Yes, it’s true – pastors often lament the state of their congregations. Especially in regard to the visible aspects of a congregation’s life. In these days the concept of public worship twice on a Sunday is a rare thing, and where a church has two services, the evening service is often in danger of kicking the bucket. People may be willing to assemble to give God the glory once on a Sunday, but not twice. And coming to a midweek meeting to pray and study is either inconceivable or impossible.
It is tempting to think this is a modern phenomenon brought about spiritual decline or insane busy-ness, to which we need to react. However, this thought would be a mistake. Here is Selderhuis on Calvin (the text in quotes is Calvin):
Calvin was rather critical of his listeners. Or was listeners too generous a term? He actually doubted whether they listened at all. The gospel was indeed being preached in Geneva, “but of what use is that when no one does anything with it?” People went to church only out of custom, and it had become a mere ritual so that “they leave just as they came in.” … They are like animals that reflexively amble over to the feeding trough, “for as soon as they come to church for Lord’s Supper, baptism or marriage, they do not even remember what they are asking for.” The bells tolled every day, but the people ignored them. Every Sunday the bells were sounded four times to summon them, but they thought it enough to come once. “In short, by far the majority live according to the old saying: close to church, far from God.” They covered their lack of effort and diligence with all kinds of idle questions, “and then they want to know why God has elected some and reprobated others.” When the topic of God’s judgment came up, everyone had an escape and no one was guilty. In short, “they are eager to explore the rooms in Paradise, but do not do their best to arrive there.” Calvin considered it ridiculous that Muslims, Jews, heathens and papists were more diligent in their superstitions than we Christians in our service to the gospel. The use of we here is significant; Calvin included himself. As the preacher, he stood above the people, but as a human being he stood among them. Throughout all of the applications he drew, Calvin always stayed close to the text. This was probably the result of his humanism, according to which one could not stay close enough to the source text. A more personal reason, however, would have been his constant search for security. The Word was the only fixed point of certainty in a world in which Calvin saw all things as turbulent, in flux and in confusion. One seeking a firm handhold always did well to stay as close as possible to the text of that Word. (Selderhuis, John Calvin p. 132)
So it is not a new thing at all. Human beings are the same in every generation. There is much to ponder here for all Christians:
- Is worship a mere ritual or custom? It can become a habit, a social event, an “insurance policy”. But our hearts should be engaged with the triune God.
- Do we ever say “that’s enough of God’s word”? We don’t need to say it out loud. We always do what we want to do. When an opportunity arises to hear God’s word, what do you want to do at that moment?
- Are we full of idle theological questions without that earnest heart desire for Christ? It is good (and fun!) to have theological debate. But it can be a smokescreen for a sickness of heart.
- Do we presume our salvation but are careless about sanctification? It is impossible to claim salvation and be unconcerned about holiness. A regenerate heart cannot be like that.
- Are we put to shame by lack of service for the gospel? Honestly. There are far to many consumers looking to be entertained and receive spiritual goods and services from “the church” than to be the church and to give our lives in the service of Christ and the gospel.
And pastors? It is easy for a pastor to lose heart when focusing on the visible. But “we walk by faith not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Thus, as Calvin did, we must stick close to God’s word and trust his promises, the only sure things in a sea of turmoil.