Calvary Road Baptist Church

“BEING FERVENT IN TIMES OF APOSTASY”[1]

 

You certainly realize, my friends, that we are living in the last days, days which are rightly understood to be days of religious apostasy. Therefore, because God has seen fit in His infinite wisdom for us to live out our lives during a time and in a place of spiritual darkness and unresponsiveness to His Word, we need to be circumspect and discerning of the times we live in.

To that end, and unlike anything I have ever done before, I have sought the advice of a wise man of God who lived during a time of spiritual apostasy, and exhibited all the characteristics in his own life of genuine fervor for Christ and the things of God when to do so was very, very hard. The man’s name is Thomas Watson, a Puritan who was a highly esteemed contemporary of such godly Puritans as Richard Sibbes and Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Goodwin and John Owen, John Bunyan and Richard Baxter.

Watson is generally thought to be among the most readable of the Puritans, and I personally find his material of such quality that it is all I can do not to read one of the paragraphs he has written without immediately thinking about preaching it in my next sermon. To that end, and recognizing that I am certainly not above sitting at the feet of as eminent a man of God as he was, I have chosen to do something very unusual for me. I invite you to join me in sitting at the feet of Thomas Watson, as he offers practical advice to Christians who want their lives to count for Christ during times of apostasy. His advice, of course, is based entirely on Biblical principles.

He asks but a single question, then follows it with six well thought out answers that I will elaborate for our 21st century way of speaking.

 

QUESTION: How may we keep up the briskness and fervour of grace in times of apostasy?

 

This is Thomas Watson’s way of asking how a Christian should maintain an energetic spirituality when virtually no one else is spiritual in a time of apostasy and general spiritual decline.

 

ANSWER I. Let us beware of having our hearts too much linked to the world. The world damps zeal as earth chokes the fire. We are bid to love our enemies; but the world is such an enemy as we must not love, Love not the world (I John 2:15). The world bewitches with her blandishments, and kills with her silver darts. He who is a Demas will be a Judas; lover of the world will, for a piece of money, betray a good cause, and make shipwreck of a good conscience.

 

Watson begins by cautioning us about our love for the world. To be sure, we live in the world. The Savior acknowledged as much. However, we should not be of the world. It is one thing for the boat to be in the water, but there is a real problem when water starts getting in the boat. The man of God has warned us.

Why should we beware having our hearts too much linked to the world? Because of its effect. As dirt thrown on a fire puts it out, so the world dampens the zeal of a Christian, smothering and suppressing our spirituality, crushing our interest in the things of God, so that we start thinking like lost people think.

To be sure, the Lord Jesus Christ did tell us to love our enemies, as we should love individuals. However, the world is not any one man, therefore we should not love the world. This the Apostle commanded in First John 2.15. To be sure, it is reasonable that a Christian should not love the world. After all, the whole world lieth in wickedness, First John 5.19. The whole world is dominated by the wicked one.

He tells us the world bewitches with her blandishments, with blandishments referring to enticing words. Silver darts refers to something that is both beautiful and deadly. In other words, the world promises one thing, but delivers quite another. Lures and entices the gullible, all the while snaring and trapping.

What does he mean when he warns that “He who is a Demas will be a Judas”? Remember that Demas abandoned the Apostle Paul because he loved the world. Judas betrayed our Lord because he loved the money. The two are not far apart. Therefore, though it is but a single step from faithfulness to Christ to forsaking faithfulness for a love of the world, it is only one more step after that to betray Christ altogether, which is apostasy.

 

ANSWER 2. Let us be volunteers in religion; that is, choose God’s service; I have chosen the way of truth (Psa. 119:30). It is one thing to be good with an end in view. Hypocrites are good only out of worldly design. They embrace the gospel for secular advantage, and these will in time fall away. . . . False hearts are good no longer than they are enclosed in golden prosperity; take them out of the gold and they lose all their seeming goodness. But if we would retain our sanctity in backsliding times we must serve God purely out of choice. He who is good out of choice loves holiness for its beauty, and adheres to the gospel, when all the jewels of preferment are pulled off.

 

His second answer advises that you be a volunteer in religion, with the implication being that you should not serve God for what you can get out of such service, but for what you can put into such service. Sound advice, in these days of people wanting to do only what they feel “led” to do, whatever that means. The concept of such spiritual leadership as is referred to by those who talk about being “led” in this way is not found in the Bible.

He rightly calls our attention to David’s comment in Psalm 119.30: “I have chosen the way of truth.” Notice, he did not inform his readers that he was “led” to the way of truth in the way most evangelicals talk about being “led.” Right behavior begins with right choices, and the rightest choice is to choose the way of truth. Does it really matter what other people say or do to those who choose the way of truth?

There are many people who do good when they get some benefit for themselves. He points out that they are hypocrites who are only good for the good it does them. These are people who are pragmatists, who will serve God to enhance career, or to solidify marriage and family, or to enhance status. However, what do these same people do when serving God costs them their spouse and children, when serving God costs them their career, or when serving God costs them social status?

