More Editorials from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.
T HAT great Reformer who restored to the church's public life the doctrines of grace, John Calvin, fought the good fight of faith on many fronts. Error in the church is a hydra-like monster, and when one head is lopped off through faithful contending another three quickly appear in its place, leering at the godly and enticing the unwary. Error dons many clever disguises, such as zeal for God and love for men's souls, and its flaming energies seem to be without limit, being fuelled and fanned by the prince of hell himself.
A controversy which involved Calvin in some debate was with certain sectarians who taught the doctrine of "soul-sleep." This was (and is) the idea that souls departing this world enter into an unconscious slumber, awaiting the wakening call of the resurrection day. Therefore during this intermediate state both the righteous and the wicked share the same portion. This doctrine is held today by the Seventh Day Adventists among others.
We may with Calvin refute this concept from Scripture, pointing perhaps to our Lord's account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) – often called a parable but apparently referring to real individuals where at death one soul was comforted and the other tormented. We would prefer, in all seriousness, to locate this condition of ignorance and inactivity in the present world, where the sinful masses seem quite oblivious to solemn gospel warnings and repeated entreaties, sleeping the sleep of death!
This slumber is only to be expected, given the whole race's participation in Adam's first sin and in the awful promise spoken by his Maker, "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Gen. 2:17). That day saw the spiritual death of all mankind, the separation of the soul from God, the fount of life and companion in communion. We are bold, however, to suggest that there is also a kind of "soul-sleep" in the church today – including the evangelical and Reformed church.
The Lord in His Word calls upon His people to stir themselves! "Awake, awake...arise" (Judg. 5:12); "it is high time to awake out of sleep" (Rom. 13:11). This makes plain to us that even converted souls, made alive unto God, may at times fall into lethargy and be in danger of letting their defences drop and shirking the conflict to which they are called. Do not forget, in God's sight sloth is certainly sin (Prov. 6:6-12; Heb. 6:12)!
The times may have changed but human nature decidedly has not. What else explains the things we see all around us? We would expect to see God's saints stirred to righteous indignation at national sin, to militancy in the light of church apostacy, to fervent prayer in time of spiritual declension, but instead we see slumber! A dreamy attitude has descended upon the church: the Faith is still held in theory but no longer worked out in practice.
A truly peaceable spirit is an asset to every Christian, but not one that is silent in the face of sin. That sort of peace is an enemy of righteousness, acting like a drug to quieten the conscience. What changes, even in confessional churches, believers have seen (and tolerated) in recent generations! It is one thing to open the door of a place of worship and say to sinners of the world, "Welcome!" but quite another for the church to grant the spirit of the world an entrance into her very heart, to occupy the throne which Christ has set for Himself. Gimmicks and follies have crept into the church's life nonetheless: so many now are the instances of what can only be called "evangelical silliness" in worship, evangelism and congregational life, that the believer confronted by such a swelling tide of unbiblical nonsense is sorely tempted to shrug his shoulders and to opt for the quiet life of compromise.
Ministers deceive themselves if they think they are being faithful to Christ by believing and preaching a generally orthodox gospel and leaving it at that. The devil is perfectly content with such an attitude – after all, the congregation and the denomination may be slipping into hell the meanwhile: but once begin to think, to act in accordance with the principles of Truth, and Satan and his servants will soon take note. What a rebuke the Lord had to give Israel's shepherds: "His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber." (Isa. 56:10).
Because of her unique religious history, the United Kingdom and especially Scotland has been of peculiar importance in the development of Christ's kingdom on earth during these last days. There can be little doubt that viewed as a nation today we are asleep. Would a Protestant people in time past have allowed themselves to be sucked irresistibly into the vortex of a papist Europe without pausing to ask, What are the religious consequences, what liberties may be lost? The voices, even christian ones, that soothe us by saying there is no danger merely illustrate their wilful ignorance of history and how stupefying and subtle this condition is.
The nation is fast losing what little collective spiritual conscience it possesses: the permissive age which tentatively gave its approval to a limited range of moral evils has now given way to what we might call the submissive age, in which we witness a wholesale surrender to every form of depravity. Unnatural lusts are celebrated, abortion mills ply their grisly trade, the twin gods "leisure" and "pleasure" are worshipped with abandon – and there is hardly a whimper of evangelical protest, simply an attitude of indifference and resignation.
We dare not distance ourselves from criticism, with that self-satisfied spirit which says, "I...have need of nothing" (Rev. 3:17): the church's risen Head says to such tepid disciples, "Where is your zeal? Repent of your self-righteousness!" Too often we display the form of religion but our fervency has evaporated: the smug majority is always against "fanaticism" – even Christ, the model of sanity and reason, suffered the taunts of His kith and kin – "He is beside himself"....."a Samaritan"....."mad" (Mark 3:21; John 8:48; 10:20). We need not then be disturbed or ashamed when the same are cast in our faces: if we have a good conscience then they are badges of honour, even tokens of our union with Christ. "It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord." (Matt. 10:25). In past days there were those who rejoiced to unfurl His banner to the full – and bear the consequences; they found that Christ was outside the compromised camp, not within. Oh to have this sacrificial spirit again!
Awakened souls, convinced of the horror of sin and its effects, know what to do in a day of blasphemy; they call upon God to wake Himself: "Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever." (Psa. 44:23). They do not excuse themselves from action because it is a day of small things. In the mystery of His providence however, God may have to be entreated many times before He will answer, as though He must be goaded into action: like a stallion, finally provoked into a powerful sweep of its tail by the nagging attentions of a swarm of flies; or a slumbering parent, only roused by the concerted appeals of a family of needy children.
Sin in this life makes us sleepy, careless and prayerless. It is only in heaven with Christ that the believer"s desires and attainments, his will and his deed, shall be perfectly at one. We shall surely be satisfied, when we awake there.