Francis Schaeffer, the West, and God’s Judgment

I was recently reminded that one of my favourite prophetic voices of last century, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), in one of his volumes utilised some of the most well-known prophetic books in the Old Testament. So I hastily went to my shelves, grabbed the thin book, blew off the dust, and read it once again.

And I am so glad I did. I refer to his very important book, Death in the City (IVP, 1969). The material in this book is actually based on a week-long series of lectures he gave at Wheaton College in Chicago in 1968. The talks centred on Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Romans 1 – a heavy duty combination indeed – and how they relate to the West.

Those who know me and my writings know that I often speak about the West in terms of being past its use by date, and now seemingly under the judgment of God. Yet here was Schaeffer a full half century ago saying the same thing and making prophetic warnings about it.

Schaeffer 2Romans 1 of course speaks about God abandoning a people (see verses 18-32), while Jeremiah and Lamentations warn about and bemoan the fact that God is judging his people, with the seemingly inviolate temple and city of Jerusalem both being utterly destroyed by Israel’s enemies.

It is in that light that Schaeffer examines the contemporary West, and sees no other option than to say we too are under the just judgment of God. The entire 143-page book is a must read, but let me try to distil some of the highlights here for you.

The book begins with these trenchant words: “We live in a post-Christian world.” He details the enormity of what this means and then says: “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.”

The West has abandoned its spiritual heritage and is now wallowing in sin, immorality and apostasy. “There is only one perspective we can have of the post-Christian world of our generation: an understanding that our culture and our country is under the wrath of God.”

This is serious business: “Do you think our country can remain as it has been, after it has thrown away the Christian base? Do not be foolish. Jeremiah would have looked at you and said, ‘You do not have the correct perspective. You should be crying’.”

How should believers respond today? We must pronounce hard truths to wake up a dead culture and a dead church: “Our generation needs to be told that man cannot disregard God, that a culture like ours has had such light and then has deliberately turned away stands under God’s judgment. There’s only one kind of preaching that will do in a generation like ours – preaching which includes the preaching of the judgment of God.”

He cites Jeremiah 1:10 then explains:

Notice the order. First, there was to be a strong negative message, and then the positive one. But the negative message was first. It was to be a message of judgment to the church which had turned away and to the culture which flowed from it. Judah had revolted against God and His revealed truth; and God says that Jeremiah’s message was to be first a message of judgment. I believe the same message is to be ours today. Christianity is not romantic, not soft. It is tough-fibered and realistic. And the Bible gives us the realistic message that Jeremiah preached into his own days, a message I am convinced the church today must preach if it is to be any help in the post-Christian world.

Instead of soft, syrupy and sentiment preaching, we need powerful, Holy Ghost-inspired preaching, one that takes our condition seriously. Says Schaeffer:

A negative message is needed before anything positive can begin. There must first be the message of judgment, the tearing down. There are times, and Jeremiah’s day and ours are such times, when we cannot expect a constructive revolution if we begin by overemphasizing the positive message. People often say to me, What would you do if you met a really modern man on a train and you had just an hour to talk to him about the gospel? 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; that he is not just dead in the twentieth-century meaning of dead (not having significance in life) but that he is morally dead because he is separated from the God who exists. Then I would take ten or fifteen minutes to tell him the gospel. And I believe this usually is the right way for the truly modern man, for often it takes a long time to bring a man to the place where he understands the negative. And unless he understands what is wrong, he will not be ready to listen to and understand the positive. I believe that much of our evangelistic and personal work today is not clear simply because we are too anxious to get the answer without having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychological guilt feelings) in the presence of God. But the same is true in a culture. If I am going to speak to a culture, such as my culture, the message must be the message of Jeremiah. It must be the same in both private and public discourse.

Image of Death in the City
Death in the City by Schaeffer, Francis (Author), Dennis, Lane (Contributor), Middelmann, Udo (Contributor) Amazon logo

Speaking truth in this way will be costly and it will be painful. But it must be done: “We must realize that to know the truth and to practice it will be costly . . . We must keep on speaking and acting even if the price is high. We must keep on preaching, even if the price is high. There is nothing in the Bible that says we are to stop. The Bible rather says, keep on, keep on.”

