Today In History: Church Decline & Revival
On 14 July 1833, John Keble preached a famous sermon that inspired a religious revival in England and spread to Anglican churches across the world. That sermon was entitled “National Apostasy,” and it called out the movement towards secularism in the English government, and the liberalizing tendency amongst Christians to turn away from recognizing the true Church of Christ. It was becoming fashionable to make religion a private matter; you, the individual, get to forge your own relationship with Jesus in whatever sort of faith community you feel ‘works best for you.’ The result of this movement is what we see today as normal: hundreds of denominations to choose from, countless churches and Christians with no accountability to godly authority, and a pervading sense of spiritual anarchy whenever difficult questions in society come up that ought to provoke a “Christian” response.
Keble was insistent that the Church was founded by Christ and the Apostles to be unified – to be one Body. Although it can and should look different according to local culture and nationality, its unity should be clear both regionally and globally. If he could see how things have progressed since his famous sermon 183 years ago, he would be most unhappy to see how much more Christian unity has dissolved. But he would not be without hope. Towards the end of his sermon, he said,
I do not see how any person can devote himself too entirely to the cause of the Apostolic Church in these realms. There may be, as far as he knows, but a very few to sympathise with him. He may have to wait long, and very likely pass out of this world before he see any abatement in the triumph of disorder and irreligion. But, if he be consistent, he possesses, to the utmost, the personal consolations of a good Christian: and as a true Churchman, he has that encouragement, which no other cause in the world can impart in the same degree:—he is calmly, soberly, demonstrably, SURE, that, sooner or later, HIS WILL BE THE WINNING SIDE, and that the victory will be complete, universal, eternal.
Keble was confident in the promises of God. As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done.” He believed it. Even if he stood in a ridiculed minority, mocked for being a stodgy old churchman with antiquated religious views and an intolerance for diversity, he was convinced that Christ would indeed vindicate his people and return for his Bride, the Church, at the end of the age.
In the Bible: Psalm 26’s Cry of the Innocent
Despite this rather political sort of introduction to John Keble, he is remembered just as much (if not more) as a poet. He didn’t just love the Church as an institution, but he loved her liturgy and worship as well. Keble wrote a series of poems reflecting on each Sunday and Holy Day in the Church Year. These expressions of spirituality, love, devotion, and theology were very popular in the 19th century, going through 95 printings during his lifetime alone! Because of this poetic side to him, I thought it would be nice to take a look at today’s Psalm more closely. Psalm 26 is appointed for this commemoration of John Keble because it reflects his life so well, so let’s look at what this poetic book in the Bible has to teach us as well.
The first three verses are a plea to God for justice. “Vindicate me… Prove me, O Lord, and try me… test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness.” It is the voice of one who stands as innocent, surrounded by liars and wicked opponents. John Keble certainly felt that way when he was writing his sermon, “National Apostasy,” and there are many situations today in which we, as Christians, also feel like a tiny bastion of faithful people surrounded by a sea of evil. But lest we claim our innocence wrongly, the Psalm continues with a description of what this innocence is.
Verses 4-8 describe what it is to be innocent. “I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O Lord, proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds. O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.” Can we really say this about ourselves? How often do we end up sharing fellowship with liars and hypocrites? Do we really “hate the assembly of evildoers,” or just certain types of evildoers? Do we really invest our energy in worship, washing our hands by confessing our sins and coming to God’s altar to proclaim his thanks and praise? Do we actually “love the habitation of his house” the Church?
It is easy to be self-righteousness. The anger and urgency of Keble’s writing could easily be perceived as such. But he was motived by love for Christ’s Church, and his “hatred” was, at his better moments, in line with God’s “hatred” of sin and Church-destroying teachings and activities. It is easy to “wash our hands in innocence” like Pontius Pilate – only giving an outward appearance of repentance. But Pilate still sent Jesus to be crucified. This sort of thing happens all the time – even in American politics. One of the stranger articles floating around the internet these days is the claim that Donald Trump just became a born-again Christian. But the claim also says that he was led to Christ to by Paula White, a famous false teacher of the heretical “Prosperity Gospel.” In a desperate move to wash the hands of a presidential candidate, some people have seen fit to convince themselves that Trump is a Christian like they are. We must look beyond mere outward claims of innocence, and look to the heart – do we really love the place where God’s glory dwells?
The last four verses of the Psalm return to the plea for God to spare us in the time of judgment, when the wicked are swept away. It is accompanied with the promise to “walk in integrity.” This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the whole thing. Being people of integrity is not a value highly favored in our society. You’ve gotta say the things that will get you elected. You’ve gotta do the things that will impress your boss. You’ve gotta live your life the way that makes you happy, regardless of anyone else. These, and other lies, all draw us away from being people of integrity – people who keep our word, people who honor God, love what is good, and hate what is evil. Life too easily is turned into a game of people-pleasing.
Loving God through His Church
What Psalm 26 teaches, and John Keble demonstrates, is that a real Christian life is one focused on the Body of Christ. Our joy in the Lord is not just a private sordid love affair between “me and Jesus,” as some traditions today have asserted. Rather, we are grounded in a community, the Body of Christ, the Church, centered around “the habitation of God’s house, the place where his glory dwells.” When we say we follow Christ, but the Church is just a peripheral feature of our faith, we may have heard the call, but we’re missing what our Lord Jesus has called us to. The Christian life is a journey through this life into eternal life, a transition from the kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. Remember the Beatitudes, which we heard in the Gospel reading: several times the “kingdom of heaven” is repeated as the final destination of God’s blessed people. The Kingdom is being built by Christ; the Church is the visible appearance of that Kingdom in the world; if we claim to love Christ, we must also learn to love his Bride. And it is in the context of that love that our hearts are transformed to love what God loves and hate what God hates, untainted and undistracted by our own sinful nature.
You may not remember much of John Keble’s story soon after reading this, but you do have access to a Bible. Revisit Psalm 26 from time to time to remind yourself of what true innocence looks like. Let its sacred poetry teach you, correct you, bring you to repentance, and fill you faith, hope, and love.