THE PURPOSE OF GOD IN THIS AGE (Pt. 2)
And now you perceive why I have dwelt so long upon this
one point. It is the key to the age. It is the point of our responsibility. So
long as we persist in the error that to us is committed the conquest of the
world, that it is our business to get the world converted, we shall devote to
that purpose the resources in men and money, which in great part ought to be
used for evangelization.
I shall not soon forget the statement of a beloved brother upon this point. For years he had felt in his soul the call of the Spirit to evangelize the heathen; "But," said he "I was a busy pastor in a large city full of unsaved men and women, and actually had upon my prayer-list more than a hundred names of persons who were habitual hearers of the Gospel in my church. Whenever the dreadful condition of the unevangelized heathen would come before me, I would say to myself, 'I cannot leave L------ while so many remain out of Christ here at my very door.' At last it dawned upon me that every individual on my list had heard and rejected the Gospel hundreds of times, and that my whole duty to them had been discharged years before. Then I devoted my remaining years to the work of evangelizing, not converting, the world."
Who does not know that our land is full of villages, each with from three to seven churches, where one faithful preacher could easily do the work of instructing the Christians there and of keeping complete the work of evangelization. The number of individuals in England and America who have not heard, in sufficient fulness to deprive them of excuse, the truth of the Gospel is insignificant. The only possible pretence for the concentration of so great a disproportion of heralds in the so-called Christian lands is that the mission of the Church is the conversion of all the unsaved in those lands. Understand, it is not questioned that the nurture of believers, and the evangelization of the ever succeeding generations require the labours of many ministers. But it is insisted that the mission of the Church is the evangelization of the world, and that this must not be suspended nor impeded while the vain effort is made to convert the entire populations of evangelized lands.
A country is evangelized when the Gospel has been fully preached there. Two examples from the Scriptures must suffice upon this point. The first church ever gathered, that at Jerusalem, was scattered abroad by a persecution divinely permitted, as we believe, because in no other way could it be brought to take up Christ's world-embracing purpose. But was Jerusalem a converted city when that scattering blow fell upon the church? Not at all; it was a thoroughly evangelized city. The other instance is Paul's statement in Romans 15:19-24.
Here he says that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, he had fully preached the Gospel. When he wrote, his purpose was to go, by way of Rome, into Spain. Did Paul mean that in his missionary labors from Jerusalem and round about unto Illyricum he had brought those teeming populations to Christ? Not so; he had fully preached the Gospel unto them. The result, to the glory of God and the joy of his faithful servant, was that everywhere some were saved.
It follows that the purpose of God in this age is not the establishment of the Kingdom.
I have already said that the Kingdom is the great theme of the prophets. They tell us in perfectly simple, unambiguous language how the Kingdom is to be brought in, who is to be its ruler, and the extent and character of that rule, and the result in the universal prevalence of peace and righteousness. We perceive at once that this Kingdom is to regenerate society, to deal directly with economic questions, to concern itself with the temporal as well as with the eternal interests of man. Indeed, so far as the prophetic testimony goes, the temporal so predominates that, shocked by what seems to us a too material conception, we are fain to read into the prophets the spirituality which is the very atmosphere, so to speak, of the fourth Gospel, and of the Epistles.
If we had stopped just there, with the importation into the prophetic testimony of an exotic spirituality from the New Testament, the result might not have been fatally injurious; but, alas, nothing would suffice but the bringing of the Prophets bodily over into the Church age. This is the irremediable disaster which the wild allegorizing of Origen, and his school has inflicted upon exegesis. The intermingling of Church purpose with Kingdom purpose palsied evangelization for thirteen hundred years, and is today the heavy clog upon the feet of them who preach the glad tidings.
See how inevitably so. The Kingdom applies spiritual forces to the solution of material problems. How shall man live long and wisely? The Kingdom is the answer. How shall exact justice be done in the earth? The Kingdom provides for it. When shall human butchery cease in this blood-saturated earth? When the Kingdom is set up. When shall creation give up to man her potential secrets? In the Kingdom age. When shall the human intellect achieve her perfect liberty? When the Kingdom comes. When shall the earth be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea? When the Kingdom is here.
