12 July 2008

Avoiding Spiritual Dry Rot

Let's Keep the Gospel at the Center

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from chapter 5 of An All Round Ministry, a chapter titled "A New Departure." I love this section, where Spurgeon takes to task all who have departed from the gospel—ranging from the End-Times-Obsessed dispensationalists to the Modernist precursors of today's Emergent postmodernism. His warning still applies—to both sides. (His chronicle of early candidates for the Antichrist is especially intriguing. I have a small collection of books from the first half of the twentieth century, each of which speculates on the identity of Antichrist—all of them guessing differently, and each of them—of course—getting it wrong. They follow the same kind of pattern Spurgeon noticed in his time. They began with Kaiser Wilhelm, then moved on to Hitler, Mussolini, Winston Churchill, etc. Some things never change.)


here is an evil under the sun which is as terrible as an open catastrophe,—indeed, it works greater ill to the church in the long run,—and that is, when a man's ministry is eaten through and through with spiritual dry rot.

I heard an old Indian describe the way in which furniture may be devoured by the white ants. The ants will come into the house, and eat up everything; and yet, to all appearance, nothing is touched. The bookcases stand just where they did, and the trunks and everything else remain exactly as they were; at least, it is so to the eye; but directly they are touched, they all crumble to pieces, for the ants have eaten the substance out of them.

In the same way, some men still remain in the ministry, and yet the soul of their ministry has gone. They have a name to live, yet they are dead: what can be worse than this condition? One might almost sooner have an explosion, and have done with it, than see men continuing to maintain the form of religion after vital godliness has gone, scattering death all around them, and yet maintaining what is called a respectable position. God save us from this last as much as from that first! If I am a rotten bough, let me be cut off; but to hang upon the tree, all verdant with parasitical lichen and moss, is deplorable. A respectable ministry, devoid of spiritual life, is little better than respectable damnation, from which may God deliver us!

When men drift into this condition, they generally adopt some expedient to hide it. Conscience suggests that there is something or other wrong, and the deceitful heart labours to conceal or palliate this fact. Some do this by amusing themselves with hobbies instead of preaching the gospel. They cannot do the Lord's work, so they try to do their own. They have not honesty enough to confess that they have lost gospel power, so they ride a hobby; and it is a very mild form of evil when they raise some side issue, which has no other fault about it than that it diverts them from the main point. Many are these playthings; I have no time to mention more than one.

I have known certain brethren give themselves solely to expound prophecy. Now, a man full of the life of God may expound prophecy as much as he likes; but there are some who, having lost their love of the gospel, try to win back what little popularity they once had by taking up with guesses at the future. They may be quite, sure that, if they cannot profit men by bringing them to the manger and the cross, they will make a complete failure of it if they handle the seals and the vials.

Did you ever notice, in Calvin's Commentaries, that there is no exposition of the Book of Revelation? Why not? He said, "I have not expounded that Book because I do not understand it." When I hear a man say, "I have found much in Matthew which does not belong to the Church, I have outgrown much of the Romans and Galatians, and I cannot enjoy the Psalms, for they do not rise to the perfection of my experience; I want something more elevated and spiritual, more abstruse and wonderful;" I conclude that this brother is spinning his last hank, and spending his last pennyworth of sense.

I have been amused by observing the manner in which speculators have been taken in when they have left the old ship of the gospel to become prophets. The beast of the Revelation was reported to be Napoleon I, and then the creature suddenly reappeared in his nephew, Napoleon III By-and-by, the deadly wound was healed, and the Prince Imperial wore the dreadful honours of the prophetic book; but the prince is now dead, and it will be needful for the seers to invent a new theory. There is no fear but what they will do it before long; and, meanwhile, "our Israelitish origin" will do to fill up the time.

In the story of Sindbad the Sailor, it is said that, as they sailed along, they saw an island, and at the sight thereof they greatly rejoiced. The crew left the ship, and feasted on the island, and were going to take possession of it in the name of the king, when suddenly it began to quiver and to plunge, and finally it went down altogether, for it was a whale's back, and not an island at all! I have known brethren disport themselves upon the back of some novel speculation, when suddenly the facts of history have gone against them, and the whole thing has gone down very like a whale.

