In the month and year I was born—shortly after Tabletalk magazine transitioned from a newsletter to a digest-size magazine—Dr. R.C. Sproul warned of a coming struggle where the honor of God would be at stake. In his Tabletalk column, he wrote of the dawning of the “new dark age.” The darkness, Dr. Sproul said, consists not in the absence of knowledge but in the absence of God. It is a darkness of the heart produced by a “shroud covering the face of God.” To use the Apostle Paul’s language, it’s a darkness produced by men who, “although they knew God, . . . did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). God is eclipsed and meaning is reduced to the here and now. Here in Romans 1 we find two of Dr. Sproul’s most well-known axioms: coram Deo and right now counts forever. Interestingly, both are captured in the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” The darkness of the natural human heart reinvents the answer to this question. Apart from grace, man’s chief end has nothing to do with God. We live before our own face and give no thought to forever. Although Dr. Sproul sounds eerily prophetic in his prediction that this eclipsing of God would engender moral and cultic chaos, he was merely applying the trajectory of Romans 1 to the spirit of the age at the turn of a decade:
When we trample on the flowers of divine dignity we sacrifice our own. The cultural struggles of the 90s will surely reflect this crisis. Abortion will continue to divide the nation, as the issue of the sanctity and dignity of human life will be debated. Law will be discussed and enacted not by appeals to the light of nature but by the test of collective preferences. Church and state issues will multiply. The state will become more jealous for its autonomy. Separation of church and state will progressively (or regressively) be more and more interpreted to mean separation of state and God. Some churches will capitulate.
It’s difficult for me to read that without having the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The world—with its darkened heart—has suppressed the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18) and in turn has demanded that the church follow suit. Doctrines that don’t gel with modern cultural sensibilities must be sidelined or revoked. We’re only allowed to affirm what the world affirms. Regrettably, some churches have indeed capitulated. In reaction to such capitulation, it’s common to fall into one of two errors. Like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9–14), we can thank God that we are not like other men who yield to the spirit of the age. The other tendency, which I am admittedly susceptible to, is to grow unduly discouraged like Elijah. He wrongly assumed that he was the only one left who hadn’t forsaken the Lord and bent the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:10–14). Notice the Lord’s response to Elijah’s despair: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (v. 18). The “I will” of the Lord here brings to mind the promise of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” D. Ralph Davis, calling 1 Kings 19:18 the Old Testament equivalent of Matthew 16:18, reflects on the comfort that comes from the stubbornness of our covenant-keeping God:
This climactic declaration puts a thrill into one’s theological bones. Grace will have a remnant. The God of grace insists on it. Yahweh will always have a people to worship him upon the earth. He has decided that he will have a true people, and he will have them and keep them, and there is nothing any Jezebel can do about it. It is the infectious assurance, the defiant certainty, the holy dogmatism, of this text that keeps some of us on our feet.
Take heart—the Lord Jesus Christ is building His church.
We need to regularly reflect on this holy dogmatism if we are to keep on our feet. Rather than giving ourselves over to despair, we ought to depend on God’s ancient promises to preserve His people. He will have a true people for Himself, and there’s nothing anyone or anything can do to thwart that.
Professing Christians will continue to “swerve from the truth” (2 Tim. 2:18) until the Lord Jesus returns. We’ll continue to see once-orthodox churches hold up signs in support of abortion, ordain practicing homosexual ministers, submit to statism, deny the divinity of Christ and the inerrancy of Scripture, and myriad other demands that the darkened world makes on the church. The faithful, however, will hold the line. Not against flesh and blood. Not with swords and axes. Not for our own autonomy and happiness. But against the spirit of darkness, with the Word of God, and for the glory of God and for the church.
Dr. Sproul concluded his column on the new dark age confident that not all churches will capitulate: “Other churches will fight for their lives. They will come home with their shields or on them.” God will preserve His people. Take heart—the Lord Jesus Christ is building His church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It’s a project that cannot fail. As the old church continues onward and upward in this new dark age, let us toil with “all his energy that he powerfully works within [us]” (Col. 1:29) to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), trusting the Lord to bring His good work to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6) and to bring us home to be with Him (John 14:3)—whether it’s with our shields or on them.
Rev. Aaron L. Garriott is managing editor of Tabletalk magazine, resident adjunct professor at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla., and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.