The conquering power of evil is on the increase. This is characteristic of the last times. Innocent babies are now not even allowed to be born, so corrupted are the moral standards. Or if born, no one educates them, so desolate are studies. Or if trained, no one enforces the training, so impotent are the laws. In fact, the case for modesty . . . has in our time become an obsolete subject.1
Although these words could easily describe the moral erosion that we see today in the modern Western world, they are in fact from the pen of Tertullian, an early church father who lived in Carthage, in the Roman province of Africa, during the late second and early third centuries. Like us, Tertullian dwelled in times of difficulty, when there was a noticeable decline in society’s decency and virtue. Reading these comments helps us remember that sin has been a perennial problem with humans ever since Adam rebelled in the garden. Godlessness is characteristic of every historical period. Never was there a golden age in which selfishness, greed, and violence were absent. We should avoid romanticizing the past, as if people were less sinful in days gone by. But we should also avoid romanticizing the future. We need a sober assessment of the problem of sin in society, especially if we are to appreciate the power of the gospel.
The Apostle Paul provides us with such an assessment: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1–4). Paul wrote these words to his young colleague Timothy, the pastor of the church of Ephesus, to help him put into context the troubles he was facing. Timothy should not be surprised by opposition from false teachers, nor by the rampant immorality in the city in which he served, for he lived in evil times, and the evil would only increase. Paul gives Timothy an accurate diagnosis of the radical corruption of the human heart so that he will put his confidence in God and stay focused in times of difficulty, preaching the Word boldly in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.
The church today needs that same confidence and focus. We are too easily tempted to look for merely external solutions to the pervasive problem of sin, as if more laws or better public policies could produce righteousness in the human heart. Paul’s diagnosis of the last days not only helps us grasp the depths of societal depravity, but it also reminds us that only the gospel can regenerate the human heart and cause a sinner to live for the glory of God.
As Christians, certainly we are called to love our neighbors and to be good citizens, doing all we can to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Likewise, the magistrate has the God-given responsibility of suppressing vice in society, promoting justice, and being “an avenger . . . on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4, NKJV). But we must always remember that the godlessness in the last days described by Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1–4 cannot be overcome by laws and public policies. Not even the Ten Commandments can change the human heart. The persistent rebellion and idolatry of Israel, the nation to whom God had given His law and with whom He made a covenant, shows us the impotence of the law. The law can, to some extent, expose and restrain sin, but it cannot produce righteousness. It is powerless to change the human heart from being a lover of self to a lover of God. As Paul said in Galatians 3:21, “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.”
Several years ago, this point was powerfully illustrated to me when my son came home from the San Diego Zoo and recounted what he saw that day at the tiger exhibit. While watching a Malayan tiger through a window in its large, walled-in enclosure, he noticed a wild duck land within the confines of the tiger’s domain. The duck appeared totally unaware that it had landed in a tiger’s exhibit. For all the duck knew, it had found a lovely and lush part of San Diego, a wonderful place to take a rest. But the tiger’s eye caught the duck’s landing and was watching its every move. Oblivious to the presence of the tiger, the duck waddled over to the stream to take a drink. The tiger instinctively and quietly assumed an attack position and then bolted for the duck in a flash. Before the duck even saw the tiger coming, it was in the jaws of the powerful creature, which tore it to shreds and consumed it as a meal. Although the tiger lived within the walls of the San Diego Zoo, it could not cease doing what came naturally. The walls could restrain the tiger, at least to a certain extent, and defined its boundaries of living, but they were powerless to change the tiger’s nature. They could not keep the tiger from being a tiger, as the duck discovered that day.
The law is similar to the walls of the tiger’s exhibit. The law defines the boundaries within which we are to live, and to a certain extent it can restrain sin. But it is powerless to change hearts. For that, we need the gospel, which the Holy Spirit is pleased to use in all His re-creative power to renew our minds and reshape our hearts. The gospel announces to us that a new creation has dawned in Jesus Christ and brings us into union with our Savior so that we begin to walk in newness of life and grateful obedience to God. It begins changing our hearts, transforming our love for self into love for God and neighbor. Where there once was pride, arrogance, abusive behavior, ingratitude, unholiness, slander, recklessness, and conceit (see 1 Tim. 3:2–4), the Spirit begins to bear the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23). Only the gospel can do this, which is why it needs to be preached faithfully and frequently.
Do we have confidence in the preaching of God’s Word? Do we trust that God is able to use His Word even in the darkest of days and most difficult of times?
One man who demonstrated confidence in the Word of God was a Scottish Presbyterian minister by the name of Robert Morrison, one of the very first Protestant missionaries to the Chinese people. In 1805, the London Missionary Society recruited Morrison to go to China and put him on a ship to make the long voyage. When the owner of the ship heard about Morrison’s plans, he was skeptical. “So, Mr. Morrison,” he said, “do you really expect that you will make any spiritual impact on the idolatry of the great Chinese Empire?” “No sir,” Morrison replied, “but I expect God will.”2 After twenty-five years of labor, he completed a translation of the entire Bible in the Chinese language. He also baptized ten Chinese believers, some of whom became ministers and evangelists.
Herein lies the answer to how Christianity will survive times of difficulty in the last days. It will survive the same way that it did in the first century, when it passed from Paul to Timothy and from Timothy to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). It will survive in the same way that it has since the days of Robert Morrison as he preached the Word in a closed and oppressive society such as China. It will survive in our own day, even as Christianity in the West seems to be moving into cultural exile. It will be passed on to the next generation by Christians guarding the good deposit of the gospel and making disciples of Jesus Christ. The Word of God will endure, even in the last days.
- Tertullian, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IX, ed. Peter Gorday (Westmont, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 258–59.
- R. Li-Hua, Competitiveness of Chinese Firms: West Meets East (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 40.