I have mentioned one of the more harmless hobbies, but some have taken to fancies which have bred greater mischief. Speculation is an index of the spiritual poverty of the man who surrenders himself to it. His flour has all been used, so he tries plaster of Paris; he has no more gold or silver, so he coins the baser metals. He cannot prophesy after the measure of faith, so he exercises his immeasurable imagination. His own experience does not serve him with topics for his ministry, and therefore he takes airy flights into regions of which he knows nothing.

Far worse is it when a man so runs down in heart and spirit that he has no principles left, and believes nothing at all. He is a Baptist, but he would very cheerfully minister to a Paedo-baptist church. He is a Calvinist, but he is not narrow, and will promise to offend no one. He holds certain views, but "a view to the pastorate" is the chief of them, and in that view the salary is the charm. He boasts of possessing large-heartedness, and receptivity of spirit, and all that sort of thing. He has dry rot in his soul! That is the truth of the case, and he tries to cover it up with this nonsense!

Such persons remind me of an advertisement of a school in France; its concluding paragraph was to this effect: "The pupils will be taught any religion which may be selected by their parents." It is abominable when ministers as good as say that any religion will be taught which may be selected by the deacons. "Pray inform me whether the church likes a high-toned Calvinism, or prefers Arminianism." It is with such as it was with the showman who exhibited the battle of Waterloo, and in answer to the question, "Which is Wellington, and which is Napoleon?" replied, "Whichever you please, my little dears; you pays your money, and you takes your choice." These broad-churchmen are prepared to supply any article for which there is a demand. This is a terrible condition of things, but men do not generally rest there; in the lowest depth, there is still a lower deep.

When the heart has got out of order, and the spiritual life has run down, men soon fall into actual doctrinal error, not so much because their head is wrong, for many of them have not erred very much there, but because their heart is in an ill condition. We should never have known that some men had brains at all if they had not addled them.

Such departers from the faith usually fall by little and little. They begin by saying very little concerning grace. They serve out homoeopathic doses of gospel: it is marvellous what a very small globule of the gospel will save a soul, and it is a great mercy that it is so, or few would be saved. These snatches of gospel, and the preacher who gives them, remind us of the famous dog of the Nile, of whom the ancients said that he was so afraid of the crocodiles that he drank of the river in a great hurry, and was away from it directly. These intellectual gentry are so afraid of the critical crocodiles that the moment they touch the living water of the gospel they are away again. Their doubts are stronger than their beliefs.

The worst of it is that they not only give us very little gospel, but they give us much that is not the gospel. In this they are like mosquitoes, of whom I have often said that I do not mind their taking a little of my blood, but it is the poison which they put into me which is my great cause of quarrel with them. That a man should rob me of the gospel, is bad enough; but that he should impregnate me with his poisonous doctrine, is intolerable.

When men lose all love to the gospel, they try to make up for the loss of its attractions by sparkling inventions of their own. They imitate life by the artificial flash of culture, reminding me of the saline crystals which cover the salt deserts. There is a lifeless plain, in the heart of Persia, so sterile and accursed that even saline plants do not thrive; "but the salt itself, as if in bitter mockery, fashions its crystals in the form of stems and stalks, and covers the steppe with a carpet of unique vegetation, glittering and glistening like an enchanted prairie in the dazzling light of the Eastern sun." Woe be unto the poor congregations who behold this substitute for life, this saline efflorescence of dainty errors and fascinating inventions!

Alas, whatever a man may now propound, he will find learned personages to support him in it! Fontenelle used to say that, if he could only get six philosophers to write in its favour, people could be made to believe that the sun is not the source of light and heat; and I think there is a great deal of truth in the remark. We are told, "Well, he is a very learned man, he is a Fellow of Brazenface College, and he has written a book in which he upsets the old dogmas." If a learned man writes any nonsense, of course it will have a run; and there is no opinion so insane but, if it has the patronage of so-called scientific men, it will be believed in certain quarters.

