By the turn of the 20th Century, the greater part of the masses in the Western world had been stripped of any sense of biblical Christianity by the liberalism and pragmatism that had so infected the churches in England and North America. It is a sad fact that, in our day, those who attend so-called evangelical “churches”–spread out throughout the various parts of the Western world–have been subject to the effects of liberalism and pragmatism to such an extent that they do not know how to answer to the question, “What is the Church?”–let alone know how to the answer to the question, “What is the Gospel?”
In his 1969 lectures at the Pensacola Theological Institute of McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church, Martyn Lloyd-Jones set out to answer the question “What is the Church?”–insisting that in seeking to do so, the greater part of the masses of “church goers” arrive at inaccurate answers. Far too many, he asserted, are content to waste their lives sitting in the pews of churches that have utterly abandoned the Gospel.
Interestingly, Dr. James Baird–one of the founding members of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)–recounted that it was at those 1969 meetings that he and a number of men–having had their hearts stirred by the messages given–met with Lloyd-Jones after the lectures to discuss the state of the Mainline Presbyterian Church in America. As they walked on the beach, several of the founders of the PCA told the Doctor that they knew that they needed to leave the Old Mainline denomination and to start a new one, but that they feared that they would not have the resources to be able to do so. As the story goes, Lloyd-Jones told these men that they not only could leave and start a new denomination of churches that would be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith and obedient to the Great Commission, but that they must do so. In a sense, Lloyd-Jones’ zeal to see the purity of the church, the preservation of the truth of the Gospel and the glory of the name of the Savior was instrumental in the founding of the PCA. Here is what MLJ had to say in one of those 1969 lectures delivered at McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church:
The question is, how do we approach this doctrine of the nature of the church? And there are certain important negatives. One fatal method is just to start from where we are and to see what modifications or accommodations we can make in order somehow to arrive at a church. Now that is exactly what is being done by the ecumenical movement. It starts from the present position, and then it more or less asks the different sections of the church to make certain modifications, perhaps even compromises, in order to produce one great world church.
This is the kind of approach that is found in great businesses when for certain reasons they deem it wise to amalgamate. But that, I suggest, is a false way of facing the problem of the church. I venture to suggest also that another false way is to go back into history. Many tend to do this at the present time. There is great value in history, and we can learn much from it. But there is a danger that if you merely go back to the origins of the different sections of the Christian church, you may end by hardening the positions—people will develop a denominational spirit that is inimical to true unity, and we shall be fighting for our own traditions. This has happened frequently. Nothing has been so pathetic and tragic in the history of the church as denominational fighting and quarreling, the jealousy and the envy—my church, my denomination, must be better than the one down the street, and so on. And many people are quite unaware of the real truth concerning their own denomination. They contend for their branch of the church because they belong to it. But why do they belong to it? Large numbers have no idea. It is simply an accident that their parents happened to belong to it, and they were brought up in it. But this is how carnality comes in, and even history can be abused by us in this particular way. We can learn from history, but we must not become slaves even to history. Tradition is good; traditionalism is very bad.
An even worse approach is one that, it seems to me, is creeping in very rapidly, and that is to take a kind of Gallup poll to find out what the people want. This has become quite prominent in recent years. The church asks: What do people actually want? What do they like? What do they think? And we pander to them. We say that people do not like much preaching, so we will preach shorter sermons. But they do like more of something else, so we give them more of that. The church allows the world and the pew, perhaps, to determine what is to be the truth.
Now all these approaches are surely quite wrong. There is only one thing to do as we face this issue, and that is to go back to the New Testament itself. It is here and here alone that we discover what the Christian church really is. There is this fatal tendency in all of us to turn that which is true into something that is false.
I never shall forget, as long as I live, a phrase I once read in a little book on Protestantism written by the late Dean Inge, of all men, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. I have forgotten everything in the book except the first sentence, and this is it: “Every institution tends to produce its opposite.” And his whole thesis is that by now even Protestantism has become something that is almost a negation of itself. If you analyze the life and the history of the great denominations, you will find that this is true of practically all of them. They have become something that is almost the exact opposite of what their founders believed in and did. So it is our duty to go back to the New Testament itself. Let us go right back to the beginning. This is most important at this moment. What is a church? What is the church? And the only authority on this question is that which we find in the New Testament. In particular, in the second chapter of the book of Acts we have the account of the origin of the Christian church. This is what the church is meant to be.
This is what the church has always become in periods of reformation and of revival. It is commonplace to say that every period of true revival and reawakening is nothing but a return to the condition of the book of Acts. The only hope for the church is to get back to this, and the only hope for the world that is hurtling itself to hell is that the church should again become what she was in her origin. So I invite you to look at this picture with me.1
1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Setting Our Affections Upon Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) pp. 49-51.