It will be just as hard for us as it was for Jeremiah:

Men haven’t changed, not one bit. For a man to think that he can preach the Word of God today and not experience the true price of the cross of Christ in the sense of not being accepted by the culture … any man who thinks he can speak truly of the things of God today into such a culture as our own and not have such words spoken against him is foolish. It is not possible. … To think one can give the Christian message and not have the world with its monolithic post-Christian culture bear down on us is not to understand the fierceness of the battle in such a day as Jeremiah’s or such a day as our own.

And we must persevere, regardless of all the opposition and hostility: “My last sentence is simply this: The world is lost, the God of the Bible does exist; the world is lost, but truth is truth, keep on! And for how long? I’ll tell you. Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, and then KEEP ON!”

To tie all this together, let me finish with two more quotes from the book. Early on in the book he offered us the big picture:

The church in our generation needs reformation, revival, and constructive revolution. At times men think of the two words reformation and revival as standing in contrast one to the other, but this is a mistake. Both words are related to the word restore. Reformation refers to a restoration to pure doctrine; revival refers to a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture; revival speaks of a life brought into its proper relationship to the Holy Spirit.
The great moments of church history have come when these two restorations have simultaneously come into action so that the church has returned to pure doctrine and the lives of the Christians in the church have known the power of the Holy Spirit. There cannot be true revival unless there has been reformation; and reformation is not complete without revival.
Such a combination of reformation and revival would be revolutionary in our day – revolutionary in our individual lives as Christians, revolutionary not only in reference to the liberal church but constructively revolutionary in the evangelical, orthodox church as well. May we be those who know the reality of both reformation and revival, so that this poor dark world may have an exhibition of a portion of the church returned to both pure doctrine and Spirit-filled life.

And toward the end of the book he reminds the individual believer how he should live:

Christianity is not just a mental assent that certain doctrines are true – not even that the right doctrines are true. This is only the beginning. This would be rather like a starving man sitting in front of great heaps of food and saying, “I believe the food exists; I believe it is real,” and yet never eating it. It is not enough merely to say, “I am a Christian,” and then in practice to live as if present contact with the supernatural were something far off and strange. Many Christians I know seem to act as though they come in contact with the supernatural just twice – once when they are justified and become a Christian and once when they die. The rest of the time they act as though they were sitting in the materialist’s chair.

Only a totally transformed life, coupled with a fearless proclamation of the truth, can make an impact on a post-Christian culture.

[1629 words]

19 Replies to “Francis Schaeffer, the West, and God’s Judgment”

  1. And all I can think about is, you wouldn’t wish a son like his on your worst enemy.

  2. I just finished reading The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century also by F.S. and would recommend it to anyone to see where we are and how we came to be where we are. A must read.

  3. If you know Wheaton, then you know North Park, where I went for 2 years. On THE WORLDWIDE TWITTER I’m @preacherskidd.

  4. This mindset would certainly rid us of our “comfortable Christianity” in a big hurry.

  5. Regarding Schaeffer spending forty-five or fifty minutes on the negatives and ten or fifteen minutes on the positives, if it were possible to read the Bible in one hour, it would take around forty five minutes to read the Old Testament and fifteen to read the New Testament. The former is almost three times as long as the latter. The NT only makes sense by reading the OT. To read only the NT is like being given the answer to a maths question without knowing the mathematical problem or question in the first place And yet rarely do we hear the OT being expounded in our churches.

    As for the divide between reformation and revival, Schaeffer echoes the words of Augustine who said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” When we become Christians it is not that we become a new creation, totally unrelated to what we were before. I used to think Christians were nice but quaint and touch weird and that if I were to become one I would no longer be myself but turned into an alien. But this was not true. Being apprehended by God, meant returning to that for which I had originally been created. I was struck by how natural it felt. I was now clothed in my right mind. It was my former state that was weird and alien. So Schaeffer is right when he conflates the words reformation and revival into restoration.