I have myself watched the labours of novelists in theology, and have tried to get what I could out of their books, but I have been struck with the remarkably poor results of their lucubrations. I have stood by the shore at Mentone, and seen fishermen with miles of line, and a vast net buoyed up by great tubs, visible far out at sea. A dozen men are hauling at one rope, and as many more are pulling in another, drawing this great net to land. Pull away! Ahoy! Pull away at the ropes, and bring the fish to land. I believe that, on one occasion, I did see them produce a fish not so long as my little finger, but that was a rather successful occasion! Our German friends have diligently made vast nets with which they have enclosed the sea of thought: and upon drawing them out, what a noise there has been, and what a sensation, and what at trembling and a fainting among the old ladies of Christendom; but when we have seen their mighty catch, it has not been the tenth part of a sardine!

The next philosopher who came along, has fitted on his spectacles, with due gravity, after wiping them most solemnly, and then he has put his critical fork into this small fish, and, holding it up to be admired of all, he. has discoursed upon its species, till another philosopher equally wise has declared that it was rotten, and pitched it back into the deeps.

This kind of game is continually going on, and many young ministers have been fools enough to give up the apostolic fishery to join in this stupid waste of mental effort. What have they ever done, these doubters, since the world began? What will they do? What can they do? All that they can do now is to wriggle into our churches, and hiss from pulpits which were once filled by the orthodox. They cannot build places of worship of their own,—they could not build a mousetrap; as a rule, there is not power enough in their teaching to gather a congregation, or to keep one when it is gathered. All the vitality, force, and energy they possess are spent, cuckoo-like, in laying their eggs in the nests which we take the trouble to fashion, for they cannot build their own.

God forbid that we should ever try to cover our decline of heart by the invention of our self-conceit! I hope that, when our ministry begins to lose power, we shall be driven to our knees, and to our God, that He may quicken us again by His good Spirit.
C. H. Spurgeon


18 comments:

dac said...

Did you ever notice, in Calvin's Commentaries, that there is no exposition of the Book of Revelation? Why not? He said, "I have not expounded that Book because I do not understand it."

There is so much in that statement that end time pedantics can learn from.

Rob Willmann said...

Wow. What a terrific read. Spurgeon again has written in such a timeless way that what flowed from his pen seems like it could be applied to today's generation.

I spend about 45 minutes today in a car ride talking to a friend of mine who is quickly sliding down the slippery slope of the emergent camp, and when I read this text from Spurgeon, it rang timeless and true.

May we raise up a generation of preachers who preach the truth of God's word!

1Timothy 4:16 Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. "

simplemann said...

In the same way, some men still remain in the ministry, and yet the soul of their ministry has gone. They have a name to live, yet they are dead: what can be worse than this condition? One might almost sooner have an explosion, and have done with it, than see men continuing to maintain the form of religion after vital godliness has gone, scattering death all around them, and yet maintaining what is called a respectable position. God save us from this last as much as from that first! If I am a rotten bough, let me be cut off; but to hang upon the tree, all verdant with parasitical lichen and moss, is deplorable. A respectable ministry, devoid of spiritual life, is little better than respectable damnation, from which may God deliver us!

When men drift into this condition, they generally adopt some expedient to hide it. Conscience suggests that there is something or other wrong, and the deceitful heart labours to conceal or palliate this fact. Some do this by amusing themselves with hobbies instead of preaching the gospel. They cannot do the Lord's work, so they try to do their own. They have not honesty enough to confess that they have lost gospel power, so they ride a hobby; and it is a very mild form of evil when they raise some side issue, which has no other fault about it than that it diverts them from the main point. Many are these playthings; I have no time to mention more than one.

I have known certain brethren give themselves solely to expound prophecy. Now, a man full of the life of God may expound prophecy as much as he likes; but there are some who, having lost their love of the gospel, try to win back what little popularity they once had by taking up with guesses at the future. They may be quite, sure that, if they cannot profit men by bringing them to the manger and the cross, they will make a complete failure of it if they handle the seals and the vials.


