Sword and Trowel Articles

The Sword & Trowel was started in 1865 by C. H. Spurgeon. It enjoys an extensive readership throughout the world, particularly among ministers and church leaders. It has by far the largest circulation of any magazine (world-wide) adhering to reformed and Baptist distinctive. The Sword & Trowel is now edited by Dr Peter Masters.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Throwing out the Principles

The basic principles of worship broken and rejected by many today. Appendix on Psalm 150

from Sword & Trowel 2001, No. 3 by Peter Masters

CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN WORSHIP has 'captured' countless congregations of every theological hue throughout the world, though not without many a battle. At times the controversy has been so strong it has been dubbed 'the worship wars'. The chief strategy of the advocates of the new worship has been to reduce the whole debate to a matter of taste, style and generation.

'Traditionalists' are charged with refusal to adjust to changing culture. Some have called them the Pharisees of the 21st-century church, guilty of obstructing a great forward-movement of God's people, and dividing over non-essentials. Still, however, large numbers of churches hold out against the new ways, believing that great principles are at stake.

The trouble with the rhetoric of those advocating new worship is that they seem not to recognise, let alone discuss, biblical principles of worship. It is as if there is nothing substantial about worship in the Bible. It is as if the Reformation had never reformed worship, articulating great concepts about our approach to the living God. It is as though the bedrock definitions held over centuries have become invisible and non-existent.

Where have these priceless and vital definitions and principles gone? Why are they hardly ever discussed? Do the advocates of new worship wilfully avoid them, or are they genuinely unaware of them? Certainly, it is an astonishing scene to find them passed over so easily.

New definitions of worship have appeared which would never have been accepted as recently as fifty years ago – definitions which smash down the central principles of evangelical, Protestant Christian worship, taking us back to medieval and Catholic thinking.

This article will identify three major deviations from biblical standards (as recovered at the Reformation) characterising the entire modern worship movement. (A fourth serious deviation appears in a companion article.)

Churches which have adopted modern worship songs and music to only a limited degree, must be aware of the deeply significant errors which govern the writers and composers of the new genre. 'Moderate users' of new worship plug into a radically deviant philosophy of worship, and by doing so train their people (possibly unwittingly) to accept pre-Reformation notions which will lead to ever increasing acceptance of the full-blown contemporary scene.

This is not a complex and theoretical matter: it is straightforward and vital. We must know what worship is supposed to be, and we must assess the new style in the light of God-given principles.

THREE BROKEN PRINCIPLES

1. AESTHETIC WORSHIP

THE FIRST MAJOR deviation today is the espousing of aesthetic worship, in preference to the Lord's command that worship must exclusively be 'in spirit and in truth' (see John 4.23-4 ).

Aesthetic worship is the idea that worship may include things that are beautiful, artistic or skilfully executed, offered up as an expression of worship to God. It is based on the notion that we worship not just with spiritual thoughts from our minds and hearts, but also with the creative skill of our minds and hands.

It believes that genuine praise needs a 'physical' dimension greater than mere unison singing. It assumes that God is an 'aesthete' – sitting in the heavens and looking down with appreciation at the skill and beauty that we bring before Him.

We may bring Him thrilling music, clever arrangements, brilliant instrumentalism and fine singing, and these will please Him. We may worship (it is thought) not only by meaningful words, but by wordless offerings.

This is of immense importance, because the aesthetic idea of worship is the essence of Catholicism, and diametrically opposed to the biblical concept. The Church of Rome, with all her masses, images, processions, soaring naves, stained glass windows, costly and colourful robes, rich music, Gregorian chants, and complex proceedings, makes an offering of worship by these things. All her theatricalism is an act of worship believed to be pleasing to God.

The Reformation went back to the Bible, and embraced the principle that true worship is intelligent (and scriptural) words, whether said, thought or sung, winged by faith to the ear of the Lord. It is true that little bits of Roman 'theatre' remained in the episcopal churches, but by and large the rites, ceremonies, images and everything else that represented a virtuous offering were swept away.

However, aesthetic worship has now flooded into evangelical and Protestant churches, and people have come to think that they can express much of their worship via music and instrumentation (and in charismatic circles via dance, bands, movements and drama).

Certainly, the Lord trusts us with music, and also with instruments to accompany the singing of praise, but these cannot actually convey worship. They are secondary. They are not in the image of God, nor do they have souls, nor are they redeemed.

Modern hymnwriter Erik Routley was way off the mark when he penned the lines (which he meant to be taken literally) –
Joyfully, heartily, resounding!
Let every instrument and voice . . .
Trumpets and organs, set in motion
Such sounds as make the heavens ring.

The recently coined, popular statement that worship is 'a celebration in words and music' (seen so often on church handbills and notice-boards) is a denial of the Lord's statement – 'in spirit and in truth'. Words and thoughts are everything in worship. Music may only assist at a practical level; it cannot be used to express worship. To believe that it can, is to embrace the error of aesthetic worship.

The singing of God's people may be grand and glorious viewed from a human standpoint, but only the words and the hearts of the worshippers matter to God. Does this sound strange? It may do so today, but fifty years ago – and all the way back to the Reformation – practically every evangelical Christian would have said this most emphatically.

A notable advocate of the new ways has defined worship as 'a discovery of God's will through encounter and impact'. Not only is instrumental and song performance offered as a meritorious expression of worship, but from the very performance one is said to glean some form of revelation from God. This is seriously believed by the main architects and promoters of new worship. Do evangelicals who adopt their materials fully realise the deep errors of the philosophy behind them?

Aesthetic worship is a huge stride back to Rome, and has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. It challenges and spoils spiritual worship, and is contrary to every praise instruction in the New Testament. When we evaluate new worship, we must do so in terms of these historic, biblical principles. Worship is exclusively spiritual.

At the Reformation, simplicity, intelligibility and fidelity to the Bible replaced the impressive mystery and pageantry of Rome, and the aesthetically splendid mass surrendered to the understanding soul.

Why did all this take place? The advocates of new worship do not seem to know. They are aware that the Reformation changed doctrinal teaching, but they do not appear to know why it so changed the manner of worship too. Do the new-worship men think it was just a 'generation thing'? Do they picture Luther, Calvin, the Protestant martyrs and others as the youngsters who just wanted a new culture? Do they believe it was all a matter of taste?

The truth is, of course, that the Reformers saw through the sensual worship of Rome (the aesthetic and ecstatic elements) and rejected artistic skill and beauty as a valid expression of worship, and also rejected the 'working up' of supposed spiritual experience by things which dazzled the eyes and the ears.

How is it that well-meaning evangelical Christians have adopted the idea that we can worship through beauty and skill? In the USA many theological seminaries and Christian colleges have greatly enlarged their music departments and courses for 'worship leaders'. Inevitably the role of music and the use of complex worship programmes has greatly increased. Churches have acquired ministers of music as well as professional worship leaders, and how could these highly trained brethren function if they did not feel that all their expertise and creativity constituted an efficacious offering of worship?

In biblical worship, only one offering counts, and that is the offering made once for all by the eternal Son of God on Calvary's Cross. Nothing should be thought of as an acceptable offering, or as having any worship merit apart from Calvary. Our thoughts and words are not an offering, but expressions of praise, repentance, request, dedication and obedience, all made acceptable by Calvary.

Writers promoting new worship actually use language which depicts God as a satisfied viewer of a 'performance' (this is their term). They explicitly say that God is the audience. Some provide illustrations of a stadium in which the church and its performers are placed on the pitch, and the word 'God' is inscribed around the seating in the stands. They seem very pleased with this scenario.

C H Spurgeon would never have an organ at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in his day, because he saw how so many of the larger churches had become carried away by the sound of their magnificent instruments, and the expert capabilities of their organists. They were tickling the ears of the people (as Spurgeon put it) with beautiful musical items other than hymns. He was concerned that people would go to church to be entertained rather than to worship, but even more seriously, he saw how the skill and beauty of the music was itself likely to be regarded as an act of worship, and an offering to God.

Today the Tabernacle uses an organ, but we endeavour to keep its deployment within bounds, so that it provides an accompaniment only, and does not become a medium of worship. We would never say, for example, that the organ 'enriches' worship. It disciplines the singing, and teaches and maintains the tune, but we know very well that in spiritual terms it can contribute nothing.

Contemporary worship, however, is usually fully aesthetic in purpose and practice. God is the audience and the worshippers are performers. Skilful instrumentalism is part of the offering of worship. Many evangelical churches have, in principle, gone back to Rome – and even surpassed Rome both in intricacy and decibels.

At the dawn of world history Abel's offering was accepted by the Lord because it was the very act God had commanded – a humble offering representing the need for atonement. Cain's offering, however, was rejected, because it presented his own skill, labour and artistry. It was a 'works' offering. To parade before God our skills as an act of worship is surely nearer to the offering of Cain than that of Abel.

Today, people often say, 'But what shall we do with our gifts if we cannot express them in worship?' Here is the heart of the matter. Worship is not the exercise of our gifts, but the exercise of our hearts and minds. For many people this is the 'lost ark' of worship, the principle which has disappeared from sight – that worship is not the presentation to God of skill or beauty, or of personal gifts, but the communication of the soul with God, through the merit of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Worship is not aesthetic.

We ask again, how is it that evangelicals have tumbled into this dramatic change of viewpoint in our generation? We have not been helped by a number of practices which have served as the thin end of the aesthetic wedge. We have already noted that a few pre-Reformation habits survived even in the reformed churches – remnants of Catholic theatricalism and show. These have been kept up in Anglican churches (except in the 'low' churches), and they have always had an undermining effect, causing good people to lose sight of a clear-cut definition of spiritual worship.

Over the years, pleasant inconsistencies have also been adopted by nonconformist churches. Beautiful anthems rendered by choirs came to offer an increasingly aesthetic contribution to worship. Solo items in services seemed harmless enough, and edifying if worshippers followed the words. But then the solo often became an instrument-only item, so that congregations were given 'songs without words', and taught to regard these as an act of worship. Little practices such as these have helped nibble away at the biblical concept of worship, and the Lord's people have slowly lost sight of basic principles.

