The Persecuted Church
The Christian Church is too conspicuous an object of divine love not to be the butt of the malice of the powers of darkness. From the very moment when the Church was born, Satan, like Herod, tried to destroy the young child; and if the flames of persecution and the inventions of heresy could have destroyed the Church, she would have been destroyed long ago. There have been distinct periods all down Church history when the enemy has come in upon her, making a more than unusually terrific and effective onslaught.
How terrible was the attack upon the early Church when Peter was laid in prison, James having already been slain with the sword. Herod designed to extirpate the whole band of followers of the despised Nazarene, and after him the Pharisiac zeal of Saul hounded them to death. But the Spirit of God very speedily made amends for all Herod's operations, and the persecutions of the Pharisees met with a most effectual rebuff when the leader in them was himself converted, and Saul of Tarsus became Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles.
The spiritual power which rested upon the Church in the early ages was sufficient for her protection against the malevolence of her enemies; not only so, but it was so mighty that it made profit out of that which was for its damage. The zeal of the Church turned her persecutions into fiery chariots, in which she rode forth triumphantly to the uttermost ends of the earth. Satan stirred a series of persecutions which you who are acquainted with history will remember to have been of the most ferocious kind.
These persecutions we must compare to Nebuchadnezzar's furnace when it was heated seven times hotter, but not so much as the smell of fire passed upon the Church. The game of persecution was played out, and ended in the total defeat of the persecutor, for do you not remember how the saints volunteered to die, and even panted for the martyrs' crown? Young men came before the tribunals – young men, die I say? – old men leaning upon the staff, and even little children, came to the tribunal, and protested that they were followers of Jesus. The prisons were crowded with Christians, and the amphitheatres glutted with their blood. The spirit of holy boldness was so abundant that the foe was baffled, glutted with blood he even turned with loathing from the murder of the inoffensive sheep which was once so great a luxury to him. The Spirit of God, by giving to Christians an indomitable courage, which made them, as it were, insensible to pain and defiant of death in his most ghastly form, lifted up a standard against the fury of the enemy.
The Patronised Church
Then Satan changed his tactics, and set on that baptized heathen Constantine to profess to become a Christian; and he, for reasons of statecraft and subtle policy, made Christianity the national religion, and this struck the most fearful blow at the vitals of Christianity. The union of Church and State is a fatal blow to true religion. The king's hand, wherever it falls upon the Church of Christ, brings the king's evil with it; there never was a Church whose spirituality survived it yet, and there never will be. Christ's Kingdom is not of this world, and if we try to marry the Church of Christ to a worldly kingdom we engender innumerable mischiefs.
So it happened that when the Church became outwardly glorious she became spiritually debased. Her communion table glittered with gold and silver plate, but her communion with Christ was not so golden as aforetime. Her ministers were enriched, but their doctrine was impoverished; for every ounce of outward gold which she gained, she lost a treasure of grace. Her bishops became lords, and her flocks were famished; her humble meeting-places were exchanged for grand basilicas, but their true glory was departed. She became like the heathen around her, and began to set up the images of her saints and martyrs, till at last, after years of gradual declension, the Church of Rome ceased to be the Church of Christ., and that which was once nominally the Church became the Antichrist.
Black darkness covered the lands, and dark ages set in; when, instead of pardon bought with the blood of Jesus, false priests made merchandise of souls, and pardons were hawked in the streets, when, instead of deacons and elders adorned with holiness and purity, monks, and nuns, and priests, and even popes became monsters of filthiness; when instead of justification by faith men proclaimed justification by pilgrimages and by penances; when the crucifix took the place of Jesus Christ, and a piece of bread was lifted up as a god, and men bowed before it and said: "These be thy gods, O Israel, that redeemed thee from the wrath to come."
The Preserved Church
What was done in this emergency? All through that long, long period of darkness the Spirit of God lifted up a standard among the faithful few. Up yonder on the snow-clad Alps, and down deep in the secluded valleys of Piedmont, the Lord kept alive the "two witnesses" for the truth; the Albigenses and Waldenses, hunted like partridges upon the mountains, were God's standard-bearers, and maintained that unbroken line of true apostolical succession from which we date our succession, a succession infinitely purer than the Tractarian chain of infamous prelates and Popish priests. The Spirit of God maintained the living Church in the day of her obscurity in France, Hungary, Bohemia, Switzerland, and other regions, till at last the men came whom Jehovah had ordained most greatly to bless; the nations rejoiced at the coming of Luther and his great allies, Zwingli and Calvin.
What a lifting up of the standard was then seen, my brethren! They said that Luther's words were carried on the wings of angels, for the sermon which he preached today was dispersed by means of the printing-press, so that tomorrow heard it thundering along the foot of the Apennines, and old Rome itself trembled at the voice of the monk of Germany. Then God lifted up a standard in England, and our glorious old Hugh Latimer with simple and rough speech rebuked kings, and spoke the truth in the presence of the mighty; and up there in Scotland John Knox published the Gospel of Jesus with all the energy of his fiery nature. The Spirit of God lifted up the Cross, and, like the sound of a clarion, a voice was heard resounding over hill and dale: "By the works of the law there shall no flesh living be justified." "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through Jesus Christ our Lord."