Of all these things the prophets are full. We turn to the New Testament and find, what? The birth of the King, the heralding of the Kingdom as "at hand," the announcement, in the Sermon on the Mount of the principles of the Kingdom, the utter refusal of Israel to receive her King, the passing of the Kingdom into the mixed and veiled condition set forth in the seven parables of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, its full revelation being postponed till "the harvest," which is fixed definitely "at the end of this age." (Matthew 13:39, 42) And then, the Kingdom being thus postponed, what is revealed as filling and occupying this age? THE CHURCH.
Passing on to the Acts we see the Church set up. Is this all? Is the Church left to learn her mission and duty from the prophets? Ah, no. She is told that the prophets knew nothing whatever about her; that she was completely hidden from their vision. (Eph. 3:1-10; Col. 1:26.) My hearers, how could the Church learn her duty from a body of teachers who lived and died in utter ignorance that such a thing was ever to be?
No, with the bringing in of the new thing, the Church, came a new body of revealed truth for her enlightenment and guidance. Following the establishment of the Church in the Acts are twenty-one Epistles directly addressed to churches, or to Christians, filled with doctrine for their especial instruction. To these writings, then, we naturally turn when we would learn our calling and mission.
And what is that calling and mission? Is the Church to take up the work of the rejected King, and to establish in the earth the Kingdom? What, in a word, is the relation of the Church to the world? Briefly this: to pass through it a pilgrim body of witnesses.
To quote Scripture upon a proposition so indisputable would be, where the New Testament is known, impertinent. The Church is every where said to be heavenly in calling and destiny, and exhorted as pilgrim and stranger to walk in holy separation from a world which hated Christ and will hate the faithful disciple of Christ; her one mission, the preaching of a crucified Christ to a lost world.
Now here are these two things, the Kingdom which is the rule of Christ over the earth, redressing every wrong, establishing every right, and raising humanity to the highest ideal of social order; and the Church, a body called out from the world, and having toward it the one mission of heralding every where the glad tidings of salvation through the blood of the cross; watching, meanwhile, and waiting for the coming of the King to set up the glorious Kingdom. What confusion, what perversion, what inevitable failure, when a false and indefencible exegesis seeks to turn aside the Church from her true mission, to the impossible task of establishing the Kingdom in the absence of the King.
That the preaching of the Gospel produces everywhere many of the Kingdom conditions is blessedly true. Where the Gospel and an open Bible go, the humanities and ameliorations which are to have their full fruition in the Kingdom age spring up. Even the unconverted acknowledge the new ethical ideal, and there is an immense quickening of the higher powers of man. These are gracious and beautiful results in which we may legitimately rejoice. They are vindications of the truth of our blessed faith.
But what we need to guard ourselves against is the notion now, alas! All but universally prevalent that these results are the chief object and end of our mission; that we are sent into the world to civilize it. No, my hearers, these are the incidentals. It appears that the sick in Jerusalem were healed when the shadow of Peter fell upon them as he walked the streets, but Peter, my friends, was not walking the streets for the purpose of casting that beneficent shadow; he was going and coming in the work of his apostleship. Suppose he had turned aside to this business of shadow making? Who doubts that very speedily the shadow would have lost its power?
It follows from what has been adduced that the true mission of the Church is not the reformation of society.
It has been truly said that the good is a great enemy of the best. No one questions that reform work is good, when wisely directed. It seeks noble ends, and with this we all are in sympathy. All that is not in question.
The one and sufficient objection is that it is turning aside from the work given us to do. The world, my friends, was full of the very evils which afflict society today when Christ was on earth. Slavery, in its most odious form; drunkenness an universal blight and curse; the social evil not even disgraceful. Did Jesus organize great reform agencies? Anti-slavery societies, temperance societies, personal purity societies? He organized nothing. What He did was to provide for the organization of one society the Church; and to commission her to preach, not reformation but regeneration.
It often seems to us that Christ's way is circuitous and slow; that we shall accomplish much more, and that more rapidly, by some other means. Not so. The prayer, and faith, and personal effort and self-sacrifice, and money invested in any one of the great reform movements would have evangelized the earth.
And, be it remembered, what Christ did not do the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer.
This, then, is our mission, to preach the Gospel to every creature. This, then, is the purpose of God in this age to take out of the Gentiles a people for his name, the Church, the ecclesia, the called-out-ones. Here we stand fast. We will not attempt in this age the work which God has reserved for the next. ¢
This was excerpted from a book titled, Sermons and was originally preached on October 15, 1893 at the 1st Congregational Church of Dallas.
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