But now the pass has been entirely sold, and the judgement of the Lord's people completely clouded. Simplicity has been discarded and we have been overwhelmed by a full-scale attack on long-standing principles of worship.

In many churches worship is now offered and 'enriched' by instrumental and vocal expertise. Performing gifts are exercised, and a human, artistic offering presented to God. This is only one of three quite different major aberrations from biblical and reformational principles of worship. We must return to 'spirit and truth' only.

It may be protested that worship in Old Testament times was rich in actions and artistry ordained by God, and such worship can hardly be disqualified today. How can we deny the worship-virtue of skilfully executed music and song?

It is simply not true that Old Testament services included works of beauty and skill as a direct expression of worship. The symbolism in the design of the Tabernacle and Temple, as well as the ceremonial performed by the priests, represented the work of Christ for them. They amounted to lessons, not vehicles of worship. They were intended as visual sermons, not meritorious acts. They were pictures, given and taught by God, of the way of grace. The people observed and trusted, but their personal response of praise was meant to be spiritual and from the heart.

True worship always was a matter of the heart, and not an offering of human works, skill or creativity. This lesson had to be learned by Cain of old, and many need to re-learn it today. Worship is spiritual thoughts directed to God from the heart, by faith. It is not an aesthetic activity. We again urge readers to consider this principle of worship, because how we worship is not just a matter of culture or taste or generation, but a matter of God-given rules. Principles count. The great statement common to the Westminster and Baptist Confessions stands against all that is going on today:

'The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself; and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men . . .'

Why would any church want to increase the number of instruments used in worship? If the answer is – 'To enrich our worship and to express our gifts,' then the principle has been lost, and the old aesthetic error has taken over.

2. ECSTATIC WORSHIP

THE SECOND MAJOR deviation from biblical principles in so-called contemporary worship is that it involves ecstatic worship, as opposed to 'spirit and truth' worship. The latter requires that Christians pray and sing with the understanding. 'Ecstatic', by contrast, has to do with using earthly techniques to stir the emotions and produce an exalted state of feeling.

Ecstatic worship takes place when the object of the exercise is to achieve a warm, happy feeling, even great excitement, through the earthly, physical aspects of worship, such as the songs and music. Among charismatics this is eagerly pursued, the programme being carefully engineered to bring worshippers to a high emotional pitch, and often to a mildly hypnotic state. In non-charismatic circles the objective is more modest, but essentially the same – to make an emotional impact.

We do not accuse the advocates of new worship unfairly, because they say it themselves in their books and worship guides. The upbeat opening 'number' will (they say) have such-and-such an effect upon worshippers, and then the music should take this or that direction to maintain the mood, and after that move on to another tempo, volume and key. Instruments, arrangements, chords and beat should be woven into a pattern that will bend and sway the feelings of the people to maximise their worship.

Often, tremendous musical expertise goes into the 'production' of a service. But it must be realised that any attempt to make a direct impression on the emotions by the use of music or any other earthly tool, is ecstatic worship as opposed to spiritual worship. The latter does not seek to manipulate the feelings by earthly techniques, but derives its joy from sincere spiritual appreciation of the Lord, of His words, and of the great doctrines of the faith.

Of course, music (and instrumental accompaniment) is permitted by the Lord, but it is not to be deliberately deployed as a means of arousing feelings. 'Feelings' in worship should be our response to things we understand and appreciate in our minds.

It is true that many hymn tunes touch our hearts because of their strong association with salvation sentiments, and this is wholesome and acceptable. Such tunes have taken on a special quality derived from precious words. But the architects of 'ecstatic' worship techniques have no right to hijack this pleasant phenomenon, and to use music as the chief means of moving hearts and producing feelings. This is carnal, cynical, artificial and manipulative, and it is the methodology of false religions.

As we have already noted, worship is words, whether thought, said or sung, and it is only as we are moved primarily by these, and by a view of the Lord and His work, that we have genuine and legitimate spiritual feelings. Emotions fanned into flames only by sentimental or stirring music may be enjoyable feelings at a purely human level, but they are not worship.

The same goes for all artificially generated feelings. If a preacher moves people to weeping by telling 'tear-jerkers', their sense of need for God or their repentance will be nothing more than short-lived emotionalism. If, however, the people understand their need through hearing the Word (which is surely moving enough), their conviction and repentance will be genuine and lasting.

Music cannot move the soul, only the emotions. Valid worship starts in the mind, or understanding. If it bypasses the understanding, it is not true worship. If it is aided by 'external' things, such as skilful and emotionally moving playing of bands and orchestras, it is compromised.

Such worship reminds us of the Israelites who wanted to supplement manna with other foods. Today many say to God (in effect) – 'You are not enough; I need loud or rhythmic music in addition, to excite me.'

The rule for every aspect of worship given by the apostle Paul (whether singing or hearing the Word) is – 'Let all things be done unto edifying' (see 1 Corinthians 14.26 ). The word edifying (in its various forms) is Paul's key word in worship texts. It refers to the erection of a building, but Paul uses it exclusively to mean the building up of the understanding. Every element of worship must be understood, to be valid. We are spiritually moved, not by melody, beauty or spectacle, but by what we understand.

'Worship,' says Puritan Stephen Charnock, 'is an act of the understanding applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God . . . It is also an act of the will, whereby the soul adores and reverences His majesty, is ravished with His amiableness, embraceth His goodness, enters itself into intimate communion with this most lovely object, and pitcheth all its affections upon Him' (Works, 1.298). The latter engagement of mind and soul can only follow the initial stirring up of the understanding.

We repeat yet again that in Christian worship we have the privilege of many beautiful tunes, and we are allowed to sing with accompaniment, but these must be kept within reasonable bounds, so that we never depend on them to contribute heavily to our feelings. The new worship, however, is all about music and song being used in such a way that there is a direct influence upon the feelings.

We may ask new worship advocates the same question as before – 'Why do you want to bring extra instruments into your worship?' The answer may come – 'Because it lifts us up and warms and excites us. Because we feel the Lord more. Because we enjoy our worship more. Because we worship at a deeper and more intimate level.' But surely this shows that ecstatic worship ideas have crept in. There can be no greater enjoyment than to respond with spiritual appreciation to great spiritual blessings. Why should we need more instruments to improve on this? Any group, band or orchestra will introduce an ecstatic element to praise, and this is against the principles of New Testament worship.

The new worship sets out to stir emotions externally and artificially. It is all so like Catholicism in this respect. Their worship, we have seen, is an aesthetic offering. It is also ecstatic, designed to engage and satisfy the emotions. It is true that the theatricalism of Catholic tradition is different from contemporary worship in some ways. It bombards the senses with smells and bells, processions, chants and so on. The old Latin mass was not about understanding but making an impression on the senses. Touching requiems were composed to move people emotionally.

The mystery plays of Rome were calculated to appeal to and move the feelings. The medium was considered to be more enjoyable and emotionally effective than the message, and we are back to this in present-day evangelicalism. Contemporary Christian worship shares the same theatrical and earthly aims as Rome.

Today, leading pastors encourage worship procedures designed to move, please, uplift and entertain. Sincere thoughts and words, and views of the Lord and His Word are simply not enough.

New-worship advocates give the game away in their writings. One of Britain's pioneers of new worship wrote in a magazine article the following sentiments. He recalled how, as a young man, he once wearily rose in his pew at the beginning of a (traditional) morning service –

' . . . resigned to a miserable morning, and thought to myself how dreadful it was that the hymn we were singing had so many verses. Most of the lines made no sense to me at all. Worse still, there were three more hymns like this before the meeting was finished! The whole thing was dreadfully boring.

'I tried my best to inject feeling into the 'worship', but it was like squeezing a shrivelled orange for the last drop of juice, only to be disappointed when nothing came.

'Worst of all, I kept thinking over what the pastor had said at the start of the service. He told us that we would spend eternity engaged in worship. I couldn't think of a more dreadful prospect. Surely that would be eternal endurance, not eternal life!'

The writer is frank. He is not saying that he found himself in a spiritually unsound or poorly conducted service. He caricatures any traditional worship service. He found, he tells us, liberty and enjoyment in new songs and music which could stir his passions and allow him liberty for the uninhibited expression of his feelings.

But why could he not identify with the great hymns of the faith in the church of his youth? Why did sincere thoughts and words directed to God fail to touch him? Why did they bore him to distraction? The answer is that for him, emotions had to be worked up by external aids and uninhibited actions. They had to be worked up and put on. This is just what we mean by 'ecstatic' worship. Tragically, no one told this man, in his youth, what he was getting into, and its artificiality and pandering to the flesh.

We can understand how necessary the ecstatic ingredient of new worship is in the charismatic movement. Here (because of the shallowness of preaching) large numbers of people are not really converted. They need artificial emotions. Without the human generation of emotions there would be nothing for them.

Similarly, in some of the so-called mega-churches of the USA, where the true challenge of the Gospel is greatly watered down so as not to offend worshippers, large numbers of people depend on the external emotional impact of the musical-song production. If people are brought to easy professions, and not truly changed by the power of the Spirit, they will not be capable of spiritual appreciation – the basis of true worship.

Leading exponents of new worship now speak strongly against hymns as too cerebral and complex. They want almost entirely choruses, because these, with their minimal truth content, do not get in the way of the music and its effect upon the emotions. They say that 'meaning' obscures 'feeling'!

A word must be said about the extreme manifestation of ecstatic worship, which really amounts to mystical worship. This happens when the emotional impact of music and song is intended to assist the impression of a 'direct touch' of God, or an extraordinary sense of union with Him.

In true mysticism this is sought by such techniques as contemplation and of endlessly repeating thoughts. In charismatic worship it is worked up by powerful musical manipulation, the participants swaying with closed eyes, upturned faces and outstretched hands, yielding themselves wholly into the influence of the words and music.

