from Revive thy Work (CFP)

2. The Ruin and Progress of the Church

See part 1 of The History of Recovery - 1. Commencement and Continuance of Recovery

Let us pause for a moment and ask this question: Does the Church today serve the Lord on a ground different from that of the past? Or is the ground of todayís service the same as yesterdayís? Here we shall discover two aspects that are absolutely opposite and contradictory to each other. Many do not realize that the Church on the one hand is in ruin and on the other hand is progressing.

The View of the Church in Ruin

From one viewpoint, the way the Church has walked during these two thousand years of her history has made her poorer and poorer spiritually. Indeed, from Godís viewpoint the Church is in total ruin. Just look at the condition of the Church today: many sins and errors remain in her. Yet not just today is this true; from the Bible we learn that even the Church in the early days had fallen into ruin. Paul in his day was already talking about the presence of false shepherds, false prophets and false apostles. Though the situation in Ephesus seemed to be, in positive terms, well advanced, nevertheless, it was also declining (see Rev. 2.1ff.). In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote this: "they all seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ" (2.21). The letters of 1 and 2 Timothy were written not long before Paulís death. There we can also discern the ruinous condition of the Church. For though in 1 Timothy he mentioned elders and deacons (3.2,8), by the time of 2 Timothy he could now only commit the testimony to faithful men (2.2)óas though to say that even the elders and deacons were no longer dependable. Again, in 1 Timothy, Paul had exhorted the elders to be faithful; but by the time he wrote 2 Timothy he could not but acknowledge when speaking of the Church of God that "in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth" (2.20). Yet not only Paul, but Peter too told us that there would soon be people "denying even the Master that bought them" (2 Peter 2.1). It can be seen, therefore, that the Church neither fell just in the Middle Ages nor began to be taken into Babylonian captivity only in the fourth century: nay, even during the apostolic age she had already come into ruin. How appropriate, therefore, for Peter to assert that the time had come for "judgment to begin at the house of God" (1 Peter 4.17).

∗Delivered at Church Meeting on Hardoon Road, Shanghai, 19 April 1948.óTranslator

But there is further Scriptural evidence of the Churchís ruin during the apostolic age. The letters of John were written thirty-odd years after those of Paul. From them we learn that even back then there were people in the Church who did not confess Jesus as the Christ. They were denying that "Jesus Christ is come in the flesh . . . and this is the spirit of the antichrist" (1 John 4.2-3, cf. 2.22). Yet not only this testimony do we have from the apostle John; in his Book of Revelation that was written between 90 and 95 A.D., seven local churches of his day were mentioned by John as having received for the most part disturbing messages from the Risen Lord. Apart from the two churches which received no reprimand, the remaining five churches were all sharply rebuked by the Lord (Rev. 2 and 3). From the fall from first love of the Ephesian church to the spitting out from the Lordís mouth of the Laodicean church, all five of them bespoke the undisputable fact of a fallen condition. The threatened removal of the lampstand from Ephesus and the spitting out of Laodicea were dramatic evidences of major decline and ruin. Though some recoveries did occur, as is learned from Church history, on the whole, ruin was the norm. Indeed, the New Testament Letter of Jude mentioned that there are "certain men [who have] crept in privily, . . . turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (verse 4).

From the historical standpoint such ruinous conditions continued on. As early as the second century the Catholic Church began to take shape. During the second and third centuries the practices of the local assembly were gradually destroyed. By the early fourth century, at the time of Constantine the Great, the Church had taken upon itself the form of an outward organization.

In the early Church, as soon as people believed in the Lord they forsook the world. All occupations were for the Church, not for accumulating money: "all that believed were together, and had all things common; . . . and they continued steadfastly in the apostlesí teaching and fellowship. . ." (Acts 2.44,42). Although the Book of Acts recorded that three thousand and then five thousand were added to the Church, many more probably dared not believe because they were afraid of endangering their positions and popularity. Hence, Pentecost not only draws people in, it also drives people away. Who dares to touch Pentecost? For it demands oneís very life.