    How about this for a powerful picture of restoration:
    David Skinner UK

  6. Thanks for bringing FS before us again Bill. Is it really correct to say we live in a post-Christian world? The prophecy of the Book of Revelation of Saint John shows Christ in control of the judgments and the total history of the creation He made and redeemed and will glorify in concert with and under the Father and the Spirit of Sanctification, and of His blood washed saints who share His life. It seems to me that what we have called Christian culture is only ever very partly so as the fruit of the labours of great men and women in Christ. What we see in terms of declension in the church and continued anti-Christ rebellion (cf. Psalm 2) is ‘normal’ for this age which abides under the wrath of God(Romans 1/John 3) and the only remedy is the revelation of Jesus Christ. I don’t for a moment think FS is wrong on his view of the deadness of a man outside Christ but I think there may be other parts of Scripture that need to be absorbed into our hearts as we with Jeremiah and Paul with tears view the state of our churches and nation and so often ourselves. I have read “Patience With God” by Frankie and agree with Steve Swanson, indeed his parents must have been heart broken.

  7. Thanks Robert. That God is still on the throne, is still working out his purposes, and will triumph over all evil goes without saying. But it also goes without saying that the West has been a post-Christian culture for many decades now. One simply has to look at the Christian roots of the West and how they have been all but rejected, defied and dismantled to see that this is the case. So I am happy to fully affirm both distinct realities. Whether the secular, decadent and immoral West can ever recover and once again be a light on a hill is another matter, and remains to be seen.

  8. There is a lot of truth in what everyone has said. However, I recall people from past generations describing the immorality that was around from 1900 through the World War I era and then through the period of the 1920s through World War II. Like ancient Israel, our country goes through cycles of rebellion, then a war or other judgment, and then a time of peace and revival. Everyone needs to realize there always has been evil in the world because of the fall of man in Genesis 3, and past generations may have had just a veneer of righteousness, propriety, and faith in God. Or, it could be people see past decades as being innocent because they were children who were sheltered from reality at the time.

    A few years ago I presented a music program at a retirement home for three residents who were celebrating birthdays. There probably were 150 people present, and as I was introducing a gospel song, I asked how many of them had had Godly parents who had taken them to church during their childhood. Only six people raised their hands, and yet these people had grown up in an era supposedly more “Christian” than our own. A friend who works at a retirement home started an outreach program in her facility, and she found 95 percent of the people claimed they never had heard or believed the Gospel, citing “hard work” and their own efforts as what helped them get through life. There was absolutely no recognition of God or acknowledging that God in His love and mercy had given them good health and the ability to work and take care of themselves. I also might add these facilities are in small towns in the Bible belt of the U.S., and yet even these people, now in their 80s and 90s, had a totally secular outlook. It is hard to understand how this could happen in any small town that has several Bible-believing churches and in this age when many TV stations broadcast gospel programs. As the Bible says, they are without excuse. Truly, the Godless, secular culture has been around for a long time.

  9. That may be true Sheila, but as either Schaeffer or C.S. Lewis said; that was a generation that still operated on Biblical morality but not necessarily with any rational basis. Moreover our legal systems still enforced Biblical morality. What I like about old black and white films produced during WW11 is that the World they portrayed was also black and white in values . There was no political correctness to produced shades of grey.

  10. Thanks Bill. I am currently reading through a collection of FS’s sermons entitled NO LITTLE PEOPLE – great reading and he was truly prophetic.

  11. To David Skinner: I appreciate your comments. I do not know your age, but perhaps you have not known many or any people who lived through the corruption of past decades. You must remember that the black-and-white films of the WWII era were made to promote patriotism and the war effort, plus a certain image the U.S. and its citizens sought to have at that time. The films may not have reflected the viewpoint of EVERYONE or the WHOLE TRUTH about many issues. There were people who still favored isolationism and did not believe the U.S. should be involved in the war. There also were Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese descent who did not feel right about going to war against the country of their origin. There may not have been political correctness, but there was plenty of prejudice against every ethnic group and race you can name. I am afraid you are a relatively young person who has been brought up with a white-washed view of the U.S. and what Americans have been like in the past. Everyone would like to think all Americans have lived up to a wholesome, patriotic, law-abiding image, but that is not reality. There always has been dissension in American society, as well as evil.