Words of their choruses and hymns often claim a direct touch with the Lord, or a strong sense of His surrounding arms. Instead of approaching God by faith, and reflecting on His sure Truth and His wonderful work, such worshippers seek a direct mystical impression of God's presence. Mystical worship represents the extreme flank of ecstatic worship, but it now has an immense following around the world. The understanding is unfruitful, but this hardly matters. Spirit and truth are outmoded. Artificially induced feelings are king.

Is mystical worship coming into non-charismatic circles? The alarming answer is that it is firmly established, as a modern definition from a leading seminary professor shows. Here is his definition – widely applauded and accepted. He defines worship as –

'an encounter in which God's glory, Word and graces are unveiled, and we respond, in songs and prayers of celebration. Worshippers seek an encounter with the glory of God, the transcendent power and numinous mystery of the divine.'

Notice the word 'encounter'. Is it an encounter by faith? No, it is nothing other than a mystical encounter with the glory of God. Are we reading too much into this? No, sadly, because it is also described as an encounter with the transcendent power of God! Surely the language is far too powerful to describe anything other than a felt, mystical sensation? The use of the words numinous mystery are conclusive, because numinous refers to the awesome presence of divinity.

The author of this definition believes that worship is a felt encounter with the glorious presence of God in a fully mystical sense, and in his writings shows how this is effected by the entire contents and trappings of a service – spiritual and material. We must be warned – the old definitions are being discarded with indifference and even with contempt, and new ideas are being propounded which are totally contrary to biblical and reformational teaching. The new worship is firmly ecstatic, and also largely mystical. Do cautious, 'light' users really wish to identify with all this?

3. PROFANE WORSHIP

THE THIRD MAJOR departure from biblical principles of worship is the flagrant disregard of the gulf between sacred and profane, so that the worst musical entertainment forms of the world are brought into the praise of God. Thus it becomes profane worship.

This writer, until recently, used the term 'worldly idiom worship' to describe this phenomenon, but it lacked precision. Some people would naturally ask, 'What exactly is worldliness?' Is a musical instrument or a musical style unsuitable for worship simply because the world does it? No, but it is unsuitable for worship if it is used by the world to promote an anti-God, anti-moral agenda.

The word profane focuses the issue more clearly. Is classical music worldly? Not necessarily. It may be beautiful music, not identified with or promoting anti-God, anti-moral forces. Are the old folk songs worldly? Not necessarily. Many were innocently sung for years in the primary schools of a more moral age. (Please notice that this comment is about old folk songs, not the new genre.)

Is the guitar worldly? Not necessarily – it depends whether it is used simply and of necessity (as by the unregistered Russian congregations who were compelled to worship in forests), or by Christians deliberately courting a pop image for the church.

Is the modern entertainment scene worldly? Most definitely, because it is the most powerful and determined anti-God, anti-moral, anti-authority culture for centuries. It is profane, treating moral and sacred things with utmost irreverence and disregard. It actively and militantly decries biblical morality, substituting the opposite. It promotes an alternative society, including the worship of self and of lust as normal, reasonable and acceptable, and that is its standing in the mind of the public.

For this reason the new worship movement is wrong, and sins against God when it borrows and employs all the distinctive components of today's popular entertainment culture. Modern worship is a total artistic identification with that culture, contrary to the exhortation of 1 John 2.15-16:

'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world'.

Modern worship equally rejects the parallel warning in James 4.4:

'Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.'

The Lord calls for submission to His standards, and will resist, not bless, those who set themselves above His Word. This is clear from James 4.6, where, immediately following the prohibition of friendship with the world, the warning to offenders is given – 'God resisteth the proud.'

A significant statement appeared in a Christian magazine article about the new worship. Thinking of 'Willow Creek', a mega-church in the USA noted for its contemporary worship, the writer said – 'Only a generation that loved Woodstock could love Willow Creek.' That hits the nail on the head. New worship is designed to close the gap between the church and the world, in order to 'win' the latter, and that, we maintain, is to employ sinful compromise in the work of the Lord.

For the last time, we must put the question – why would any church want to bring a multiplicity of instruments on to the platform? What is the aim? What, precisely, will be achieved by a group of guitars plus percussion? And what exactly is added by the inclusion of trumpet, trombone, drums, saxophone and xylophone (now so common)? The answer may well come back along these lines: 'These commend us to the present generation, drawing them in and showing them that Christianity is not fusty, but right for them, and they have nothing to fear.'

So the new worship does away with the separation of the church from the world, unites both together in Vanity Fair, and does away with the offence of the Cross. (Other biblical commands to maintain at all costs the separation between sacred and profane in worship were presented in this writer's recent review of a new hymnal, under the title 'A New Kind of Praise – Sacred and Secular Merged', Sword & Trowel 2001 No. 1. )

We have asked the same simple question about wanting more instruments three times, and the answers – all of which are typical – betray the adoption of aesthetic, then ecstatic, then profane policies of worship.

* * *

The three deviations just described contradict three great principles recovered in the blaze of New Testament light that shone so brightly at the time of the Reformation. Worship is to be offered in spirit and in truth, and not by works of skill or artistry. Worship is to be directed from the understanding, our joy being a response to things we sincerely appreciate, not a joy deliberately generated and magnified by 'external' means such as rhythm and emotive music.

Worship is to be kept apart from decadent and godless worldly culture, and not to be polluted by the deliberate adoption of that culture.

These principles must never be dismissed or surrendered. How we worship is not an accident of history – it is the application of principles. It is not a matter of culture or generation, but a matter of obeying and pleasing God the Father, to Whom worship is directed, God the Son in Whose name we offer it, and God the Holy Spirit, Who translates it into the 'language' of Heaven.

Reverence

A fourth vital principle of worship is the necessity of reverence, which in some form was still in place at the time of the Reformation. Even amidst the spiritual darkness of Rome, the instinct of the common people told them that God must be approached with awe and reverence. Amazingly, advocates of new worship cannot even see this most obvious duty of Christians. Their notions of worship largely discard reverence in favour of uninhibited self-expression. This problem is addressed in a companion article, Sword & Trowel No 3, 2001, page 25.

What About Psalm 150?

Does the psalter sanction all kinds of instruments?

In response to our critical article about the new hymnbook – Praise! – included in the last issue of Sword & Trowel, several correspondents have pointed to Psalm 150 as evidence that all kinds of instruments, including percussion (the 'timbrel' or tambourine) may be employed in worship.

The problem, however, with taking Psalm 150 as an exhortation to literally use the instruments it names, is that a serious contradiction is made to appear in Scripture. Such a contradiction is, of course, impossible. If Psalm 150 is to be taken literally, then the psalmist commands his readers to ignore God's firm rules for instruments of worship laid down in the time of David (and re-affirmed in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah). This matter is of tremendous importance, because Psalm 150 must be understood in the context of the rules for that time.

For a detailed look at these rules, please see the article Brass, Strings & Percussion? – The facts about Bible instruments and the strong rules restricting their use in worship; Sword & Trowel, 1998 No. 4 (part 2 of the series 'Worship in the Melting Pot').

To summarise, David was commanded by God to use only four kinds of instrument in the Temple out of nine commonly used in the social life of the Jews. The selected instruments could only be played by certain priests and Levites, on specified occasions and at certain points of the worship. It is most probable that this was required by God to prevent musical instruments from overpowering the all-important spiritual element of worship. The Old Testament rules for instruments do not apply today, but the principle behind them, namely the practice of restraint, certainly does.

The permitted instruments were psaltery, harp, cymbals and trumpet. These played, while the choir sang, throughout the burnt offering, and when the offering was consumed the instruments stopped, and the people continued to worship without them.

The purpose of trumpets (also used for calling of solemn assemblies) and cymbals (marking the timing) was no doubt to produce a sense of awe and even of shame while the offering burned. No timbrels or drums were allowed in the Temple, and the notion of percussion-heavy, happy-clappy worship is far from reality.

For the singing of psalms outside the Temple (in private and 'synagogue' worship), harps and psalteries are the only instruments prescribed. Six psalms mention other instruments in use, but these psalms are clearly calling the people to join in open-air, civic thanksgiving celebrations for great victories, as well as to direct worship. The rules, therefore, are not broken.

In these open-air festivities timbrels (tambourines) were waved by the little girls who led the victory processions, and any instrument of normal social use was encouraged. However, for the direct worship of Almighty God, whether in Temple or home, the extra instruments were not employed. All this is set out at length, with texts, in the article previously referred to.

In the case of the six psalms which call people to outdoor, civic processions, we must remember that Israel was a nation-state, as well as a church. Greater latitude was in order for national festivities than was permitted for worship.

We return to the case of Psalm 150. At least two unauthorised instruments are mentioned in the psalm.* If these are here prescribed for direct worship, then, as we have said, the Bible contains a major contradiction, and its integrity and authority is challenged.

However, the psalm announces itself by referring to the sanctuary as the firmament of God's power, which means - the 'temple' of the entire universe. The psalmist plainly has in view the open-air, civic thanksgiving events of the nation-state of Israel, as well as the direct worship of the house of God, and this accounts for the inclusion of the 'unauthorised' instruments. It is a very comprehensive psalm.

Commentators of the past have often gone further than this, asserting that this unusual psalm is richly figurative, using the tonal characteristics of various instruments to describe the different emotions of worship. Thus the trumpet would symbolise triumphant and exalted worship, while the stringed instruments would symbolise the sweet tones of heartfelt gratitude. (A fuller treatment is given in the article referred to.)

Psalm 150 should never be appealed to as a justification for using all kinds of instrument in worship, because it would never contradict the rules set for that age. The psalm must be seen as referring to worship in its widest sense, including the civic, open-air, thanksgiving parades and also, possibly, presenting instruments as symbols.

Someone will say, 'But why cannot the symbolic instruments be used themselves in this Gospel age?' Because it is redeemed people who worship, not inanimate, soulless instruments. We are trusted by the Lord to use instrumental accompaniment, but if we elevate this to being a major source of pleasure (and even entertainment), we surely ruin 'spirit-and-truth' worship.