The conditions of the very early Church are the very opposite of the conditions of the Church today. How can we live on earth pretending that the Church in our day is not in ruin? We should not be like Cain. The teaching of Cain is that in the face of manís fall, one should live as though there was no fall (Gen. 4.37). Before Cain there had been Adam. God had commanded Adam to till the ground and added that by the sweat of his brow would he eat bread. This was to be a curse upon Adam for his sin (Gen. 3.19). The error of Cain lay not in his refusal to accept the discipline of cultivating the ground. No, his error lay in his failure to condemn the fall of Adam. For Cain felt quite satisfied as he went out each day to till the ground by his sweat. Here was a person who sinned without having any sinful consciousness. Such is the principle of Cain: that clearly one is in sin and yet he says he has never sinned. On the other hand, as a shepherd Abel watched over the flock. God accepted Abelís offering because he acknowledged the existence of sin and knew the power of the blood. Cain was just the opposite. He acted as though nothing bad had happened and that therefore there was no need of judgment. Today as we live on earth, we cannot but have a sense of ruin. We realize the Church has fallen. How can we be devoid of having any feeling against the fallen condition of the Church?

The View of the Church in Progress

Such is the view of the Church in ruin. Viewing from a different perspective, however, one can say that during these two thousand years of Church history she has always been progressing. Looking at her outward appearance, the Church is indeed in ruin. But inwardly, in the lives of the faithful ones who love the Lord, the recovery of God is growing deeper all the time. Church history is like our personal history. When is life the richest in our personal spiritual history? Is it not this, that when we are saved we are justified, sanctified, and regenerated? that Christ dwells in us, and that the Holy Spirit is our power? All these we receive at the time of salvation. All these riches are in us, though we do not necessarily know that we have them. But when do Christians become poor? The answer is: when they in later days keep losing all their spiritual riches. Days after our salvation, we fall into darkness and trials, and we gradually let go of these riches. Yet in the mercy of the Lord, after some days, we regain that which we had lost. This process repeats itself again and again. In the mercy of the Lord, regaining becomes firmer and stronger than before. And finally, after a certain period, these riches truly become ours. The example of Jacob comes readily to mind. In his lifetime, Jacob fell and rose many times. But before his departure from the world, he could lean on his staff and worship God. All that he had lost had ultimately returned to him. He could return to his God as one saved to the uttermost.

From the Age of Church Fathers to Lutherís Reformation

Church history, as was said earlier, is not unlike our personal history. The revelation to be found in the Letter to the Ephesians reaches the peak, though the Church at that time might not have experienced it so deeply. The Church in view in the Letter to the Ephesians is in a condition like to a new Christian. In the progress of the Church, such matters as justification by faith, sanctification, oneness of the Church, gospel preaching, the word of the cross, and so forth become clearer as time goes on. What things are recovered are much more transparent. We can see from the letter to the Corinthian church written by the church father Clement that their understanding of the gospel is not as clear as ours today. Even the truths discerned by Augustine in his Confessions and by Thomas a Kempis in his Imitation of Christ are not as clearly seen as we today see them. In their various writings there is often sand as well as treasure.

Let us see that the Church today stands in the midst of these two opposite states or conditions. Looking at her outward appearance, the Church is corrupted more and more. But looking inwardly, her quality becomes better all the time. Darby in his writings spoke of the Church as the House of Ruin. Yet many do not realize that there is also the side of the Church which is the House of Revival. Few if any can compare with Paul in revelation. He had such clear understanding of the truth. Unfortunately, he has long since departed the earth. If Paul were still living and you were able to ask him for his opinion about the Church today, he would probably say that on the one hand the visible Church has fallen deeper and deeper, but that on the other hand the inner quality of the Church has advanced better and better.