That is good stuff. I have seen this first hand during the four months my wife and I spent attending a Charismatic church. We left after things started to really get weird--prophecy (just as Spurgeon warned here) had taken a more important position than the gospel, and it was becoming more and more about the spiritual gifts in the body than the Giver of all good things. As things took a turn for the weird, one of the things that occurred to me was that in the entire time we had been going to that church, NO ONE "got saved", was converted, etc. A few of the more troubled souls in the congregation had completely fallen off and returned like a dog to the vomit of their former sin. One fellow confided in me (I have no idea why) and what he told me was almost beyond imaginable. I was horrified. Yet for the most part, everyone was over-excited (like almost intoxicated) with whatever "revelation" they were experiencing. I am thankful that God put me there when He did. For, even though my experience of "revelation" during that period of time amongst that charismatic congregation was dramatically different from most of the rest of the folks in that church, God was definitely revealing some things that were good for me to see. What He revealed to me was how much and how quickly error could seep into a church when it abandoned its first cause and its only glory: the gospel of Jesus Christ. I thank God that He has took us through that just and just as much that He brought us out of it. My soul is overjoyed to be attending a truly gospel-centered church where sound doctrine is taught, esteemed, and cherished. Thank God for the gospel and for those who boldly proclaim it.

Peace & Blessings!
Simple Mann

John said...

From having the awful experience of searching for a new church after moving (which we have done too often), I've learned that there are more of these preachers than not. Men who are only concerned with prophesy, or who expound their latest best seller (I heard a sermon on the Prayer of Jabez), or who tell stupid jokes and use a lot of cliches, but never really say anything.

I've got a question for you. If that's all you can find close to home, is it better to go on Sunday, or to stay home and read Spurgeon? Or listen to Phil Johnson sermons on the web? Or, should one drive an hour to get to a good church?

Chris Anderson said...

That was as helpful as anything I've read for a while. We've been called to preach the gospel, and all else is secondary at best, distracting and dangerous at worst.

Thank you for the sobering selection.

dac said...

John:

While having moved only 3 times, we did have the experience of spending a full year trying over 15 different churches, including ones I never thought I would try.

My observation is that the church is more than just the pastor and his preaching. Yes, that is important. But church is also about all the people within in it.

Our second church home (after we moved 3 hours away) was, in all honesty, led by a terrible preacher. Boring. Not so much for solid exegesis. Once did 37 weeks on Ezekiel that were the most mind numbingly dull and, well, really bad. But he, and his flock understood telling others about Jesus and loving each other. We added families during that series (and not one was because of the preaching) He was an outstanding Pastor. The best I have ever known. It was because of how he and the church lived -

So that's my nickel. Spend it as you will. My prayers for you and your family during this time.

David

simplemann said...

Reply to John - keep searching, brother. I read a book by Josh Harris entitled, "Stop Dating the Church" after we left that charismatic church that was so man-centered and I felt just like you did. But part of the reason that Christ died for us was to establish the true Church, the body of believers, the bride of Christ. I absolutely think we should be bound together with the body somewhere, and I realize that there is not a perfect church out there. That's because they're full of people--sinners even!

But I would encourage you to keep looking. We found a small church in our area, less than five miles away, that teaches sound doctrine, is God and gospel-centered, and that is just right for us.

One of the things that I came away with after reading Josh's book is that it is important to be in the body. Not to be fingernail or a strand of hair--something that was once a part of the living body, but is now as a dead cell, cast away. But to be a toe, a finger, an eye, a nostril even.

By the way - I see your reading Lloyd-Jones "Studies in the Sermon on the Mount". That's a great book! I haven't finished it, but is a great exhortation to serve.

John, I pray that you will find that church you are looking for. I have full faith in Christ that He will guide you to your church. In the meantime, build yourself up in the Word and with books from good teachers. You will be all the more thankful when you find that church.

God bless, brother!
Simple Mann

Phil Johnson said...

John: "If that's all you can find close to home, is it better to go on Sunday, or to stay home and read Spurgeon? Or listen to Phil Johnson sermons on the web? Or, should one drive an hour to get to a good church?"