I believe that the friends who have written to me about Psalm 150 will receive this kind of response with serious openness and give it conscientious consideration. The spiritual and courteous tone of their letters suggests this.

Sadly, there are others who would not be interested in reading this, because they have already decided what they want to do, and Scripture will have no great influence in the matter. The drums and many other instruments are already on their platforms. They believe in the authority of Scripture, but sadly, they have far too loose a hold on God's Word in practice.

*There may even be a third unauthorised instrument, as the Hebrew word translated 'dance' may refer to a twisting pipe or horn.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

What is Wrong with Drama?

Why is Proclamation the way of the Bible?
from Sword & Trowel 2000, No. 4 by Peter Masters

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1.18)

God's chosen and appointed means of communicating the glorious Gospel is by proclamation, which means - by words. All the evangelising of the New Testament was by means of words, whether by preaching, personal witness, or writing. The world of those days was full of dramatic art and cultic symbolism, but the messengers of Calvary stood aloof from it all, and worked with words.

'How shall they hear,' asks the apostle in Romans 10, 'without a preacher?' He does not say - without an actor, or a band of musicians, or a discussion group. Gospel communication must be in words addressed to the mind. It requires rational speech, whether uttered in a large building or in a home-gathering.

Proclamational methods - particularly preaching - are under attack today in evangelical circles. The latest church-growth books nearly all sweep away the primacy of preaching, and what preaching is left makes slender use of the Word of God as a divinely provided source and model. The promoters of so-called 'seeker services', though they use a measure of preaching, tend to see it as only a component in an elaborate mix of methods.

Some writers have provided tables of methods to show the comparative effectiveness of different approaches, and preaching always appears at or near the bottom. They claim that when people are tested to find how much they remember from preaching, discussion, dramatic presentation, role-play, and video presentation, preaching gains the fewest points for efficiency. It is said to come last in terms of comprehension, retention, and persuasive force. Such 'tests', however, are never scientific, and are carried out in circumstances where preaching is poorly attempted, and by authors out to prove their case. Nevertheless, the mud thrown at preaching tends to stick.

The undermining of direct proclamation is all the more dangerous in a time when God's servants labour with such small results, due to the prevailing atheism and materialism. At such a time it is tempting to think that something other than preaching should be brought in. What is the good, we may think, of preaching week after week when we are not touching the masses?

We are vulnerable to those who say - 'You have over-emphasised preaching. You should do other things. You should join the contemporary worship movement. You should bring the drums on to the platform during the evangelistic service, introduce drama, wear jeans, cut the speaking to ten minutes and break up into discussion groups. You should do anything but proclaim.'

Resistance to the Gospel is so great that human nature begins to wilt, and traditional methods are imperilled. Well-meaning and wholly committed men have buckled under the clamour for contemporary methods of outreach, because of the hardness of the days.

A time for clarity

This is a time to fortify our trust in God's appointed methods. If a method of spreading the Gospel is not proclamational, it is not what the Lord commands and desires. It is simply not biblical, and surely, obedience is the greatest and wisest duty of God's servants in any age, and especially in an age of mounting apostasy.

Why should it be thought that speech is relatively hopeless and inadequate, when it has been so powerfully used and proved for twenty centuries of church history? Why do the advocates of Christian rock and drama have such a jaundiced view of the spoken word? Is it, perhaps (in many cases), that they cannot preach - and are not truly equipped and called by God? Or is it that they have pursued an inappropriate style of preaching? Or is it that they are revealing their true tastes as worldly 'Christians'? Or do they lack faith in the power of God's Word when attended by the Holy Spirit? Do they not realise that to draw the crowds and teach them with the 'stuff' of entertainment coupled with a lightweight version of repentance will only fill the churches with people who make shallow and deluded professions - the 'wood, hay and stubble' of Paul's famous warning to church builders?

Words are everything in evangelism. Take the Word of God. It is words! It is God speaking to us. The Old Testament certainly uses symbols, and it has one or two miniature dramatic performances, but the 'script' was written by God, the 'performances' extremely short, and they were intended as nothing more than illustrations to sermons or prophecies. At that, they were deadly serious, never the comedy-show type of sketch adopted by the 'seeker-sensitive' brigade of today, designed to get people into 'laughter meltdown'.

Of course we believe in using illustrations in our messages, and visual aids for the young, but the supreme vehicle of communication is directly-addressed words, for this is God's exclusive method of making known His grace.

Why not have drama? What is wrong with it? We have already pointed out that it is not part of the New Testament blueprint, and it is not difficult to see why.

While drama can be powerfully captivating and influential in the secular world, it is a woefully inadequate and inappropriate vehicle for the presentation of Gospel truth, being primarily entertainment, and not a direct and plain challenge to the mind. It chiefly appeals to the emotions, and seldom for long. It is most closely associated in the mind of the viewer with fiction, or make-believe, and this ethos colours its application to Gospel work, hanging as a mist before the eyes of an audience.

If drama presents a case or an argument, it must do so in an artificially contrived situation. It cannot easily compare and contrast viewpoints or argue the point, and as soon as it tries to do so it becomes more boring than direct speech ever is.

Overall, it distorts reality. The various characters inevitably obscure any message, because their own personalities and skills either please or repel watchers. If they are attracted by them, they are unconsciously disposed to approve of their case or 'message', which is merely a subtle form of emotional manipulation, and not a true appeal to the mind.

Only a minimum of real information can be conveyed by drama, perhaps at most two or three significant, simple points. It is inefficient, it is inappropriate, it runs the risk of emotional trickery, it cannot effectively argue the case, and it is not the method which has been appointed. It certainly fails to address the viewer directly, either to appeal to him, or to hold him to account before God.

Drama will inevitably empty the message of real moral conviction. Some people go to the cinema or to the theatre for a good weep, and they are affected in outlook for minutes, perhaps even for an hour or two, but it is at an emotional level only and usually has no lasting effect. In the Bible, 'graphics' are always subservient to proclamation, and that is the way we must keep it.

Portraying the Lord

As for the dramatic presentations which include portrayal of Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, one would have thought any Bible believer could readily see that this cannot be done without disfiguring the Lord. How can you worthily portray, other than in words, the Person, the life, and the heart of the Saviour of the world?

Some may say, 'But is not a film about Jesus full of words?' It certainly has words, but it also has actors, and dramatic impact and spectacle, capturing the attention of the watcher and arousing human sympathies above spiritual understanding. An actor displaces the Lord (most probably in breach of the second commandment) and the vital points of Gospel doctrines are not amplified, explained and applied - this work being the true representative of sympathetic communication.

Let us review some of the superior qualities of direct proclamation by contrast with any of the new methods and gimmickry.

First, with direct words in preaching or witness, Almighty God is always in view. He is always there. He is always being referred to. It is clearly His message, for it is brought from His Word, whereas with non-proclamational methods of presentation God is somewhat obscured, whether it is discussion which wanders and stumbles around the debris of human opinion, or whether entertainment-style songs, or whether drama. Only with direct proclamation is God always the supreme purpose and objective, and the unmistakable source of the message.

That is the point behind the tradition of having an enormous Bible on the pulpit lectern. Our forebears had big Bibles out of principle, because all could then see the source of the message and the authority behind it. The old-time travelling evangelist achieved the same effect by holding the Bible firmly in his hand, stabbing his finger at it and saying - 'The Bible says! . . . The Bible says!'

Whether the proclaimer works from a lectern or pocket Bible, God is clearly the source, authority and objective.

Secondly, proclamation like nothing else enables us to convey the spirit in which God gives this message. It may be expressed with passion, with sympathy, and with pleading urgency. Drama conveys and evokes feeling, but it is feeling expressed between the characters, or evoked by the impact of a situation, not the attitude and heart of God to sinners. Only direct speech on His behalf can convey some sense of this. Do not let anyone denigrate straightforward preaching or Sunday School teaching, because it alone brings the heart of God to listeners.

Thirdly, direct proclamation alone engages the free, rational mind. It is true that preaching can exploit emotional manipulation. The speaker can tell sob-stories, and let his voice range from shivering tones to explosions of sound, jarring the feelings. But if excessive histrionic tricks are avoided, direct speech addresses the responsible (though fallen) thinking faculty, to challenge it and persuade it.

The hearer is not influenced by extraneous things. He is not hypnotised under the sway of compelling, rhythmic music, or projected into an emotional trance by something which moves him at a fleshly level. He listens to plain words, and his mind (from a human standpoint) is under no coercion. He hears a clear message, passionately expressed, but without manipulation, and as the Spirit moves, his response will be genuine. If he rejects this direct message, God will be just in holding him to account.

Fourthly, proclamation enables the 'tone' of communication to be right in another way. This message is serious. This is a life-or-death matter. This concerns eternity. Like nothing else, preaching can get the tone right. Direct proclamation, even though there may be moments of humour, accommodates intrinsic authority, reverence for God, and seriousness.

We have already noted that drama is associated with entertainment, and cannot therefore achieve the right tone. With drama the audience is transported into the realm of unreality from the beginning. With entertainment-style music the hearer is the 'customer', and the singers and instrumentalists the artistes, whose job is to please. In the case of discussion groups, every member is wrongly given the right to determine what is Truth, for they are gathered to teach one another, and to arrive at the Truth between them. They are the source of Truth. They are all-important. Where, here, is the necessary humility to hear the Gospel, and where are the authority and seriousness of Truth? Only proclamation possesses the capacity to preserve these.

Fifthly (extending the previous point), nothing has convicting power like direct proclamation. This message is about great matters of the soul. It concerns God's righteous judgement, and the possibility of a momentous escape through His amazing love and astounding forgiveness. It is about great guilt and deep need. Direct proclamation, blessed by the Spirit, is the exclusive vehicle for the arresting and convicting of the soul. The keep-it-light methodology of the entertainment and seeker-service circles seldom ever knows anything like this. In the end, they must turn to charismatic tricks, such as slayings in the Spirit, induced by crude mass-hypnosis, as a substitute for the convicting of the heart.

