And with many other words he testified, and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40).
We do well to remember the summation of Peter’s message, to save ourselves from this crooked generation, and apply it to our exhortation and the practice of the faith.
Among our people we have a tendency and temptation to become very fixated on doctrine and doctrinal disputation. Doctrine is certainly important and it has its place; nevertheless, it’s not 1840 anymore. We don’t live in a country that is mostly filled with decently read evangelical Protestants; we do not have the luxury of just sitting around and arguing the finer parts of doctrine. Likewise, we cannot continue to labor under the delusion that most people know what they should be doing and therefore we can just gloss over matters of morality and Christian practice.
Probably the fastest religion growing in America is “no” religion. Biblical literacy is even more dismal: many adults who went to “Sunday school” in their childhood do not even know many of the basics of the Bible, let alone the large and growing number of entirely “unchurched” people out there.
Peter’s message must be heard today. We must strive to exhort people to be saved from this crooked and perverted generation.
We need to exhort in the pulpit to the pews the need to save ourselves from this crooked and perverted generation. We have no hope of bringing people to the light of Christ if our assemblies have the hint of darkness. We easily get caught up in the Enlightenment paradigm of knowledge as power, as if as long as one knows one will automatically do. According to such a view we can gloss over the practice of the Christian faith; we can spend our time in the assembly talking either about more whimsical things or about purely theoretical matters. There are times for light-heartedness, and there are times for theoretical matters, but we cannot neglect the matters of Christian moral practice. Consider the New Testament letters, brethren: Paul, writing to Christians, constantly exhorted them to remain pure from the world, to not engage in the works of the flesh but strive for the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:19-23, Romans 12:1-2). We find such exhortation in every letter, because while knowledge is important, it is not sufficient in and of itself to guarantee practice of the faith: in fact, we struggle with doing precisely because we know, and all because of sin (Romans 7:1-25, Hebrews 5:12-14).
It is distressing when good and faithful brethren testify that they have not heard sermons on various matters of the practice of the faith. Perhaps they heard and did not remember; yet none have said such things about sermons regarding matters of doctrinal distinctives. Are we so confident that everyone is doing what they need to be doing so much that we are not even willing to act as if we’re reminding our brethren about these things? The Apostles were not that confident!
It is often difficult to preach on the practice of the faith, but it must be done. The assembly is there as the refreshing station, the time we take out of our week when we hold off on the battles we fight against the temptations out in the world to encourage one another and to be encouraged ourselves (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25). What, should we never talk about how to wage the battle out in the world when we are together? Is that really going to help people in their quest to fight the good fight and endure (Ephesians 6:10-18)? The time that we come together should be a time to recoup, a time to consider our fighting and our battle plans and spur one another on to keep going and keep doing better, and to provide the necessary equipment and reinforcement to fight the battle. In physical war every soldier must return to base to be briefed again, to re-arm, and to get reinforcements. In our spiritual war, do we make our assemblies to fit that need? Or do we just spend the time in our obtuseness, patting ourselves on the back continually because we’ve got it all figured out on the theoretical end? We’re losing the battle on too many fronts, brethren, because we’re not properly reinforcing one another and not having the camaraderie that leads to a close-knit community. It is only when people get involved spiritually, both with one another and in the assembly, that they are truly getting the assistance they need to fight the good fight. I am well aware that there are many who refuse to involve themselves so, and it should not surprise us when we see them lagging in the fight and being the weak. In the end, all we can do is the best we can: and for those who preach and teach, consider the profitability of what is being preached and taught and whether it is truly keeping the saints armed and ready for the struggle.
We also must recognize that while the assembly is important it is not the sum of Christian service. Many recognize this in theory, yet deny it in word and deed. “Faithful Christian” is too often equated with “Christian always at least warming the pew”. “Forsaking the assembly” is the “go-to” sin when discussing transgression. Forsaking the assembly represents a problem, but is the symptom of a greater difficulty. We do better to deal with the underlying problem than to blast the symptom while ignoring the problem.
Why are Christians bored with Christianity? Why do we lose young people? There are many reasons, to be sure, yet is not one of them the reduction of Christian practice to assembling with the saints up to three times a week? In churches of Christ we have a better percentage of attendance than those in the denominations. But has that really led to people being saved, obeying Christ in all things as they ought?
If you want a church full of people there every service because they feel obligated to, accept theoretically what is said but do little about it, and feel complacent, well, you can continue to focus on “the issues” and keep going as always. Continue that trend long enough and see how many doors get permanently closed within a generation and a half. We need to return to the Bible and emphasize what Jesus and the Apostles emphasized. The assembly is a part of our life of service to God. It is the easiest part, the refreshing part, the time when we get to encourage one another. The assembly is our great joy so that we can accomplish the great work: to not conform to the world, but be transformed in Jesus, and reflect Jesus to a sin-sick and dying world. That’s the challenging and exciting part, and we have often steamrolled over it in order to “preserve” the assembly. Furthermore, time together in the assembly is important for the development of community among the people of God, but it is not sufficient in and of itself to foster strong community. It is when we spend time together outside of the assembly that we learn about each other and are better equipped to strengthen one another (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). How much more encouraged will your brethren be if you are constantly with them, constantly engaged with them, and making them constantly feel a part of the community?