Truth once recovered cannot be lost again. Take, for example, the truth of justification by faith. Some fourteen hundred years before Martin Lutherís time, both the Letter to the Romans and the Letter to the Galatians, which originally dealt with this matter, were already in existence. Yet this truth concerning justification by faith was lost. Imagine it! That within the past two thousand years of Church history, for over a thousand years of it this important truth had been lost to the Church! But it was recovered in the midst of a fiery trial through the instrumentality of Luther in the sixteenth century. Will the Church lose it againósay, after another thousand years? Formerly, people had argued about the truth of justification by faith. Now, though, after many had been burnt and many had shed their blood in defense of this truth, it cannot be lost again. What the Church possesses today is now something unshakable. And all such truths become firmer with time.

From the Reformation to the Present Time

Since Lutherís day God has raised up other individuals and groups as instruments for the recovery of other significant truths. Madame Guyon, for instance, was especially used in the revival of the inner life. J. N. Darby and the Brethren movement saw the heavenly vision as well as the crucifying of the flesh. Pearsall Smith was instrumental in recovering sanctification by faith. George Muller saw faith and put it into practice as few others have. And Evan Roberts understood spiritual warfare and prayer ministry in a remarkable way. Most recently, brother T. Austin-Sparks has been used to recover both the eternal purpose of God and resurrection life. We may therefore say that the Church has never been so clear and so spiritually rich as she is today.

The entire Bible is composed of sixty-six books. Only one of these has no ending, and that is the Book of Acts. Why is it that this book has a beginning but no ending? Because today we are still continuing on with the Book of Acts. The gospel has not been preached to all peoples, and the Lord has yet to come. Even now we continue to write this book. How glorious it is for us to read in Ephesians 2 and 4 about the holy habitation of God and the many gifts with which the saints are to be perfected so that all in the body of Christ might someday arrive at the unity of the faith, and unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, the Church having built herself up in love! Furthermore, we are told in Ephesians 5 that the Church shall one day be spotless and without wrinkle, holy and without blemish. Today, though, we have not yet arrived at this enviable state. We are thus continuing in the recovery of Christís Church and the writing of the Book of Acts.

When I was in England some ten years ago, brother Sparks asked me which chapter in the Bible I thought was most difficult to be fulfilled. I said the most difficult aspect to be fulfilled would be the perfecting of the saints as described in Ephesians 4. I explained to him that I was quite worried after reading this chapter of Ephesians. I had confidence in other chapters, but regarding this chapter I wondered how it could possibly be realized. For there seems to have been no way for such a fulfillment even after all these two thousand years of Church history. According to her present condition, this will probably not be fulfilled in the Church till after another two hundred years. In menís eyes it seems that the Lord will never be able to return. Nevertheless, though indeed the visible Church is in a ruinous state, todayís issue rests on whether there is a group of people who will stand on Godís side and accept His riches, on whether such people are willing to pay any cost to obtain these riches.

On what ground are we standing today? We stand in the midst of these two opposite conditions of the Church. As to the outside, or external condition, we must learn to condemn such a ruinous state. We need to come out of its fallenness. For this reason, we have to be clear on the ground of the Church. It cannot be an equivocal yea and nay. In the house of God we should separate the vessels of honor from those of dishonor. Vessels of honor are not born honorable; they become so through purification. The Bible explains it as follows: "If a man therefore purge himself from these [vessels of dishonor], he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, meet for the masterís use, prepared unto every good work" (2 Tim. 2.21). Honor comes from separation. All who do not purge themselves from dishonor remain in dishonor. Who are the vessels of dishonor? All who mix together with vessels of dishonor without any sense of shame. These are of dishonor.

Meanwhile, as to the internal state of the Church, we must also learn to enter into the life of the body, learn to be sons of God, and learn to walk in the way of recovery. What the Lord does today far surpasses that which He has done before. Todayís Christians ought to strive to enter into the progressive work of God which He is doing in this age. Only seeing the outward ruinous condition of the Church is inadequate. We must go a step further to see the Lordís present-day work. We have no idea at what point the Lord will stop working. We only know God is currently preparing the temple stones to be fitly framed together. One day all things shall be ready. And that will be the time when the Holy Temple of God is finally built.