Paul says twice that he was ordained a preacher, and this is of great importance.* In the Greek he uses the word herald. The characteristics of a herald in biblical times are of immense significance. A court herald in the ancient world was not allowed to do anything on his own initiative. He had to keep strictly to his text.

Heralds were often sent as envoys in war to an enemy capital or camp, but they were never negotiators. They kept within their brief, taking the message and returning with the response.

Paul uses the 'herald' term because these duties perfectly mirror the very limited office of a Christian preacher, who is not called to devise new methods of communication for every age, but to honour and operate those established in the New Testament.

The term herald also described a town crier who declared whatever message he was given. He could not change the announcement or the date. Similarly, we are not given the scope to vary either the message or the method. We are to work within the limits that are appointed to us, and this is what is being forgotten today. Our energy and initiative should be deployed in bringing in the people and Sunday School youngsters to hear proclamation, and not replacing it with entertainment.

Paul says that he did not preach the Gospel - 'with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect'. He does not mean that preachers cannot use arguments, because he used them himself. His own preaching was wisely marshalled, exposing the folly of dedication to this world, and establishing the necessity of turning to Jesus Christ for salvation. However, he never blended evangelism with worldly wisdom, employing Greek philosophy to tickle the ears of the intellectuals in an attempt to make his message more attractive to them. He never mixed the message with what they wanted to hear.

It is inconceivable that the apostle, if he were alive today, would say, 'The proclamation of the Gospel is not popular and therefore I will mix it, not with Greek philosophy, but with a rock band performance which will commend itself to the people. Then I will reduce the message drastically to give room for pieces of drama, because they do not want to listen to anything serious.'

Whether Greek philosophy or the sound of drums, it is exactly the same - the mixing of the message of the Word with something preferred by lost society, so that we can avoid the offence of the cross. This is what Paul, inspired by the Spirit, clearly condemns.

Only words can cope

When we proclaim the cross of Christ we have much to do. We must present the need for the cross, the holiness of God, the Fall of man, the Person of Christ, and what really happened on that cross. We must also expose the emptiness and futility of life without God, the benefits of salvation, the exclusive saving merits of the cross, and the tragedy of a lost eternity. But only words can adequately explain these matters to rational minds, informing them of the details and challenging attitudes in a way that the Holy Spirit can use. Only words can inform, persuade and remonstrate in a convicting, challenging and appealing way. Only words are supported by scriptural promises of instrumentality. This high work cannot possibly be done by musical entertainment, or by drama (the medium of fiction).

We appeal to preachers and church leaders not to yield to the new experiments in communication. Remember that the people who started these trends are people who present a weaker notion of both conversion and the Christian life, in order to retain a considerable degree of worldliness.

These 'evangelists' only seek a moderately sanitised lifestyle. What they promote is a new syncretism - God and mammon; Christ and the world - and they have proved that it is extremely popular. These are the people who have invented the plethora of new, non-proclamational gimmicks and methods.

Do not imagine this is merely a generational thing. Today's trends mark a deliberate departure from the Christianity which calls people from sin and worldliness to a radical, Holy-Spirit-wrought conversion. Genuine Christian workers must not fall into a system engineered by doubtful workers.

We first encountered these alternatives to proclamation (on a serious scale) at the end of the 1960s when Campus Crusade launched their original 'Four Spiritual Laws'. Certainly, there were Campus workers who were godly people and whose evangelistic efforts rose much higher than their official script, but the script they were supposed to follow fell woefully short of the message of the Gospel.

Big-band musical entertainment jostled with show-biz testimonies and ultra-short messages pointing to a tragically undersized Gospel challenge. Readers may remember the general line: 'God has a wonderful plan for your life.' God is full of smiles and readiness to bless, but, said the script (in effect), there is just one little problem in the way. Before you can be blessed, you need to get this little matter of repentance out of the way. Happily, this can be done in a short sentence, then you can go on to the next, nicer step.

We are, of course, parodying the Campus formula, but it certainly minimised matters, falling short of any real conviction. This is precisely what is going on with most of those who now promote drama and entertainment as an alternative to the direct challenge of proclamation. They do not want the convicting character and power of the authentic message.

For all we have said about the superiority of direct proclamation, the power is not inherent, but is the work of the Spirit. The fact that we preach does not guarantee blessing, and the apostle expresses this bluntly: 'For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.' Countless people will react with scorn. They will understand, but think it is ridiculous and foolish to put these propositions before them.

They will say to themselves, 'I do not accept that I am a condemned sinner. And if I turn to this Saviour, I shall forfeit my right to rule my own life and do what I want. I will have to conform to new standards, and many things that I am committed to and enjoy will have to go. It is ridiculous to ask me to do this.'

A non-authentic response

Sweetening the pill by watering down the Gospel and disguising it with entertainment will not make it more acceptable, only less understandable. People will hear a modified, weakened Gospel, and their response will not be authentic.

The apostle warns that proclamation works only because God makes it work in the hearts of His people.

When people say to us, 'You people are just traditionalists, stuck firmly in the past, and you want everything to be done in a 19th-century manner,' they have got us wrong. We want to use direct proclamation because it is what God tells us exclusively to do. Whether it is Sunday School teaching, personal witness, preaching in the pulpit, or printed tracts and books, the scriptural way is to present the Gospel in rational words, to rational minds, supported by earnest prayer.

Many evangelicals today see that the public wants rock groups, informality, conviviality, drama and other entertainments, and whereas the apostle Paul had no intention of obliging the carnal wishes of either Greek or Jew, today's modernisers go overboard to give outsiders exactly what they think will please them.

Let us focus all our energies on forms of direct proclamation, and activities which bring people under that influence. These are the only two legitimate aspects of evangelism - proclamation, and efforts that support it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why Is Proclamation the Way of the Bible?

From Sword & Trowel 2000, No. 4

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1.18)

God's chosen and appointed means of communicating the glorious Gospel is by proclamation, which means - by words. All the evangelising of the New Testament was by means of words, whether by preaching, personal witness, or writing. The world of those days was full of dramatic art and cultic symbolism, but the messengers of Calvary stood aloof from it all, and worked with words.

'How shall they hear,' asks the apostle in Romans 10, 'without a preacher?' He does not say - without an actor, or a band of musicians, or a discussion group. Gospel communication must be in words addressed to the mind. It requires rational speech, whether uttered in a large building or in a home-gathering.

Proclamational methods - particularly preaching - are under attack today in evangelical circles. The latest church-growth books nearly all sweep away the primacy of preaching, and what preaching is left makes slender use of the Word of God as a divinely provided source and model. The promoters of so-called 'seeker services', though they use a measure of preaching, tend to see it as only a component in an elaborate mix of methods.

Some writers have provided tables of methods to show the comparative effectiveness of different approaches, and preaching always appears at or near the bottom. They claim that when people are tested to find how much they remember from preaching, discussion, dramatic presentation, role-play, and video presentation, preaching gains the fewest points for efficiency. It is said to come last in terms of comprehension, retention, and persuasive force. Such 'tests', however, are never scientific, and are carried out in circumstances where preaching is poorly attempted, and by authors out to prove their case. Nevertheless, the mud thrown at preaching tends to stick.

The undermining of direct proclamation is all the more dangerous in a time when God's servants labour with such small results, due to the prevailing atheism and materialism. At such a time it is tempting to think that something other than preaching should be brought in. What is the good, we may think, of preaching week after week when we are not touching the masses?

We are vulnerable to those who say - 'You have over-emphasised preaching. You should do other things. You should join the contemporary worship movement. You should bring the drums on to the platform during the evangelistic service, introduce drama, wear jeans, cut the speaking to ten minutes and break up into discussion groups. You should do anything but proclaim.'

Resistance to the Gospel is so great that human nature begins to wilt, and traditional methods are imperilled. Well-meaning and wholly committed men have buckled under the clamour for contemporary methods of outreach, because of the hardness of the days.

A time for clarity

This is a time to fortify our trust in God's appointed methods. If a method of spreading the Gospel is not proclamational, it is not what the Lord commands and desires. It is simply not biblical, and surely, obedience is the greatest and wisest duty of God's servants in any age, and especially in an age of mounting apostasy.

Why should it be thought that speech is relatively hopeless and inadequate, when it has been so powerfully used and proved for twenty centuries of church history? Why do the advocates of Christian rock and drama have such a jaundiced view of the spoken word? Is it, perhaps (in many cases), that they cannot preach - and are not truly equipped and called by God? Or is it that they have pursued an inappropriate style of preaching? Or is it that they are revealing their true tastes as worldly 'Christians'? Or do they lack faith in the power of God's Word when attended by the Holy Spirit? Do they not realise that to draw the crowds and teach them with the 'stuff' of entertainment coupled with a lightweight version of repentance will only fill the churches with people who make shallow and deluded professions - the 'wood, hay and stubble' of Paul's famous warning to church builders?

Words are everything in evangelism. Take the Word of God. It is words! It is God speaking to us. The Old Testament certainly uses symbols, and it has one or two miniature dramatic performances, but the 'script' was written by God, the 'performances' extremely short, and they were intended as nothing more than illustrations to sermons or prophecies. At that, they were deadly serious, never the comedy-show type of sketch adopted by the 'seeker-sensitive' brigade of today, designed to get people into 'laughter meltdown'.

Of course we believe in using illustrations in our messages, and visual aids for the young, but the supreme vehicle of communication is directly-addressed words, for this is God's exclusive method of making known His grace.

Why not have drama? What is wrong with it? We have already pointed out that it is not part of the New Testament blueprint, and it is not difficult to see why.

While drama can be powerfully captivating and influential in the secular world, it is a woefully inadequate and inappropriate vehicle for the presentation of Gospel truth, being primarily entertainment, and not a direct and plain challenge to the mind. It chiefly appeals to the emotions, and seldom for long. It is most closely associated in the mind of the viewer with fiction, or make-believe, and this ethos colours its application to Gospel work, hanging as a mist before the eyes of an audience.