If you are going to hang tough and maintain your spiritual identity when everyone is backsliding, when everyone else is compromising, when everyone else is turning away from the faith, it will be because you have chosen to hang tough, you have determined to be steadfast. If you do right only because it is right, serve God only because it is right to serve God, even though such service comes at great personal cost, then you are one who loves holiness for its beauty, and sticks to the gospel even when there are no social benefits to being a professing Christian. Such a Christian is the real deal.

 

ANSWER 3. Let us be inlaid with sincerity. If a piece of timber begin to bend, it is because it is not sound. Why do any bend and comply against their conscience, but because their hearts are not sound? Their hearts were not right with him, neither were they steadfast (Psa. 78:37). Sincerity causes stability. When the apostle exhorts to armour, put on the girdle of truth, Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth (Eph. 6:14). The girdle of truth is nothing else but sincerity.

 

Notice that Watson does not here instruct us to be inflexible and unbending in our personalities. When he speaks of steadfastness and refers to Psalm 78.37 and Ephesians 6.14, he is admonishing those who cut corners when it comes to obeying God and encouraging us to stand strong in the midst of spiritual battle.

Sadly, there are many who are rigid and inflexible in matters of preference, while yielding this way and that in matters of conscience and conviction. Of course, such as conduct themselves that way have it backwards.

When the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 6.14 that we should have our loins girt about with truth, you should try to picture a weightlifter with a weight belt snugly in place, giving him stability when he is lifting. Though combat was then nothing like it is in modern times, in ancient times the warrior would twist and flex his torso as he shielded himself on the left and swung his sword on the right. To prevent injury and to resist fatigue, a leather girdle would be strapped in place to provide stability.

When you are spiritually unstable during times of apostasy, it is because you do not have your loins girt about with truth, truth is not stabilizing you during the conflict. You are like a piece of timber that is beginning to bend under stress. That is not a good thing. Being flexible in your disposition is wonderful. Being flexible in your doctrinal position is a defect.

 

ANSWER 4. Let us get love to Christ. Love is a holy transport. It fires the affections, steels the courage, and carries a Christian above the love of life, and the fear of death, Many waters cannot quench love (Song of Sol. 8:7). Love made Christ suffer for us. If anyone ask what Christ died of, it may be answered, He died of love. If we love Christ, we will own him in the worst times, and be like that virgin of whom Basil speaks who, not accepting deliverance upon sinful terms, cried out, ‘Let life and money go; welcome Christ!’

 

This answer is very challenging. Of course, your love for Christ during times of apostasy is crucial. No wonder Watson was a much loved writer. He has a way with words. Love is a holy transport. It fires affections, steels the courage, and carries a Christian above the love of life, and the fear of death. Does this not explain the courage and the fortitude of martyrs?

As with most Puritans, Watson’s understanding of the Song of Solomon directly links to the Lord Jesus Christ, and shows that the love one has for the Lord Jesus Christ is the strongest motive of all for service, even during times of great apostasy. Notice, also, the evidence of Watson’s prayer life and meditations. “Love made Christ suffer for us. If anyone ask what Christ died of, it may be answered, He died of love.”

Few writers in the last two hundred years would choose to pen such words. Watson lived in a time of persecution, paid a price for his faithfulness to the cause of Christ, and seems to reveal in these words his own motivation for remaining faithful when he could have profited financially by compromising, and endured far less suffering by giving in to persecution. “If we love Christ, we will own him in the worst times, and be like that virgin of whom Basil speaks who, not accepting deliverance upon sinful terms, cried out, ‘Let life and money go; welcome Christ!’” The Basil he refers to was a fourth century defender of the Christian faith, who himself reported of a young girl who welcomed martyrdom rather than succumb to persecution and turn away from Christ.

 

ANSWER 5. If we would keep up the sprightly vigour of grace in evil times, let us harden our hearts against the taunts and reproaches of the wicked. David was the song of the drunkards (Psa. 69:12). A Christian is never the worse for reproach. The stars are not the less glorious though they have ugly names given them, the Bear, the Dragon, etc. Reproaches are but assulae crucis, splinters of the cross. How will he endure the stake, who cannot bear a scoff? Reproaches for Christ are ensigns of honour, badges of adoption (I Pet. 4:14), the high honours of accusations, says Chrysostom. Let Christians bind these as a crown about their head. Better have men reproach you for being good, than have God damn you for being wicked. Be not laughed out of your religion. If a lame man laugh at you for walking upright, will you therefore limp?

 

Here Watson both acknowledges our hurt feelings, as well as providing encouraging words to deal with the harsh words that are flung at us by our enemies.

Do the jokes and the ridicules at work bother you? Do the hateful looks and the sneers wound you? We are reminded that David was the song of drunkards, Psalm 69.12, and in that same psalm he writes that he bore reproach for God’s sake. Therefore, you are not the first one who has felt the slings and arrows. Besides, Watson correctly points out that we are never the worse for reproach. Therefore, if you ever become a Christian who has derisive songs sung about you, it probably means you are very spiritual indeed.

“The stars are not the less glorious though they have ugly names given them, the Bear, the Dragon, etc. Reproaches are but assulae crucis, splinters of the cross. How will he endure the stake, who cannot bear a scoff? Reproaches for Christ are ensigns of honour, badges of adoption (I Pet. 4:14), the high honours of accusations, says Chrysostom. Let Christians bind these as a crown about their head. Better have men reproach you for being good, than have God damn you for being wicked. Be not laughed out of your religion. If a lame man laugh at you for walking upright, will you therefore limp?”

What encouraging and constructive comments these are. Oh, how I wish someone had said words like these to me as a young Christian. It would not have spared any of the pain of harsh comments and treatments I received, but it would have been a salve to the wounds, a healing ointment to the stabs in the back.

He is right in saying that we should harden our hearts against taunts and reproaches. This whole world is becoming so thin-skinned and sissified that we who love the Lord run the risk of letting little things like harsh words and nasty looks knock us off our trolleys. We need to be more determined than that. Amen? An inscription on the New York City Post Office reads, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Though it is applied to letter carriers in their determination to deliver the mail against all odds, the Greek historian and traveler, Herodotus, was originally describing the messengers dispatched by the Persian court in ancient times. Whoever the words were written about and later applied to, should they not be an appraisal of our determination to do right no matter what is said against us?

 

ANSWER 6. If we would keep up the vigour of devotion during a general seizure, let us beg God for confirming grace. Habitual grace may flag; Peter had habitual grace, yet was foiled; he lost a single battle, though not the victory. We need exciting, assisting, corroborating grace; not only grace in us, but grace with us (I Cor. 15:10); auxiliary grace (which is a fresh gale of the Spirit) will carry us undauntedly through the world’s blustering storms. Thus shall we be able to keep up our heroic zeal in corrupt times, and be as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved.

 

Watson introduces me to some new concepts with this final answer, concepts that I agree with upon reflection, and wholly endorse.

First, consider the concept of habitual grace. This is God’s grace in your life to deal with the routine, with the ordinary, with the expected and anticipated. Generally speaking, this is what you need from God to get by. With habitual grace you will win the war. However, if habitual grace is all you have you may lose important battles.

The battle Peter lost, of course, due to a deficiency in what Watson refers to as confirming grace, was when he severely stumbled and denied the Lord Jesus Christ three times in the early morning hours before our Lord’s crucifixion. What happened? Watson explains Peter’s tragic denials as habitual grace flagging, or habitual grace giving out. What Peter needed during those three times of fright and fatigue and temptation was confirming grace.

So, what do we need during this time of apostasy, when we are not so much set upon suddenly by fear and fatigue and temptation, as was Peter, but by a complete and general decline in spirituality all around us? In times like these “We need exciting, assisting, corroborating grace; not only grace in us, but grace with us (I Cor. 15:10); auxiliary grace (which is a fresh gale of the Spirit) will carry us undauntedly through the world’s blustering storms. Thus shall we be able to keep up our heroic zeal in corrupt times, and be as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved.”

What Watson does not specifically indicate here, but which he and every other Puritan most assuredly would have on his mind, was the means by which exciting, assisting, corroborating grace, auxiliary grace, which is a fresh gale of the Spirit, might be sought and acquired. Sadly, little attention is given these days of the means by which God imparts grace to people. What is misunderstood is that God’s ordinary means of grace is through church services in which His Word is preached, fellowship with other Christians, reading and studying the Bible, praying and serving God, and such activities as those. If you are really pressed hard and feel like you are under the gun, the worst thing you can do is miss church, stop reading your Bible, give up your prayer life, and disassociate from other Christians.

If it is your intent to keep up your heroic zeal in corrupt times, and be like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved . . . you simply must avail yourself of the ordinary means of grace, all the while asking God for the auxiliary grace needed to carry you through the storm.

 

We do live in times of apostasy. These are, after all, the last days. Therefore, if you would be a consistent Christian, if you would avoid the pitfalls of the kind of sudden temptations and stumbling that Simon Peter endured, you have to be prepared for unforeseen things. To be sure, the means of grace are crucial to establishing a pattern of routine and regular godliness. However, what should you do to combat surprise temptations? What will you do when you are suddenly overwhelmed and stricken in some way with a spiritual malady?

If you need auxiliary grace to supplement your habitual grace, you will not find it by abandoning the ordinary means of grace. You do yourself no good by missing church, avoiding Christians, ignoring your Bible and refusing to pray. If anything, you need the ordinary means of grace all the more at crucial times of stress and testing, during times of discouragement and great tempting.

Yes, we live in times of great apostasy and spiritual decline. Most are spiritually blind and without interest in spiritual things. All the more reason for you to pay attention to the means of grace, so you maintain your interest in spiritual pursuits, so you fan the flames in your own fireplace, waiting for special seasons of refreshing from the Lord.



[1] Adapted from Thomas Watson’s remarks in The Great Gain Of Godliness, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), pages 9-11.



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