You need to be in fellowship with other believers. So if those are your only options, drive an hour to get to a good church.

You could also find a handful of believers nearby, recruit and evangelize others, and start a church. Or (if you feel you are not called to church planting), here's another option—something I myself have done twice: move close a church you know is sound and solid. It's much better to uproot family and change careers than it is to be starved for fellowship and good teaching.

candyinsierras said...

John: We drive an hour to a good church. Yep. It is hard sometimes, but it is totally worth it.

This is a great post and one I am sending to a friend who goes to a Calvary Chapel, a bastion of end times teaching and speculations about Antichrist. I sometimes think this church teaches through a book of the Bible, and then through Revelation, another book of the Bible and then Revelation again. :)

dac said...

You need to be in fellowship with other believers.

What Phil said.

Simple Mann said...

I think Phil made a great point, and it was one mentioned in the book by Josh Harris that I mentioned. People make decisions to move pretty often--for their jobs, for a better neighborhood, a better school district, etc. However, moving your family to be closer to a good church is probably one of the best reasons for moving, and most people never even consider it. Two couples in the church we're attending now actually just did that. They were driving between a half hour to an hour two to three times a week, and made the decision to move closer because that is really where their heart is at.

I drive an hour each way to work FIVE days a week. If we hadn't found such a great church close to home, I could totally justify spending an hour driving to a good church to be in fellowship, and agree that this is an essential part of the life of faith. You cannot be cut off for long from the body before you begin to suffer the consequences.

Peace & Blessings!
Simple Mann

John said...

I'm sorry brothers and sisters, I should have given more information when I asked my question. Currently I have a good church with a good preaching pastor.

In the past my family and I have lived somewhere for one to two years where we never could find a God honoring church. So that has always been a question on my mind. My wife and I have discussed it and both decided that next time we move it will be based on a church, not on a job.

Thanks for all the great words and I'm sorry I wasn't clear. (I'm a little embarrassed, but that's normally what I feel when I've opened my mouth.)

Simple Mann said...

To John (and you're sorry apology) -

Sir, may I suggest that maybe in the future you refrain posting your thoughts on these sites after 3am. Apparently you were not completely clear in your delivery...

Just kidding, dude. That's really funny! And I'm sure we're all glad to hear it. I can get back to praying for the *real* unchurched now. ;~)

Peace & Blessings!
Simple Mann

Paul said...

Does Spurgeon ever say anything positive about philosophers?!

(This postgrad philosophy student now finds himself living in Southwark, London, near the Metropolitan Tabernacle).

Bo Salisbury said...

Can you say "Chuck Missler?"

A timeless post.

Solameanie said...

Phil,

There's always the Harold Camping option . . . all churches are apostate, so we should just leave them, stay home and listen to Family Radio.

I hope you know I'm kidding. ;)

Tim Brown said...

John:

As has already been said, "Keep looking".

My wife and I live in a town of 35,000. It was getting really bad until some friends (parents of one of our former pastors who moved away) told us about the one we are going to now. It has been here 55 years. I had grown up here and never heard of it. I wish I had.

It's not polished. It's not perfect. It's also not purpose driven or seeker sensitive, nor is it legalistic.

The pastor is not as articulate as I would prefer but what he says is sound. The organist has the start of alzheimers, which makes things, well, interesting but the congregation makes room for her to do what she loves to do.

They have an average attendance of maybe 70 or so and that is counting both services.

The pastor has indicated an interest in me starting some evangelism classes (way of the master), which is very encouraging. And the congregation seems to be interested in evangelism -- we just "don't do enough of it" as the pastor keeps saying.

Not so many months ago, I would have told you that there was nothing here. Again, while this certainly isn't Grace Community Church (and I've been there) it's a place where people seek to honor the Lord.

Don't give oup!

robert.johnson4 said...

So many comments and I didn't find one regarding the excellent illustration near the end. I was just telling my wife the other day how I'd give anything to see a wolf playing leap frog with sheep! She said "Don't give oup... it could happen!"