If drama presents a case or an argument, it must do so in an artificially contrived situation. It cannot easily compare and contrast viewpoints or argue the point, and as soon as it tries to do so it becomes more boring than direct speech ever is.

Overall, it distorts reality. The various characters inevitably obscure any message, because their own personalities and skills either please or repel watchers. If they are attracted by them, they are unconsciously disposed to approve of their case or 'message', which is merely a subtle form of emotional manipulation, and not a true appeal to the mind.

Only a minimum of real information can be conveyed by drama, perhaps at most two or three significant, simple points. It is inefficient, it is inappropriate, it runs the risk of emotional trickery, it cannot effectively argue the case, and it is not the method which has been appointed. It certainly fails to address the viewer directly, either to appeal to him, or to hold him to account before God.

Drama will inevitably empty the message of real moral conviction. Some people go to the cinema or to the theatre for a good weep, and they are affected in outlook for minutes, perhaps even for an hour or two, but it is at an emotional level only and usually has no lasting effect. In the Bible, 'graphics' are always subservient to proclamation, and that is the way we must keep it.

Portraying the Lord

As for the dramatic presentations which include portrayal of Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, one would have thought any Bible believer could readily see that this cannot be done without disfiguring the Lord. How can you worthily portray, other than in words, the Person, the life, and the heart of the Saviour of the world?

Some may say, 'But is not a film about Jesus full of words?' It certainly has words, but it also has actors, and dramatic impact and spectacle, capturing the attention of the watcher and arousing human sympathies above spiritual understanding. An actor displaces the Lord (most probably in breach of the second commandment) and the vital points of Gospel doctrines are not amplified, explained and applied - this work being the true representative of sympathetic communication.

Let us review some of the superior qualities of direct proclamation by contrast with any of the new methods and gimmickry.

First, with direct words in preaching or witness, Almighty God is always in view. He is always there. He is always being referred to. It is clearly His message, for it is brought from His Word, whereas with non-proclamational methods of presentation God is somewhat obscured, whether it is discussion which wanders and stumbles around the debris of human opinion, or whether entertainment-style songs, or whether drama. Only with direct proclamation is God always the supreme purpose and objective, and the unmistakable source of the message.

That is the point behind the tradition of having an enormous Bible on the pulpit lectern. Our forebears had big Bibles out of principle, because all could then see the source of the message and the authority behind it. The old-time travelling evangelist achieved the same effect by holding the Bible firmly in his hand, stabbing his finger at it and saying - 'The Bible says! . . . The Bible says!'

Whether the proclaimer works from a lectern or pocket Bible, God is clearly the source, authority and objective.

Secondly, proclamation like nothing else enables us to convey the spirit in which God gives this message. It may be expressed with passion, with sympathy, and with pleading urgency. Drama conveys and evokes feeling, but it is feeling expressed between the characters, or evoked by the impact of a situation, not the attitude and heart of God to sinners. Only direct speech on His behalf can convey some sense of this. Do not let anyone denigrate straightforward preaching or Sunday School teaching, because it alone brings the heart of God to listeners.

Thirdly, direct proclamation alone engages the free, rational mind. It is true that preaching can exploit emotional manipulation. The speaker can tell sob-stories, and let his voice range from shivering tones to explosions of sound, jarring the feelings. But if excessive histrionic tricks are avoided, direct speech addresses the responsible (though fallen) thinking faculty, to challenge it and persuade it.

The hearer is not influenced by extraneous things. He is not hypnotised under the sway of compelling, rhythmic music, or projected into an emotional trance by something which moves him at a fleshly level. He listens to plain words, and his mind (from a human standpoint) is under no coercion. He hears a clear message, passionately expressed, but without manipulation, and as the Spirit moves, his response will be genuine. If he rejects this direct message, God will be just in holding him to account.

Fourthly, proclamation enables the 'tone' of communication to be right in another way. This message is serious. This is a life-or-death matter. This concerns eternity. Like nothing else, preaching can get the tone right. Direct proclamation, even though there may be moments of humour, accommodates intrinsic authority, reverence for God, and seriousness.

We have already noted that drama is associated with entertainment, and cannot therefore achieve the right tone. With drama the audience is transported into the realm of unreality from the beginning. With entertainment-style music the hearer is the 'customer', and the singers and instrumentalists the artistes, whose job is to please. In the case of discussion groups, every member is wrongly given the right to determine what is Truth, for they are gathered to teach one another, and to arrive at the Truth between them. They are the source of Truth. They are all-important. Where, here, is the necessary humility to hear the Gospel, and where are the authority and seriousness of Truth? Only proclamation possesses the capacity to preserve these.

Fifthly (extending the previous point), nothing has convicting power like direct proclamation. This message is about great matters of the soul. It concerns God's righteous judgement, and the possibility of a momentous escape through His amazing love and astounding forgiveness. It is about great guilt and deep need. Direct proclamation, blessed by the Spirit, is the exclusive vehicle for the arresting and convicting of the soul. The keep-it-light methodology of the entertainment and seeker-service circles seldom ever knows anything like this. In the end, they must turn to charismatic tricks, such as slayings in the Spirit, induced by crude mass-hypnosis, as a substitute for the convicting of the heart.

Paul says twice that he was ordained a preacher, and this is of great importance.* In the Greek he uses the word herald. The characteristics of a herald in biblical times are of immense significance. A court herald in the ancient world was not allowed to do anything on his own initiative. He had to keep strictly to his text.

Heralds were often sent as envoys in war to an enemy capital or camp, but they were never negotiators. They kept within their brief, taking the message and returning with the response.

Paul uses the 'herald' term because these duties perfectly mirror the very limited office of a Christian preacher, who is not called to devise new methods of communication for every age, but to honour and operate those established in the New Testament.

The term herald also described a town crier who declared whatever message he was given. He could not change the announcement or the date. Similarly, we are not given the scope to vary either the message or the method. We are to work within the limits that are appointed to us, and this is what is being forgotten today. Our energy and initiative should be deployed in bringing in the people and Sunday School youngsters to hear proclamation, and not replacing it with entertainment.

Paul says that he did not preach the Gospel - 'with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect'. He does not mean that preachers cannot use arguments, because he used them himself. His own preaching was wisely marshalled, exposing the folly of dedication to this world, and establishing the necessity of turning to Jesus Christ for salvation. However, he never blended evangelism with worldly wisdom, employing Greek philosophy to tickle the ears of the intellectuals in an attempt to make his message more attractive to them. He never mixed the message with what they wanted to hear.

It is inconceivable that the apostle, if he were alive today, would say, 'The proclamation of the Gospel is not popular and therefore I will mix it, not with Greek philosophy, but with a rock band performance which will commend itself to the people. Then I will reduce the message drastically to give room for pieces of drama, because they do not want to listen to anything serious.'

Whether Greek philosophy or the sound of drums, it is exactly the same - the mixing of the message of the Word with something preferred by lost society, so that we can avoid the offence of the cross. This is what Paul, inspired by the Spirit, clearly condemns.

Only words can cope

When we proclaim the cross of Christ we have much to do. We must present the need for the cross, the holiness of God, the Fall of man, the Person of Christ, and what really happened on that cross. We must also expose the emptiness and futility of life without God, the benefits of salvation, the exclusive saving merits of the cross, and the tragedy of a lost eternity. But only words can adequately explain these matters to rational minds, informing them of the details and challenging attitudes in a way that the Holy Spirit can use. Only words can inform, persuade and remonstrate in a convicting, challenging and appealing way. Only words are supported by scriptural promises of instrumentality. This high work cannot possibly be done by musical entertainment, or by drama (the medium of fiction).

We appeal to preachers and church leaders not to yield to the new experiments in communication. Remember that the people who started these trends are people who present a weaker notion of both conversion and the Christian life, in order to retain a considerable degree of worldliness.

These 'evangelists' only seek a moderately sanitised lifestyle. What they promote is a new syncretism - God and mammon; Christ and the world - and they have proved that it is extremely popular. These are the people who have invented the plethora of new, non-proclamational gimmicks and methods.

Do not imagine this is merely a generational thing. Today's trends mark a deliberate departure from the Christianity which calls people from sin and worldliness to a radical, Holy-Spirit-wrought conversion. Genuine Christian workers must not fall into a system engineered by doubtful workers.

We first encountered these alternatives to proclamation (on a serious scale) at the end of the 1960s when Campus Crusade launched their original 'Four Spiritual Laws'. Certainly, there were Campus workers who were godly people and whose evangelistic efforts rose much higher than their official script, but the script they were supposed to follow fell woefully short of the message of the Gospel.

Big-band musical entertainment jostled with show-biz testimonies and ultra-short messages pointing to a tragically undersized Gospel challenge. Readers may remember the general line: 'God has a wonderful plan for your life.' God is full of smiles and readiness to bless, but, said the script (in effect), there is just one little problem in the way. Before you can be blessed, you need to get this little matter of repentance out of the way. Happily, this can be done in a short sentence, then you can go on to the next, nicer step.

We are, of course, parodying the Campus formula, but it certainly minimised matters, falling short of any real conviction. This is precisely what is going on with most of those who now promote drama and entertainment as an alternative to the direct challenge of proclamation. They do not want the convicting character and power of the authentic message.

For all we have said about the superiority of direct proclamation, the power is not inherent, but is the work of the Spirit. The fact that we preach does not guarantee blessing, and the apostle expresses this bluntly: 'For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.' Countless people will react with scorn. They will understand, but think it is ridiculous and foolish to put these propositions before them.

They will say to themselves, 'I do not accept that I am a condemned sinner. And if I turn to this Saviour, I shall forfeit my right to rule my own life and do what I want. I will have to conform to new standards, and many things that I am committed to and enjoy will have to go. It is ridiculous to ask me to do this.'

A non-authentic response

Sweetening the pill by watering down the Gospel and disguising it with entertainment will not make it more acceptable, only less understandable. People will hear a modified, weakened Gospel, and their response will not be authentic.

