The Pendulum Swing of Church History (A PLEA FOR BALANCED BIBLICAL TEACHING) — A.W. Pink
Let it be pointed out that changing conditions in Christendom call for an ever-varying emphasis on different aspects of Divine Truth. At different periods the true servants of God have had to face widely different situations, and meet errors of varied character. This has called for a campaign of offense and defense adapted to the exigencies of many situations. The weapons suited to one conflict were quite useless for another; fresh ones needing to be constantly drawn from the armory of Scripture.
At the close of that lengthy period known as the “dark ages” (though throughout it God never left Himself without a clear witness), when the Lord caused a flood of light to break forth upon Christendom, the Reformers were faced by the hoary errors of Romanism, among which was her insistence that none could be positively assured of his salvation till the hour of death was reached. This caused Luther and his contemporaries to deliver a positive message, seeking to stimulate confidence toward God and the laying hold of His sure promises. Yet it has to be acknowledged there were times when their zeal carried them too far, leading to a position which could not be successfully defended from the Scriptures. Many of the Reformers insisted that assurance was an essential element in saving faith itself, and that unless a person knew he was “accepted in the Beloved” he was yet in his sins. Thus, in the revolt from Romanism, the Protestant pendulum swung too far to the opposite side.
In the great mercy of God the balance of Truth was restored in the days of the Puritans. The principal doctrine which [Martin] Luther and his fellows had emphasized so forcibly was justification by faith alone, but at the close of the sixteenth century and in the early part of the seventeenth such men as [William] Perkins, [Thomas] Gattaker, [Robert] Rollock, etc., made prominent the collateral doctrine of sanctification by the Spirit. For the next fifty years the Church on earth was blest with many men “mighty in the Scriptures,” deeply taught of God, enabled by Him to maintain a well-rounded ministry. Such men as [Thomas] Goodwin, [John] Owen, [Stephen] Charnock, [John] Flavel, [Richard] Sibbes, etc., though living in troublous times and suffering fierce persecution, taught the Word more helpfully (in our judgment) and were more used of God than any since the days of the apostles to the present hour.
The ministry of the Puritans was an exceedingly searching one. While magnifying the free grace of God in no uncertain terms, while teaching plainly that the satisfaction of Christ alone gave title to Heaven, while emphatically repudiating all creature-merits, they nevertheless insisted that a supernatural and transforming work of the Spirit in the heart and life of the believer was indispensable to fit him for Heaven. Professors were rigidly tested, and the results and fruits of faith were demanded before its presence was admitted. Self-examination was frequently insisted upon, and full details given as to how one might ascertain that he was a “new creature in Christ Jesus.” Christians were constantly urged to “make their calling and election sure” by ascertaining that they had clear evidence of the same. While conditions were far from being perfect, yet there is good reason to conclude that more deluded souls were undeceived and more hypocrites exposed than at any other period since the first century A.D.
The eighteenth century witnessed a sad declension and departure from the faith. Worldly prosperity brought in spiritual deterioration. As the Puritan leaders died off, none were raised up to fill their places. Arminianism spread rapidly, followed by Deism (Unitarianism) and other fatal errors. Worldliness engulfed the churches, and lawlessness and wickedness were rampant without. The Gospel-trumpet was almost silent, and the remnant of God’s people dwindled down to an insignificant and helpless handful. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. Again the light of God shone forth powerfully in the darkness: [George] Whitefield, [William] Romaine, [John] Gill, [James] Hervey, and others being raised up by God to revive His saints and convert many sinners to Christ. The main emphasis of their preaching and teaching was upon the sovereign grace of God as exhibited in the everlasting covenant, the certain efficacy of Christ’s atonement unto all for whom it was made, and the work of the Spirit in regeneration.
Under the God-given revivals of the latter part of the eighteenth century the great doctrines of the Christian faith occupied the most prominent place. In order that the balance of truth might be preserved during the next two or three generations it became necessary for the servants of God to emphasize the experimental side of things. Intellectual orthodoxy qualifies none for Heaven: there must be a moral and spiritual transformation, a miracle of grace wrought within the soul, which begins at regeneration and is carried on by sanctification. During that period doctrinal exposition receded more and more into the background, and the practical application of the Word to the heart and life was the characteristic feature in orthodox circles. This called for serious self-examination, and that, in many cases, resulted in doubtings and despondency. Where a due balance is not preserved by preachers and teachers between the objective and subjective sides of the truth, where the latter preponderates, either a species of mysticism or a lack of assurance ensues.
The second half of last century found many circles of professing Christians on the borders of the Slough of Despond. in many companies the full assurance of salvation was looked upon as a species of fanaticism or as carnal presumption. Unduly occupied with themselves, ill-instructed upon the “two natures” in the Christian, thousands of poor souls regarded doubts and fears, sighs and groans, as the highest evidence of a regenerate state; but those being mixed with worldly and fleshly lustings, the subjects were afraid to affirm they were children of God. To meet this situation many ill-trained evangelists and teachers sought to direct attention to Christ and His “finished work,” and to get their hearers’ confidence placed upon the bare Word of God…while the letter of Scripture was honored, the work of the Spirit was (unwittingly) dishonored. Supposing they had a remedy which was sure to work in all cases alike, a superficial work resulted, the aftermath of which we are now reaping. Thousands of souls who give no evidence of being born again are quite confident that Christ has saved them.
From the brief outline presented above, it will be seen that the pendulum has swung from one side to the other. Man is a creature of extremes, and nought but the grace of God can enable any of us to steer a middle path. A careful study of the course of religious history also reveals the fact that the servants of God have been obliged, from time to time, to vary their note of emphasis. This is one meaning of that expression, “and be established in the present truth” (2 Peter 1:12), namely that particular aspect or line of truth which is most needful at any given time. Instead of gaining ground, the Puritans had lost it had they merely echoed what the Reformers had taught. It was not that Owen contradicted Luther, rather did he supplement him. Where particular stress has been laid on the counsels of sovereign grace and the imputed righteousness of Christ, this needs to be followed by attention being drawn to the work of the Spirit within the saints. In like manner, where much ministry has been given on the Christian’s state, there is a need for a clear exposition of his standing before God.
It is truly deplorable that so few have recognized the need for applying the principle that has just been mentioned. So many, having a zeal which is not tempered by knowledge, suppose that because some honored servant of God in the past was granted much success through his dwelling so largely upon one particular line of truth, that they will have equal success provided they imitate him. But circumstances alter cases. The different states through which the professing Church passes, calls for different ministry. There is such a thing as “a word spoken in due season” (Proverbs 15:23): O that it may please God to open the eyes of many to see what is most “seasonable” for the degenerate times in which our lot is cast, and grant them spiritual discernment to recognize that even many portions of Divine truth may prove highly injurious to souls if given them out of season.
We recognize this fact easily enough in connection with material things, why are we so slow to do so when it concerns spiritual things? Meats and nuts are nutritious, but who would think of feeding an infant upon them? So too sickness of the body calls for a change of diet. The same is true of the soul. To make this clearer, let us select one or two extreme cases. The truth of eternal punishment should be faithfully preached by every servant of God, but would a broken-hearted woman who had just lost her husband or child, be a suitable audience? The glory and bliss of the heavenly state is a precious theme, but would it be fitting to present it unto a professing Christian who was intoxicated? The eternal security of the saints is clearly revealed in Holy Writ, but does that justify me in pressing it on the attention of a backslidden child of God?
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