One of the most dramatic passages in the Bible is Isaiah 1:10–20, where the prophet reprimands Judah and Jerusalem, calling their leaders princes of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were famous for debauchery and iniquity. The people of God had corrupted themselves to the point that God no longer had any pleasure in receiving their worship. Unfortunately, this picture of decadence and corruption among the people of God has repeated itself many times throughout history. In these periods, the people of God often become cold in their faith, harden their hearts, persevere in sin, and provide a terrible testimony to the world.
Our duty as the church and as individual Christians is to prevent the entrance of this spiritual decadence into our lives. Here are four things we can do, by God’s grace, to avoid spiritual decline in the church.
1. Treat sin seriously. Nothing ruins the spiritual life of a community more quickly than letting sin continue without being dealt with. When Achan disobeyed God, the entire community suffered the consequences (Josh. 7). Hidden, unconfessed, and unrepented-of sins grieve the Spirit of God and spread through the church, poisoning others’ good behavior and faith (Eph. 4:30).
2. Maintain sound doctrine. The truth saves and edifies the church, but lies are its ruin. Religious error poisons souls and diverts the people from the righteous ways of God. The Lord Jesus severely criticized the church at Pergamum for tolerating false leaders who infected the community with false teaching (Rev. 2:14–15). We must never compromise the clear teachings of the gospel.
3. Walk close to the Lord of the church. God keeps us firm and pure. If we come closer to God, He will come closer to us. God has established means by which we can be in continuous communion with Him, including public worship, prayer, privately reading and meditating on Scripture, the preaching of the Word, and regularly taking the Lord’s Supper. Christians who fail to use these means end up decaying spiritually. Making regular use of them nourishes us spiritually.
4. Be open to being reformed. One of the mottoes of the Reformed tradition is ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (the church reformed and always reforming). The church should always be open to being corrected by God, repenting of its sins, and being reformed in accordance with the teachings of Scripture. In His letters to the seven churches in Revelation, the Lord Jesus called wrongdoers to repent and to return to the righteous ways of the Lord (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21; 3:3, 19). There is great danger when a church stops hearing the Word of its Lord, but a willingness to be corrected brings life.
We as individuals also ought to apply these measures. We must strive to avoid the spiritual decline of our religious practices by attending to God’s appointed means of growth in grace. If we fail to do so, we risk running aground spiritually, but if we attend to the means of grace, we can provide a tremendous witness to the world.