In listening again to some seminars from New Word Alive 2011, I was struck by the suggestion of Carl Trueman that Christians should have a couple of theologians that they really focus on in their personal study. Obviously, John Calvin would be my Reformer of choice and I’ve come to love the writings of Thomas Watson from the Puritan age. I’m toying with the idea of studying more of John Chrystostom so that I don’t fall into the trap of thinking church history goes Jesus, Acts … (here be dragons) … Luther, Calvin, 1662, today.
If the ancient church is a big blank to me then you’ll notice that there’s another gap in that list for me – from 1662 to today. There is one theologian that bridges the 19th and 20th Centuries who I love reading, and always rewards the effort involved to get a copy of his books. That theologian is PT Forsyth. I’ve already written about him here but I’ve started to read Cruciality of the Cross and after just a few pages I’m hooked.
It is reported from most quarters in England that there is a serious decline in Church membership. For this several explanations are given. But it is well to face the situation, and to avoid extenuation. And if we do, we may discover that the real cause is the decay, not in religious interests or sympathies, but in personal religion of a positive and experienced kind, and often in the pulpit.
Religious sympathies or energies are not Christian faith. Faith is Christian certainty. We have become familiar with the statement (so welcome to easy religion) that there is as good Christianity outside the Churches as in. This is not quite false, but it is much more false than true. It would be true enough if Christianity meant decent living, nice ways, precious kindness, business honour, ardent philanthropy, and public righteousness.
But all these fine and worthy things are quite compatible with the absence of personal communion with God, personal faith as Christ claims it, in the sense of personal experience of God in Jesus Christ, personal repentance, and personal peace in Christ as our eternal life. Yet that is God’s first charge on us if Christianity be true. And it is the kind of Christianity which alone makes for a Church and its membership.
A Christianity merely ethical, refined, or sympathetic certainly makes for the social state, if you can keep it up; but the Christianity that makes for the Church is of a much more intimate, personal, and positive kind. And its presence is the only guarantee for the maintenance of the moral strength and beauty of society at the last. While its absence must not only diminish the roll of membership but reduce interest in the great religious issue between Church and State. The reports that come in are as clear about the cooling of that interest as they are about the drop in the membership of the Churches.
The decay in membership of the Church is due to a decay of membership in Christ.
Our social preoccupation has entailed real damage to personal and family religion. For even among those who remain in active membership of our Churches the type of religion has changed. The sense of sin can hardly be appealed to by the preacher now, and to preach grace is in many (even orthodox) quarters regarded as theological obsession, and the wrong language for the hour, while justification by faith is practically obsolete. Well, it may be wise not to preach too often about grace, though we cannot preach too much (indeed, what have we at last but grace to preach?); but it is fatal if our reserve is because we do not have it, instead of because we reverence it, if the reason be defect of truth and not its economy.
Everything Forsyth says here is true today. If it was being said 100 years ago, why was no one listening?