There is a lot of speculation about the survival of the church (coming from both internal and external sources).
People talk. And hypothesize. While others lament (and rightly so).
The numbers are troubling. The Gallup Poll reported a decline in American church memberships from 70% in 1999 to that of 47% in 2020. Tim Keller wrote, “While precise numbers of church closures are elusive, a conservative estimate is that thousands of U.S. churches are closing each year”.
And the news reports are even more troubling. Reports of atrocious acts, grievous abuse, and terrible corruption within the church pepper mainstream media.
With the decline in church memberships, the numbers of church closures, and the testimonies of deconstruction, it can feel like a dissolution, of sorts. Then, there’s the assault upon the church in secular media and the science arena. Additionally, there’s all the factions, conflicts, division, and slander across denominations. No wonder people speculate on the church’s demise!
But does that mean we can’t have confidence for the church’s durability?
It is good for members within the Body to make honest assessments. To remain awake and alert. And to operate from a continual state of humble repentance. But are concerns of her utter collapse valid?
Has not God provided for our assurance—both in the past and in His promises for the future?
If Israel’s remnant held firmly onto hope—even in their persecution and exile—can’t the Lord’s church? And yet, Israel wondered about the size of that remnant when their Messianic hope would be realized. That same concern about the number of the faithful when He returns is just as understandable.
Those in Christ, and His church, can have a settled assurance in the survivorship of the Lord’s church by looking to God and His Word. The vision the Lord gave His apostle John can certainly bolster confidence!
Let’s turn eyes of faith to Revelation 12:1-17. There, John shared a vision of a cosmic battle which swings quite dramatically from horror to triumph. He wrote of a woman, representing the Messianic community of God, which became pregnant and delivered a Son, ruler of the nations. Her child was snatched up to God, to His throne. The woman fled into the desert, to the place prepared for her by God, where He would care for them. The passage recounts the great war in the heavens, when the dragon (the devil and his minions) were hurled down to the earth and leads the world astray. But John is also sure to communicate that salvation, and power, and the kingdom of God have also come. However, a woe has been proclaimed, for the devil has come down to earth. In his fury, the dragon pursues the woman, the church. He is enraged at her and makes war with her offspring, those who obey the commands and testimony of the Lord. However, those accused by the dragon overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.
While this passage tells of the accuser, who unleashes vengeful powers of evil upon the church, it also speaks of deliverance (vs 14). It tells us that the time of the devil’s fury is limited (vs 12, 14). And it is sure to mention the authority of the Christ and the nourishment of the saints (vs 10, 14).
PRONOUNCED WOE AND PROMISE
This isn’t the only time God has spoken both woe and promise in the same passage of Scripture. There are other Bible verses that do so, like Jeremiah 31:2:
This is what the Lord says:
“The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.”
To the Israelites who survived the sword, God extended promise.
A promise of coming grace.
A grace for survivors.
A grace in the wilderness.
And He has issued promise of another coming grace—rest.
When the Lord comes again, He will usher in a lasting rest—the very pinnacle and crowning glory of Creation.
It will be a rest for the battle weary. For the church, after heavy assault from all the powers of darkness while waiting for the promised return of Jesus.
Here, in what often feels like a wilderness, the new covenant people of God find grace. A grace to overcome. To endure. To hope.
The Sovereign God over all time and creation, in grace, has extended promise. Promises that build a confident faith. The passage from Revelation 12 is but one example of how the Word ministers to faith. But it also renews the mind.
Peter, the Lord’s apostle, charged the church to be sober-minded and to set their hope fully on the grace that will come at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13). To be sober-minded is to be clear-headed. It is to control your thoughts. To view things rightly.
Fatalism is not realism. Especially regarding kingdom matters. Fatalism is unbelief. For fatalism disregards the covenant faithfulness of God. So, how do we overcome attacks of fatalism toward the church? How do we cling to the confidence God provides?
By trusting God. And practicing biblical realism.
According to the inerrant Word of God, salvation and the kingdom have come (Revelation 12:10)—inaugurated by the Lord’s first coming. This faithfulness is but one reason we can trust God. Which means we can rest assured that the victory (Revelation 12:11) and rest promised with the Lord’s second coming are sure.
Another trust-building word is found in the promise that God will provide all that we need and will keep us to the end (1 Corinthians 1:7-8).
Trust is also built upon the doctrinal truths regarding the church. Doctrines which include the truth that the church was founded by and built upon the Eternal Christ Jesus, and He is the cornerstone of His church (Ephesians 2:20). Did Jesus not tell Peter that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against” His church (Matthew 16:18)? These, indeed, are confidence building!
To be sober-minded is to practice biblical realism. Paul, very realistically, wrote this to Timothy, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5). That’s about as real as it gets! The Bible does not deny reality. Whitewash it. Or back away from it. Rather, it equips us for it.
Remember the verses of both woe and promise mentioned earlier? Well, here is one from the Lord Himself regarding these end times: “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:12-13). That’s woe mixed with a healthy dose of encouragement.
Because God is proven to be faithful to His promises, the church can have confidence! That doesn’t relieve the Christian of responsibility to steward, grow, and contribute to the good health of the church. Nor does it negate the existence of false churches. (That’s healthy realism, one that’s balanced on all sides.)
Because of these things, and so much more, we can have more than confident assurance. We can have joy! And with that joy-filled confidence, we can serve the Body in love. All the while remembering that the Father has promised a Bride to His Beloved Son. And the Groom is returning for His Bride. Since the Father has promised “to keep her firm to the end” (1 Corinthians 1:8), He will carry her to the altar in sovereign grace.
So, in the noise of all the secular taunts and naysaying, we can fearlessly hold fast. By trusting God. Practicing biblical realism. And living faithfully to the commands and testimony of Jesus (Revelation 12:17)—for all eternity.