The apostle warns that proclamation works only because God makes it work in the hearts of His people.

When people say to us, 'You people are just traditionalists, stuck firmly in the past, and you want everything to be done in a 19th-century manner,' they have got us wrong. We want to use direct proclamation because it is what God tells us exclusively to do. Whether it is Sunday School teaching, personal witness, preaching in the pulpit, or printed tracts and books, the scriptural way is to present the Gospel in rational words, to rational minds, supported by earnest prayer.

Many evangelicals today see that the public wants rock groups, informality, conviviality, drama and other entertainments, and whereas the apostle Paul had no intention of obliging the carnal wishes of either Greek or Jew, today's modernisers go overboard to give outsiders exactly what they think will please them.

Let us focus all our energies on forms of direct proclamation, and activities which bring people under that influence. These are the only two legitimate aspects of evangelism - proclamation, and efforts that support it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Slouching away from Gomorrah

from Sword & Trowel 2002, No. 3 by Phillip R Johnson

The great poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem shortly after World War I called 'The Second Coming'. However, despite the title it was a very pessimistic poem. Yeats was observing the rapid dissolution of society, and as he looked into the future, he saw nothing but certain doom. As an unbeliever, he did not look forward to a literal divine appearance with great longing and anticipation; he dreaded the day.

As he watched the destruction of the social order and all the things that were going wrong in his time, it seemed to him that the end of the world was imminent. He wrote in that poem –

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

At the end of the poem he pictured the coming day of doom as a 'rough beast' –

. . . its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

A few years ago a famous judge in America, Robert Bork, was nominated for the Supreme Court. He was not appointed, because he was far too controversial in his views, but he gained a measure of fame in the wake of his rejection, and he adapted that closing line of Yeats' poem as the title of a best-selling book – 'Slouching Towards Gomorrah'.

Judge Bork, like Yeats the poet, could see that society is in rapid decline. Both understood that society has no hope when (in Yeats' words) good men 'lack conviction', and evil men 'are full of passionate intensity'. Such are the days in which we live.

Judge Bork, looking at the scene, said the real problem in our society is not that some external doom is descending upon us, but that society itself is marching steadfastly towards its own doom. Our problem is not some 'end-times beast' slouching towards Bethlehem; rather, all of society is slouching towards Gomorrah.

As I look at the state of Christ's church worldwide today I see an even more frightening prospect. By and large, the church has fallen in love with Gomorrah. The church today seems to be on a quest to see how much like the world she can become. Contemporary evangelicalism seems to want to absorb as much of the world as it can, and to imitate the world as much as it can. Whatever is popular in the world today will soon be embraced by the church. Today's secular fads will have Christian counterparts tomorrow; we can count on it.

'Gangsta rap'

There are already Christian nightclubs, and even Christian 'gangsta rap'. Every kind of music and fad has been absorbed by the church. In America there are even Christian nudist colonies. I have become convinced that there is no worldly fad that someone, somewhere, will not try to import into the church, in the name of Christ. All of this has deeply corrupted the church.

This is obviously not true Christianity, but it is what many people who call themselves Christians want to happen. This kind of flirting with the world has begun to dominate everything evangelicals do.

We now have 'politically correct' translations of the Bible. 'Inclusive' language is considered essential by many Bible translators. One translation, recently released, bends so far to be politically correct that every reference to the 'right hand of God' has been changed to the 'mighty hand of God' so that left-handed people will not be offended!

Someone in America has even published a version of the Bible translated into street slang. In this version of the Bible, Moses becomes a 'jive-talking home-boy', and when he reports the sixth commandment to the Israelites, it comes out like this: 'Don't waste nobody'. This is known as 'contextualising the Gospel'.

If you circulate among the leaders of evangelical missions, or in the evangelical academic community, or if you simply read Christianity Today magazine, you will find that it is virtually taken for granted that no strategy for missions or evangelism is legitimate if it doesn't attempt to contextualise the message in some way. Many modern evangelicals are convinced that the more radically we contextualise the message the more effective our mission strategy will be.

Two weeks ago The Los Angeles Times, my local newspaper, ran an article about how the doctrine of hell has disappeared from the pulpits of evangelical churches. It was entitled, 'Hold the Fire and Brimstone'. And here is what the article says:

In churches across America, hell is being frozen out as clergy find themselves increasingly hesitant to sermonise on [the subject] . . . Hell's fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell.

That is a secular newspaper analysing the issue pretty clearly. The reporter who wrote this article asked some pastors why the doctrine of eternal damnation has fallen from the radar in evangelical churches, and one pastor replied that he did not preach on hell because (in his own words) – 'It just isn't sexy enough any more.'

The article also quotes Bruce Shelley, who is a senior professor of church history at Denver Theological Seminary, who tries to justify the silence about hell this way: 'Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer orientated. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding.'

This desire to accommodate divine truth to human preferences has become endemic in the modern church, and it is the source of much of our worldliness. Multitudes of Christians today think it is their prerogative to shape and mould everything – worship, music, and even the Word of God itself – to the tastes and fashions of the world. That is the very epitome of worldliness.

Laughable and Tragic

Modern Christianity has embraced worldliness as never before. Until this generation, worldliness was almost universally deemed sinful by Christians, but no longer. I could recite for hours both laughable and tragic examples of how the contemporary church has played the harlot with the world. There is even a church, not far from where I live, where in place of conventional Sunday worship they dress in cowboy clothing, clear the floor, turn up the stereo with Country and Western music, and do line-dancing. They call this worship. This is their Sunday service.

Inevitably, when you listen to the rationale of people who advocate worldly innovations in the church, they say that this is the way to reach unbelievers. They claim to be motivated by a passion for evangelism. They are convinced, apparently, that the raw truth of the Gospel alone, proclaimed clearly, has no power to reach people. They think the secret of church growth is to make Christianity popular. All these ideas directly contradict what Scripture teaches.

I now turn to the biblical prototype of a worldly Christian – Lot. 2 Peter 2.6-9 gives a good overview of everything Scripture teaches about Lot.

'And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly; and delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: (for that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds;) the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished.'

That last sentence gives us the great lesson of Lot's life. He is an object lesson, showing that God can deliver the righteous from calamity. And notice that this passage explicitly says Lot was a 'righteous man'. He was a believer, living in the midst of the worst kinds of sin, the grossest perversions, and the most unbridled expressions of human depravity. Yet Lot remained a man of faith. He was not a man of great faith, but he was a man of faith, nonetheless.

Jude says some who are saved are just barely snatched out of the fire, and Lot was literally snatched out of the fiery judgement of God. Everything he had was burned up, yet he himself was saved.

'Carnal Christians'?

Virtually everything we learn about Lot from the Old Testament account is negative. The only solid clue we have that he was a righteous man, is that God ushered him out of Sodom before the fire and brimstone of divine judgement rained down upon that place.

Now some people believe it is possible to be a Christian and to have no righteous appetites, bear none of the fruits of the Spirit, and have no genuine love whatsoever for the things of God. This is a popular view in America today. I am sure you have heard of people who teach that some Christians are 'carnal Christians', living lives of unbroken sin and rebellion against God, but still to be regarded as genuine believers.

People who hold that view often point to Lot as an example of a believer who was utterly carnal, as if his life were totally devoid of the fruits of regeneration. But the apostle Peter, writing under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, tells us that Lot's righteous soul was 'vexed' by the evil all around him. He hated sin and he longed for righteousness, even though he was a wretched spiritual weakling.

He failed pathetically, and is certainly not a role model for us to follow. But it is wrong to characterise him as someone who was destitute of any love for righteousness. Remember, as we review his life, that his soul was tormented by his sinful environment. Those who believe they are Christians, but who are not vexed by the unrighteousness all around, will not find a kindred spirit in Lot.

Lot is presented to us, however, in Scripture primarily as a negative example. He shows the depths of failure to which a redeemed person can sink in this life, and any overview of his life is going to produce more negative lessons than positive ones. Why was Lot so worldly? We learn from the biography of Lot that 'worldliness' is a character issue. It stems from serious character defects. Wherever you find worldliness you will find weakness of character. That worldliness is so pervasive in the church today is a sign of serious and widespread lack of character among our leaders. What we observe in Lot is precisely what is wrong with the entire evangelical movement today.

Now why was Lot continuously seduced by this world, even though his citizenship lay elsewhere, even though his righteous soul was vexed by all the evil? Why was he captured by the world? As we look at his life, a number of clues emerge. Here are four reasons why so much failure permeates the biblical account of Lot's life.

By Sight Not Faith

The first reason for Lot's failure was that he walked by sight when he ought to have walked by faith. Lot, you recall, was Abraham's nephew, and in many ways they stand in stark contrast. The Bible says of Abraham that – 'By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God' (Hebrews 11.9-10).

Here is what is remarkable about Abraham, as we see him in the Old Testament: God promised him a land for ever, with wealth and blessings, and offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven. But according to Hebrews Abraham's focus was not set on earthly things. All his hopes were fixed on heavenly, eternal realities, and particularly a heavenly dwelling place.

Even though God had promised him land, Abraham lived his entire life as a nomad. He never saw the fulfilment of that promise, and he never settled in a city. But he did not care about these things, because he was not looking for an earthly city, but for one with real (spiritual) foundations 'whose builder and maker is God'. His heart and his affections were set on things above, not on things of this earth.

Seeds of Worldliness

Abraham was not perfect. He spent his share of time in Egypt, and apparently took Lot to Egypt with him. It may well be that this experience planted the seeds of worldliness in Lot's heart. When Abraham left Egypt he 'pitched his tent' in Bethel, and there built an altar and 'called upon the name of the Lord' (Genesis 12.8). This was a turning point in his life. From that time forward the key points in Abraham's life always involve an altar. Lot, on the other hand, presumably left Egypt along with Abraham, but we do not see him building an altar. And when he pitches his tent it is not by an altar, but by a city notorious for its wickedness.