Along with spreading the message inside the assembly, every one of us needs to be out spreading Peter’s message to the world: save yourselves from this crooked and perverted generation! This message is going to force us to reconsider our assumptions and preconceived notions about the way people are in America. Let’s face the facts:
1. Most are nominally Christian only.
2. Most cannot tell you the basics of the Biblical narrative.
3. Most people think that it’s good enough to just be a “good person”.
4. Many people are skeptical about organized religion based not in substantive ground but preconceived notions they have gained from their own limited experience and the general cultural idea of Christianity.
5. Most people have barely ever picked up a Bible.
6. When most people think of Christianity, they think of the odd but prevalent synthesis society holds: a bit of Catholic practice and hierarchy plus Puritanical concepts of sex and sin and hell with a bit of Evangelical conceptualization of America as God’s Chosen Land and Americans as God’s Chosen People, along with “once saved, always saved,” and increasingly the idea of a megachurch with its entertainment-called-worship.
We have to act as if people know nothing about God and the Bible and we have to go out and give them reasons to listen. We must meet people where they are so that we can save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Such need not sacrifice the Gospel on the altar of relevance; it instead demands for us to stop presuming that everyone should automatically understand things as we understand them, to stop and listen and find ways to communicate the message of Jesus to them where they are.
We have a type of “prophetic” burden, to speak the message of God revealed in Jesus to 21st century Americans. This is not new revelation (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10); it is making what God has revealed connect with the lives of people today. Prophets did not just sit around and write various messages so that people 400-700 years later would know that Jesus was the Christ. While predicting various aspects of the future and heralding the coming King was certainly one aspect of prophecy, most prophecy featured God sending a message to the people via a prophet, and that message is normally the need to repent and why. Prophets of old were the critical link between God and the people, informing the people when they had strayed, how they had strayed, and how to return.
To this day we can read the prophets and see just how relevant their message is even today. Consider, for example, what Hosea said and think for yourselves how applicable it is today.
Hear the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel: for the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. There is nought but swearing and breaking faith, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery; they break out, and blood toucheth blood (Hosea 4:1-2).
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I also will forget thy children. As they were multiplied, so they sinned against me: I will change their glory into shame. They feed on the sin of my people, and set their heart on their iniquity (Hosea 4:6-8).
O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the dew that goeth early away. Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth: and thy judgments are as the light that goeth forth. For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:4-6)
Woe unto them! for they have wandered from me; destruction unto them! for they have trespassed against me: though I would redeem them, yet they have spoken lies against me. And they have not cried unto me with their heart, but they howl upon their beds: they assemble themselves for corn and wine, they rebel against me. Though I have taught and strengthened their arms, yet do they imagine mischief against me (Hosea 7:13-15).
Change a few of the details and you have a ready-made lesson to modern man, for the same ills plaguing Israel of old plague America today.
Let none be deceived: we do not receive direct messages from God in the way Hosea did. But we still have the same type of prophetic burden as Hosea did: the burden of delivering God’s message to the people (Matthew 28:18-20, Romans 1:16). Do not be concerned that God has not specifically called you and given you a specific message, for you have eyes and ears. You can see what is said in the Scriptures and understand God’s message, and you can hear what is said in society and what is advocated in society and therefore proclaim how it is that people can save themselves from this perverted and crooked generation. The people have no knowledge of God; go out and tell them about God. The people are engaging in lawlessness; go out and rebuke the lawlessness. The people have forgotten their God; go and remind them. Yes, your reward might be similar to the persecution of the prophets, yet we must trust that we will obtain the prophet’s reward (Luke 6:22-23, 26). If not you, who will? Paul felt the burden of preaching so acutely that he cried, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16); would that we would feel that burden so acutely!
The time is now. Souls need saving. Doctrine is well and good, and ought to be preached and reinforced, yet we must always keep in mind what is truly important. Let us not get complacent and think that everyone in the pews has it all figured out and knows exactly what to do; most do not. Let us not think that people of the world are entirely hostile to Christ; by in large they do not know enough to be hostile to Him. Teach your fellow man, not just by word, but in practice. Sure, your light might blind him so as to cause him to wish to return to the darkness, and there is no helping that situation; and yet your light can also attract such a one, and lead to that soul’s salvation.
Do you feel as if your congregation is dying, old, and tired? Get up, proclaim the Gospel, bring souls to Jesus, and the vitality will return. Get up and encourage your brethren, both within and without the assembly, and the vitality will return. Encourage people to have the proper perspective of the place of the assembly within the context of the Christian life, and the vitality will return.
We can speak in terms of doomsday or we can speak in terms of a renaissance of the church. The result will be on the basis of whether we accept the call to which we have been summoned. May we be delivered from this crooked generation in Christ, and proclaim His life in word and deed!
“Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Ethan R. Longhenry