Peter Hedley, Exeter, England
A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
We have been looking into some of the reasons for the growing lack of belief in God and Christianity in Western Europe generally and in Britain in particular. In this piece I want to focus on spiritual unreality among many evangelical Christians, as a major contributing factor to this state of affairs. In Matthew’s gospel chapter 16 verse 18 in J. N. DARBY’s translation the Lord Jesus is reported as saying, ‘I will build my assembly’. This is indeed taking place spectacularly in many parts of the world today with literally millions of people pressing into the kingdom of God. The true church of Christ has never grown so rapidly around the world as it has done during these past forty years or so.
On the other hand, it is the same Lord Jesus who closes down assemblies in judgement if spiritual reality has waned. Most of the problems afflicting the Christian congregations mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 can probably be summed up by a decline in spiritual reality among them. For example, the departure from first love at Ephesus 2. 1-7, the deadness at Sardis, 3. 1-6, and self-sufficiency and apathy at Laodicea, 3. 14-22. So, spiritual unreality will inevitably lead to the lampstands of Christian testimony being removed if there is no repentance. Could this be a major factor in the decline and disappearance of many of our assemblies in Britain in recent years? Could it be that the Lord Jesus is greatly displeased with their spiritual state and that He has closed them down in judgement?
As missionaries we seem to have a special dispensation leading us to be invited to preach both in so-called ‘open’ and ‘progressive’ as well as in the more ‘conservative and traditional’ Christian congregations. We have discovered that some of the former can be in a state of spiritual apathy while others are spiritually vibrant. The same is true of the more conservative assemblies. However, surely the first most important criterion in church life is not so much whether one is more or less open as to ecclesiastical polity, but rather whether a company of Christians is moving in spiritual reality and whether there is a sense of the manifest presence of God in their midst and whether the Holy Spirit is working in experiential power among them. If He is not, it must be because they have lost their ‘saltiness’ and therefore can hardly claim to be a biblically functioning New-Testament-type church.
When the Lord Jesus said to His followers, ‘Ye are the salt of the earth’, Matt. 5. 13, they knew to some degree what He meant. Refrigerators didn’t exist then and so salt was rubbed into the meat and fish in order to preserve them and restrain the decaying process. The pagan and secular world, left to itself, has a tendency to decay morally. Standards once held true disappear and society disintegrates. Salty Christians have a restraining influence on this process as they come into contact with non-Christians in every strata of life. The meat is decaying, but the salt is preserving. However, ‘if salt has lost its taste how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything’ the Lord points out, ‘except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet’ ESV.
As Colin Hart of ‘The Christian Institute’ recently wrote, ‘Salt that becomes so adulterated by impurities is useless for all practical purposes. So too a Christian who loses his Christian distinctiveness and lives like a non-Christian cannot be a godly influence on the world’. If society around us is in moral decline and increasingly lawless, perhaps the blame, at least in part, seems to lie in apathetic evangelical Christians who are not living in spiritual reality by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What is spiritual reality? The Greek word aletheia is mostly translated ‘truth’ in the New Testament but it is more, much more than believing intellectually in a ‘body of truth or doctrine’ or ‘the truth of the faith’. The outstanding Greek scholar, WILLIAM KELLY, sometimes translated the word as ‘reality’ because it doesn’t just refer to ‘Christian information’ but to the ‘reality of experience’. In short, it means the experience of what is real and not just knowledge of what is true. The Pharisees in our Lord’s day knew the scriptures thoroughly, but their words were death. The letter of scripture alone can be a killer. By contrast the Lord Jesus said in John chapter 8 verses 31 to 32, ‘If you remain in my word, you are really (alethos) my disciples and you will experience the reality (gnosesthe ten aletheian) and the reality (he aletheia) will set you free’ (literal Greek).
Positional truth held in the mind never sets anyone free, but the experience of its reality always does. ‘The reality’, we could perhaps say, is the realm of God, the realm of the Holy Spirit. This is an invisible but tangible sphere of reality which we are to experience. In place of ‘truth’ put ‘the reality’ in the following verses of John’s gospel, 14. 6; 16. 13; and 17. 17-22, and notice the definite article in the Greek text.
‘Reality’, of course, is in Jesus and our whole life is to be an embodiment of it. Ephesians 4 verse 15 is, literally, ‘experience reality in love’ and verse 25 is an exhortation to speak out of reality. This is exactly what the Lord Jesus Himself did. Because He was living in the reality of what He spoke He could say, ‘The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’ John 6. 63 NRSV. So, please grasp that objective truth only becomes reality and life at the point of obedience and when we obediently ‘remain’ or ‘abide’ in Christ’s word. The Spirit of God takes the textbook, the Bible, and sets it alight not only in our spiritual understanding but also in our experience. Then and only then can we say that the word of Christ dwells in us richly, because it really does impact our human spirit. Then and only then do we experience truth (reality) in our inner parts. Then and only then, as salty Christians, will we have an impact for God and for good on society around us.