When Abraham and Lot left Egypt both were wealthy men, and this is the point at which I would like to trace Lot's life. Here at Bethel, Abraham and Lot were to part company. So great was their substance that –

'the land was not able to bear them, that they might dwell together. . . And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left.'

Abraham as the elder of the two did not have to defer to Lot, but he permitted Lot to choose which direction he wanted to go. If you have ever been to the Holy Land you will possibly have a picture in your mind of this location. From the hills to the north and the west of Jerusalem you can actually look down into the Jordan valley and see everything from the Dead Sea in the south all the way up to the northern reaches of the Jordan valley. It is an incredible viewing point.

Abraham and Lot were apparently standing on one of these hills some distance to the north of where Jerusalem is today. Jericho lay just at their feet. Even today, Jericho is a plush, green oasis, but in Abraham's time, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the whole southern end of the Jordan valley was green and well-watered, right down to the southern end of the Dead Sea. And as Lot looked down from above Jericho towards the Dead Sea, he saw this luxurious, well-watered land, and this is what he chose.

It is clear that Lot is here walking by sight, not by faith. In the first place, it was selfish of him to choose at all. But in the second, he chose the fertile-looking land without considering what effect the culture of that place would have on his soul. Having chosen the whole southern Jordan valley, he quickly migrated south until he reached Sodom, the most wicked city in the vicinity, and he 'pitched his tent toward Sodom'. Lot had no business going there, and he no doubt knew that.

There is no suggestion in the biblical record that Lot was in any way attracted by the sin of Sodom. In himself, he was no Sodomite. We remember that Peter tells us his 'righteous soul' was 'vexed' by the wickedness of the place. My assumption would be that he went south toward Sodom because of the climate, wealth, and material advantages the region afforded. It promised a comfortable life for him, and so he was drawn to what looked pleasant, not what would be beneficial to his soul. Lot failed to walk according to his faith.

Content to Let God Choose

Abraham, on the other hand, was walking by faith and so he was perfectly content to let God choose for him. The record says that after Lot went, God said to Abraham, 'Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.' Whatever Lot would choose, God would give the promised blessings to Abraham for ever.

Compromise Not Confrontation

The second reason for Lot's failure was that he compromised when his situation called for confrontation. Lot's life proceeds in a downward spiral as he becomes more closely affiliated with the city of Sodom. He had, at first, 'pitched his tent toward Sodom', but one chapter later we note that he is actually living within the city boundary. Further, we are told that 'Lot sat in the gate of Sodom', which suggests that he became a 'city father' or city official.

Even though his 'righteous soul' was 'vexed' by the wickedness around him, he did not call a halt to his compromise, but continued to play a high-profile role in the public and civic life of that community.

When marauding kings conquered Sodom and carried off all its wealth and inhabitants, including Lot, Abraham organised a group of his own servants and went after those kings, primarily in order to rescue Lot. In one of the most exciting accounts in Scripture, God gave Abraham the victory, after which we see Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek. But Lot went right back to Sodom.

When the Lord tells Abraham He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city for the sake of the righteous. He may have assumed that if Lot lived there, there must be other worshippers there also. In Abraham's famous prayer he secures the promise of God to spare the city if there are fifty worshippers there, subsequently bringing the number down to ten.

Abraham no doubt assumed that this figure would assure Lot's safety. After all, Lot's own household would probably have included hundreds of people, including herdsmen, household staff, administrators and commercial staff, with all their families. (Abraham had earlier assembled an army of 318 men born in his own household.) If Lot's daughters and sons-in-law had been believers, there would have been ten in his own immediate family. But such was not the case. Whatever Lot was accomplishing in Sodom, it was certainly not evangelism, not even in his own family. After several years in Sodom he had not influenced a single convert to turn from the sin of Sodom to the worship of Jehovah.

I have already observed that nearly all worldly Christians claim to be motivated by a concern for evangelism. They want to soften the Gospel message, translate the Scriptures into jive, turn the Sunday worship service into an entertainment, or otherwise accommodate worldly fashions all because they think this is necessary to reach people for Christ.

The Offence of the Cross

In my experience such tactics are never successful. They may draw crowds and garner a temporary popularity, but I cannot think of one solid movement of revival, evangelism or missionary work that was ever prompted by, or carried out by, these methods. You cannot win the world to Christ by making Christ palatable to worldly tastes. The Gospel is an offence to the world, and it is a sin to try to eliminate the offence of the Gospel.

Lot was no doubt a gregarious, likeable fellow. One of his few outstanding virtues was his hospitality. He was obviously well known in Sodom and he was liked well enough to have a position of great prominence and influence, but the men of Sodom seem to have been completely unaware of Lot's personal standards of righteousness. He seems to have kept his faith in Jehovah so secret that when the men of Sodom discovered what he really stood for, they were offended.

When two men – angels in the event – came to Sodom one evening, and were given hospitality by Lot –

'the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: and they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.'

The men of Sodom wanted Lot's visitors for a perverted sex-orgy. They were evidently all homosexuals, and not merely homosexuals, but seriously perverted, with such voracious sexual appetites that whenever visitors came to town those men saw them as prospects for the most debauched and depraved kind of group sex.

Lot was appalled. He undoubtedly knew the character of these Sodomites, so he would not have been shocked at their action, but he was appalled to have it happen in front of guests who, as he thought, were fellow worshippers of Jehovah. We read that 'Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him.' He was ashamed to have his visitors know what was going on.

There is no way for anyone from our culture to understand what Lot did next. He offered these men his own daughters instead of his guests. Is this another classic example of how Lot always practised compromise when the situation called for confrontation? Instead of a straightforward rebuke to their wickedness, Lot offers them an alternative that is every bit as vile as the sin proposed by the Sodomites. How could a man offer his own daughters to an immoral mob?

Lot was obviously thinking irrationally at this point. It may be that he knew these men would take no interest in young girls, and used this offer as a ploy to cause them just to leave. In any case, here you have the quintessential example of those words of Yeats –

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Particularly significant is the offended response of the men of Sodom when Lot refused them access to his guests. 'They said . . . This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door.'

Does it not seem as though these men were discovering for the first time that Lot was a righteous man? Does it not look as though he had hidden his own moral standards from them, so that they did not know until this moment how much he deplored their wicked immorality? Evidently Lot had always compromised when the situation called for confrontation, and only now was he driven to such a point of crisis that he had to speak up. The response of the men was to deride and jeer at him.

All those years in Sodom he may have been thinking that he was compromising in order to win other people; in order to make his way of life more acceptable to them. But in the end his compromise only neutralised his testimony and he won no one, not even his own family members.

If his intention had been to get the men of Sodom to like him, thinking that that would make them accept his God also, he learned the hard way how utterly ineffectual that strategy is, and it almost cost him his life. The visiting angels were compelled to intervene, striking the men of Sodom at the door with blindness. So God graciously spared Lot, and this is the lesson that the apostle Peter drew from Lot's life: 'the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly.'

God had delivered Lot from the four kings, and here He delivers him from a mob of degenerate perverts, and next He will deliver Lot from judgement. The angels said to Lot, 'Hast thou here any besides? son in law, and thy sons, and thy daughters, and whatsoever thou hast in the city, bring them out of this place: for we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the Lord; and the Lord hath sent us to destroy it.'

But when Lot appealed to his sons-in-law 'he seemed as one that mocked.' They were so unaccustomed to hearing this sort of thing from Lot that, when he did warn them of the Lord's judgement, they thought he was joking. They obviously did not think of him as a man of faith.

Delay Not Action

This brings us to the third reason for Lot's failure. He delayed when he was told to depart. This is truly amazing. The record tells us that:

'When the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here; lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city. And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the Lord being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.'

Lot had every reason to know that the situation here was deadly serious. He knew these men were angels or messengers from Jehovah. He had seen them strike the men of the city with blindness. He knew that they had supernatural power. He should have obeyed them instantly and without delay, and yet, inexplicably, it says, he 'lingered'. He dawdled, procrastinated and stalled.

Lot had spent most of his adult life spiritually paralysed and now, when he had to move quickly, he could not do it on his own. The angels physically pulled him out, and set him outside the city. His wife continued to delay, and turned back, looking longingly at Sodom until she was finally destroyed by the conflagration.

Speaking Not Hearing

Allied to Lot's delay is the fact that he talked when it was time to listen. Even after the angels had delivered Lot out of the city, while the judgement of God was already beginning to rain down, he stopped to argue with the angels, and struggled to secure yet another compromise. The angel said – 'Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.' But Lot said –

'Oh, not so, my Lord: behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die: behold now, this city is near to flee unto, and it is a little one: Oh, let me escape thither, (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live.'

His audacity at this point is startling! These angels are messengers of God, sent by Jehovah Himself to save Lot from certain destruction, and now, at the very pinnacle of danger just as God is unleashing His judgement, Lot wants to strike a bargain. He wants to talk when he should have been listening.

Notice the incredible lack of trust revealed in Lot's words. All his life God had been intervening to bail him out of troubles that Lot had wilfully pressed himself into. But Lot's faith is not even strong enough to believe that God will preserve him if he flees to the mountains. He longs for the comfort of a city. Worldliness is so ingrained in him that he cannot let this world go, and so he says, 'Let me go to a city, it's just a little one.'

And here we see the grace of God. God graciously grants Lot permission to live in Zoar, and promises Lot sanctuary there.

Like Lot, or Lot's wife?

Every worldly person fits into one category or another. Either they are like Lot, and they will be preserved by a sovereign God, almost in spite of themselves, or they are like Lot's wife, and they will be destroyed despite the fact that they have been given every opportunity for divine mercy. We cannot always tell the difference by looking at the person from outside. If worldliness characterises your life, you need to search your heart diligently, because you may think you are in Lot's category, only to discover finally that you are like his wife. And the only way to be sure is to break the vicious cycle of worldliness.

When life brings anyone who claims to be a believer to a crossroads, he must walk by faith not by sight. When you are faced with evil, do not compromise. When you find yourself in a place from which you should depart, do not delay. And when you know you should be listening to warnings, do not argue.