they have received forgiveness, then the love of God can unfold to them in tangible blessings.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  6. Great thoughts Bill, and you’re points are not one that I would argue against, but I’m not sure the logic is quite there.

    We have here some mostly descriptive data in Acts, but not prescriptive. There are no commands that we must all sell our houses, for instance, or that we must all heal people, or that we must all preach their exact words. In fact they do not set an example for expositional preaching at all! It’s very thematic, and also apologetic, rather than directed to regular believer worship.

    As stated earlier, you’re on the money for sure, but I kindly point out some need for a bit more careful thinking (not that this is not careful thinking – just not enough!)

    Nathan Keen

  7. Thanks Nathan, but you may have missed the point here. I of course nowhere said we should do everything we find in Acts. Indeed, I said absolutely nothing about sharing all things in common, and so on. My point was obviously that the vibrancy, commitment, zeal, sacrifice and Holy Spirit power we find in the book of Acts is so often lacking today.

    As to the sermons in Acts, they of necessity were of course overwhelmingly evangelistic in nature. That believers were given careful teaching and exposition of Scripture is attested to in what we find in the epistles. My point there was simply that topical feel-good sermons would hardly have been the stuff of the early church.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. This speaks to me very clearly, mainly because i read the Bible as a new believer eleven years ago. I read it like life giving words and savioured every letter of each word. Then i started going to church and my heart has been broken ever since.
    Oh sure there has been a hint of Jesus here and there, but the overwhelming point is, its a country club for the well to do.
    Daniel Kempton

  9. Quite right Ursula, it is the working of the Holy Spirit to bring the conviction of sin upon man and man coming to the knowledge of the need for redemption before a holy God. This is why we must first preach the bad news before we preach the good news. It is also why there is little love between church attendees. For they do not know what they have been forgiven of, and most think they are better than everyone else. Christ’s followers understand that there is no avenue for pride or haughtiness, no place for unforgiveness in a believer as we cannot repay what has been done for us, and given to us – that’s where the reality of God’s love comes to bear, and hence the ability to love one another. I believe that scripture was not so much an injunction for us to love one another, as it was a litmus test as to where we are before God.

    Garth Penglase

  10. Thanks Garth, but didn’t Jesus make a direct connection between our love for one another in John 13:35 and at least what the world would be able to see because of it, namely that Jesus has come as the saviour of the world? Of course, our love for God and for one another should be a natural response to the enormous and overwhelming truth of God’s forgiveness, but it has a purpose yet beyond that in line with the on-going expansionist plan of God that the church should not be stagnant, but should be ever expanding and like Him searching out, discipling and welcoming new believers.
    I wonder also if a charring remnant of hyper Calvinism has remained which hardens the heart in pride, thinking that salvation is a gift once given and will not be retracted by God and that makes us think we no longer have to forgive, for there will be no adverse consequences if we don’t. Though how anyone could derive this from scripture, I don’t know except if they have taken as humans are apt to do, a knife and cut out the portions of the bible they don’t like.

    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: