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The Worst of Times: Evangelicalism in Crisis

Phil Johnson posted an article on Saturday called “The worst of times: Evangelicalism in critical condition.” He wrote, “…evangelicalism’s spiritual condition at the beginning of the twenty-first century is reminiscent of the medieval church just prior to the Protestant Reformation.” Then he retracted that statement. “No, I take it back. Things are much worse among evangelicals today than they were in the Catholic Church in those days. Modern and postmodern evangelicalism is just like medieval Catholicism was—only more superficial.”

He goes on to show how any number of hucksters on TBN bear an uncanny resemblance to Tetzel; how many of today’s songs sound much like the doggerls Tetzel used to peddle his wares; how the church has been overrun by superstition evidenced in a phenomenon like The Prayer of Jabez; and so on.

I think he’s right. I think elements of the church are in far worse condition today than in the years leading to the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, those who considered themselves Christians had little access to the Scriptures. Most people’s faith was built on a blind trust in corrupt church leaders who in reality had only their own best interests in mind. Today we have more copies and translations of the Bible than ever before. We have translations of the Scriptures that are more pure and accurate than any since the original autographs. We have access to the teaching of some of God’s most gifted teachers of our day and of days past. And of course we have the Holy Spirit to lead and to guide us in truth. In short, we have no excuse for wandering away from the straight-and-narrow.

Yet when we look at the men (and women) who are considered leaders of the church, we are shocked by their beliefs. We have men like John Eldredge, one of Christianity’s most celebrated authors, who advocates Open Theism, denying God’s total knowledge of the present and future. We have Brian McLaren and other Emergent leaders who, according to D.A. Carson have abandoned the Gospel. “If words mean anything,” he writes, “both McLaren and [Steve] Chalke have largely abandoned the Gospel…I cannot see how their own words constitute anything less than a drift toward abandoning the gospel itself.” We have Rick Warren trying to lead the church in a Reformation based on behavior rather than on the transforming power of the Word of God. There are countless other Christian personalities whose popularity seems to increase in direct proportion to their abandonment of the Gospel.

It is interesting that almost every grouping within Christianity agrees on the need for some type of Reformation. In my review of Hugh Hewitt’s book Blog I wrote, “A couple of weeks ago I was browsing through my pastor’s library and remarking on the number of people who lay claim to “the next Reformation.” Over twenty years ago, Robert Schuller told us it would be a Reformation of self-esteem and more recently … Rick Warren that it will be one of purpose. Other books tell us the next Reformation will involve breaking the church body into small groups, essentially giving the church back to the people in the same way that the first Reformation gave the theology back to the people.” Everywhere we look people are proclaiming the need for a new Reformation.

There is lots of bad news, but I would also suggest that we have as much good news now as we ever had, and certainly a lot more than there was in the time leading to the Reformation. We have multitudes of great teachers today - teachers whose work will by far outlive their time on earth. Teachers who, throughout their careers, have stood strong on the biblical principles that were rediscovered during the Reformation. As mentioned earlier, we have unprecedented access to the original words of Scripture and every resource we could ever hope to use to help us more deeply understand the Scriptures. The world is shrinking rapidly so that the Good News can go forth more swiftly and powerfully than ever before. Even the Internet plays a role, allowing access to like-minded believers from around the globe.

Johnson writes, “We don’t need more hype and activity and mass movements. We need the pure light of God’s Word—”the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises” (2 Peter 1:19). The alternative is a postmodern darkness that is shaping up to be worse than the murkiest spiritual gloom of the Dark Ages. We could sure use a new generation of Reformers.” Amen. We do not need a second Reformation. The first Reformation returned us to the principles that shape and define a biblical faith. What we need are Reformers, men who will humbly return to the Scriptures, asking the Holy Spirit to guide them to the truth, sparking the light that it might once more shine brightly into the gloom that is evangelicalism, and the gloom that is the world around us. We do not need a second Reformation: we need to rediscover the first.