The Perverted Church
It needs not that I should tell the tale how, in succeeding years, when throughout England Christianity had declined to the verge of death; when drunken parsons polluted the pulpits, and were zealous in nothing but in feasting and fox-hunting; when Dissenting ministers were either semi-Socinian or else so somnolently orthodox as not to care whether men's souls were saved or damned; then, again, the Spirit of the Lord lifted up a standard. Six young men were expelled from Oxford for praying, and these men, driven sorely against their will to uncanonical action, began to preach in the open air. Crowds in London gathered at Moorfields and Kennington; the Kingswood miners caught the flame of grace; Cornwall, far away, began to blaze with spiritual fervours; the uttermost parts of our island perceived that God the Holy Ghost has visited us; that "daystar from on high" was shining again. The name of "Methodist" was the terror of Satan and the joy of the Church.
See how great a flame aspires,
Kindled by a spark of grace!
Jesu's love the nations fires,
Sets the kingdoms on a blaze.
Then men knew that the blessed spirit of the living God had appeared and lifted up a standard against false doctrine and sin.
The Perilous Church
Dear friends, I am not giving you this history for the mere purpose of detailing it, but with a practical end. I believe that no exaggeration would be possible as to the present unhappy condition of certain sections of the Christian Church. The enemy is, indeed, coming in like a flood. This time the peril is within the visible Church itself. We have High Church – what is it but bastard Popery! We have broad Church – what is it but dishonest infidelity! an infidelity which takes the pay of a Church whose foundations it labours to undermine. These two powers are advancing at present like two armies in victorious march.
They are sweeping everything before them. Our timid and weak-hearted Evangelical friends have been so long accustomed to submit, that they have little stomach for the fight. They have acted so miserable a part in the great conflict, that the power they once possessed has been taken from them, and they are a pitiable instance of the weakening effect of accustoming one's tongue to the use of language against which the conscious revolts. They are not now an integer in the calculation; their friends and their foes alike know their utter unfitness for the battle. He who hopes that the battle of Protestantism will be fought by the Evangelicals trusts in a broken reed. I only wish I could think otherwise, but I cannot.
What is to be done? I discern no sign of help from any quarter but from above It is our hope that the Holy Spirit will now interpose and save His Church. This is a dark hour, and now will He show His strength. We have no desire that the bishops should interfere with the Ritualists – they have let them tamper with the Church so long that everybody asks: What is the use of bishops? Even the interference of Parliament will avail little; let Parliament look after politics and leave religion alone.
The Praying Church
What we want is something superior to bishops and Parliament – we want the Holy Ghost, and if the Holy Ghost will take the matter in hand, He will make very short work with all this imitation of Romanism. But how will it be done? I think I see the beginning of it. A general spirit of prayer will come over those Churches which are faithful. Already it is descending.
Almost in every quarter the spirit of devotion is increasing. Our brethren in London have appointed, as you know, the fifth of November, to be spent by all ministers and deacons, and elders of tour churches, as a day of fasting and prayer to entreat the Lord's blessing upon the universal Church.. I find our friends are to do the same in Birmingham, and in most of the large towns; and all this has come without any dictation from anyone; indeed, we have no power to dictate in our denomination; it has come spontaneously, the brethren moving towards one another as by a common instinct, coming together in the time of danger.
I think I perceive among Christian men generally the relinquishment of controversy about minor points, and a determination for union about the one great thing. We feel that we must stand together, shoulder to shoulder, as a solid phalanx in this day of conflict, and fight with heavenly weapons, or else it will go ill with us. We feel we must cry to God, for no one else can help us. With this spirit of prayer I believe there is returning to us in the Church – I may be sanguine, but I think I see it – a deeper love to the old truth than there used to be. Do not my brethren in the ministry preach more of Christ than they once did?
The Preaching Church
Are they not tired of philosophical essays, and returning to the simple truth? They are no longer teasing us with Genesis and geology, but give us more of Christ on the Cross. We know that preaching science and ethics instead of the Gospel is all wrong, and our brethren see that it is so. It was but the other say I hear a Wesleyan minister that the reason why they had to a great extent lost a blessing for the last few years was because they had not given enough prominence to the doctrines of grace, and he pointed to this house, and the prosperity that God gives to this church, as an indication that if Christ be preached and nothing but Christ, and if salvation by blood be the one staple theme, there is no fear of there being hearers, nor of being converts, for the old standard. There is more Gospel preaching, more declaration of Christ in England, than there has been for many a day.
Now, brethren and sisters, as the Spirit begins let us follow. What is a standard lifted up for, but for every soldier to rally to it? Press where you see it displayed to the wind! Press to it every man among you! The soldier does not look at a standard as being a place from which he is to march, but around which he is to rally in the day when it is in danger.
Every man must do his duty now in the Christian Church, and count it a privilege to do it. You must scatter the Gospel; you must tell it with your lips; you must pray for it with your hearts; you must distribute it as it is printed, but use your mouths also to tell of the Saviour's love. Every man now to his post this day, for now we must awake out of sleep. Oh! if the Holy Spirit will but visit us now, we need not fear concerning old Rome. Like chaff before the wind the foes shall fly; they shall be driven like thin clouds before a Biscay gale. When God once cometh into the fight, woe unto you ho are His enemies! Woe unto you! You may quit yourselves like men, but you know the might of Israel's sword in ancient times, and ye shall feel it now. Soldiers of Jesus, never despair! My brethren, do not even fear.
Be of good courage! Be confident! God is on our side. "Immanuel" – let that be your watchword – "God with is – Immanuel". Be ye very courageous and very earnest, and the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard when the enemy cometh in like a flood. Grant it for His Name's sake. Amen.