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.

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.