  12. Thank you Bill for refreshing my mind again regarding Francis Schaeffer who is a great man and a deep thinker with a prophetic voice for our generation. This article really inspires me and gives me God-courage to say what I need to say, to write what I need to write to people whom I serve. It is so true and persuasive that we need powerful, Holy Ghost-inspired preaching, one that takes our condition seriously. It seems to me Paul Washer is one of the men of God who applied the truth Schaeffer referred to that many prosperity gospel preachers tend to shy away from the biblical truth they suppose to preach due to fear of man. It is so true, “Only a totally transformed life, coupled with a fearless proclamation of the truth, can make an impact on a post-Christian culture.” May the Lord God richly bless you, Bill, for your soul searching message to the people of God! Come Lord Jesus!

  13. America as I see it is a source of both great blessing and tremendous righteousness and great persecution and has plumbed the depths of wickedness. As always, some people has shown the latter – we could speak of Barack Obama, Brian McLaren, or John Spong – and some people the former – we could speak of Billy Graham, Paul Washer, or Louie Giglio. There are millions of examples on both sides of the fence.

    The homeschooling movement in New Zealand and elsewhere – specifically the (large) part which is Christian in its focus draws a huge amount of what Americans contribute in Biblical curriculums, Biblical calling to be parents who are Godly, and challenging/encouraging us in the long work to produce children – the next generation – who will pay whatever the cost will be to bring Jesus to their world. But then we have the horrors of abortion and abortion techniques from the United States which bring me to the 1 – 2 billion babies that the world has exterminated. Great righteousness and great evil. Then we have slavery in the American South and America saving Europe, the Jews and dare I say it even homosexuals from the Nazis murderous intent. The list goes on.

    My own country – New Zealand – I could repeat the same, although I do worry that we go softly to the grave in a desire to have too little impact on the world, lest we stand out too much.

    As Jeremiah lamented and prophesied God’s judgement more than 2,500 years ago, then the same happens today – we need it just as much. There never has been a golden era where Christianity reigned supreme, or God’s calling to the Israelites was exemplified perfectly. Only before the Fall was it perfect. That said, the world – through abortion and the homosexual movement as examples – has become incredibly corrupt in recent times and this is a departure from 50 years ago. I think 50 years ago there was an acknowledgement that these things were wrong but if you asked the population at large why, I wonder if they would have the answer that would cause them to defend it no matter what . I am reminded of a friend whose parents were Catholic and went to church every Sunday. When he was around 11 or 12 he asked his parents ‘Why do we go to Church? What is the point?’. Not in a rebellious tone, but in the sense that as we grow up we begin to ask the great why questions. His parents could not come up with the great ‘This is why it is important’. It was, to them, a cultural thing, just something you do. So he walked away from the church – I shared with him Louie’s Giglio’s sermon on the gospel; his (I hope) eventual conversion is a work in progress. I need to pray for him more. I think the same problem – about why we are prepared to die for our faith – was there 50 years ago among many people, although, of course not everyone.

    Every generation has the call of God on them. We must continue to fight the good fight, with all wisdom and never, ever, ever turn aside. A member of our church board says that Christianity is a “long, long, long walk in the same direction”.

  14. I appreciate so much the words of Matthew Webster, who expressed himself so well. As he said, the world has not been perfect since the fall of man; nor has there been a time when Christianity reigned supreme. I will pray for his Catholic friend, that he might see the ultimate truth of the gospel and come to know Christ as his personal Savior and Lord.

  15. Good one Bill.
    Would love to have close ongoing discussion, reflection and prayer with others about this; more I am currently able to readily access. Recently read through Amos and the commentary in EDWJ and similar strong messages of judgement are presented. Personally convinced that devastating things are lying ahead, and that these things spring from God’s grace and mercy as well as His judgement. These are not easy.
    Recently also, I have been encouraged by the following, a 2016 sermon by John Piper titled:
    “Think it not strange: Fiery Trials and the Testimony of Christ” As he would say, this is right on the mark. (Your topic.) One of the things I like about it is Piper’s personal honesty about the pain of our current situation.
    I’m grateful brother.
    Sincerely, Chris

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