Types of the Recovery of the Church

In the Old Testament there are two types concerning the Church. One is the tabernacle, the other is the temple. Many have been the people who have spoken on the tabernacle. Over one hundred books have been written on it. But one can hardly purchase a single volume written on the temple. People pay much attention to the type of the tabernacle, but they neglect what the temple typifies. They consider the tabernacle and the temple to be alike, they being redundant types of each other. The fact of the matter is that these two types are not altogether the same. The tabernacle is temporary and external, whereas the temple is permanent and bespeaks the internal. The tabernacle was built in and for the wilderness, but the temple was built by Solomon in the promised land.

The tabernacle in the wilderness serves as a type of the condition of the Church on earth, while the temple represents before God the permanent condition of the Church in the kingdom. Seeing such light will enable us to understand clearly todayís situation. In the Book of Exodus we read that God had first had the tabernacle set up. It then traveled with the children of Israel till it rested in Shiloh (Joshua 18.1). At that time, though, the children of Israel sinned against God: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21.25). In due course the Philistines became their enemy. Samuel, Saul and David were raised up one after another. But the two sons of old Eli the priest sinned, and the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines. So the children of Israel thought of bringing the ark to the battlefield. The ark was the ark of the testimony, and it was also the ark of peace. They therefore presumed that the ark could help them. But after the ark had left the tabernacle it was taken captive by the Philistines and placed in the house of their god Dagon. God would not protect Israel because of the ark, nor did He want Israel to protect the ark.

After the ark left the tabernacle, it never returned. It waited to be removed to the holy temple after Solomon had finished building it. Jeremiah 7.12 says, "But go ye now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I caused my name to dwell at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel." Evidently even in Jeremiahís time, people still went to Shiloh. With the departure of the ark from the tabernacle, God too departed from the tabernacle. So that the ark, as it were, had its back towards the tabernacle and its face towards the holy temple. Just such a situation characterizes the condition of the Church today.

At the time of Solomon, the latter went to Gibeon to sacrifice. There on the altar Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings (1 Kings 3.4). He prayed for wisdom, and the wisdom he received far exceeded that of anybody else. 2 Chronicles 1 tells us that in Gibeon were to be found the brazen altar and the priests. But in the tent of meeting there was no ark (vv.3-5). For the ark had already turned its back towards the tabernacle and had turned its face towards the temple (it was even then in Jerusalem in Davidís tent). This is the testimony of Jesus Christ, and it is also our way. Our way is in following the arkóyet not towards Gibeon but towards the temple.

Today God is preparing gold, silver, wood, stone, brass and iron for His temple. The building materials for Solomonís temple had all been ready-made, they not having been fashioned at the temple site. Thus they were noiselessly fitted together to form the temple, and then King Solomon appeared. One day the time shall arrive for our own King Solomon, the Lord Jesus, to appear. On that day no sound of working tools shall be heard because all the materials will have been well prepared beforehand (see 1 Kings 6.7). When our Solomon arrives, that will be the sign that the holy temple has been finished. Today there are sounds, but on that day all shall be perfectly fitted together to be the Holy Temple of God.

The Church in ruin is a fact, yet the testimony of the temple has continued on throughout these two thousand years. Truths are being recovered one after another. As a matter of fact the number of truths which have been recovered is quite high. Although all manner of sounds are being heard today, one by one the materials are being gathered. Viewing the matter from the perspective of the building of the temple, the Church of God is unquestionably making progress. All the materials are now being prepared. What is needed is for them to be put together. The work of God today is for the purpose of completing the body of Christ so that all the saints may arrive at the unity of the faith and full maturity in Christ (Eph.4.12-13). God has been doing this work throughout the ages. But todayís work is more advanced than yesterdayís. The Lord Jesus once said, "My Father worketh even until now, and I work" (John 5.17). The Lordís work is getting better all the time, and the result of His work is that the Church is becoming increasingly richer spiritually. If we proceed on this way of recovery, we shall not fail to see the working of God in our midst.