Updated: May 20, 2020
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And "If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?"
1 Peter 4:17-18
This is not something I want to write.
It will become clear pretty quickly that I’m not doing this in a bid to gain friends (I was hoping to break into double figures this year), and it probably won’t do my “ministry” any favours, but none of that matters; I feel compelled by God to write this (I could of course be wrong on that) and it’s not my place to say no.
Let’s say for sake of argument that much of what you’re about to read here is unfair, overstated, off the mark (I don’t believe it is): would you be so good as to search for whatever kernel of truth there might be within or underneath what I’m saying? Just in case. It could be important, badly handled though it may be by a fool (which I am).
Let me start by reiterating what I appreciate about The UK Blessing – this is an excerpt from an e.mail I sent to Tim Hughes and some of the other producers a few days ago (he was kind enough to get back to me):
May I add my thanks to the thanks of many others for all your hard work on The UK Blessing, which has turned out beautifully and touched many.
It is a fine sentiment to wish a blessing on the nation at this time, and stands as a great example of "thinking outside of ourselves" when we can be tempted to hunker down and just hibernate until the storm has passed.
I am writing to ask whether you would be so kind as to consider adding to your message a very important clarification?
I’ll go on to outline what this plea was in a moment but before that I want to make it ever so clear – as I tried to also in this e.mail – this is not an attempted judgment on the people contributing to this video, whom I love as brothers and sisters in Christ, and I am not calling into question their motives, which were probably as generous and sincere as human motives can be (I appreciate Terry Virgo’s comment on not judging others’ motives). At one level this is all very simple: God’s people just wanted to bless the nation, and they did so with enthusiasm and from the heart. And that is a wonderful thing, I really do mean that.
However, for all the good intentions there are dangers with this video as it stands, and heavy though this may come across I think this video taken in context could be almost a Rubicon moment for the UK Church as it encapsulates and confirms the essence of much of our public witness at this time in our nation’s history, speeding us down a certain path.
Let’s start with the message itself.
Here’s the essence of my concern about the message, copied from my plea to the producers:
…in its present form the message - quite unintentionally I am sure - dangerously misleads the lost as to their spiritual standing before a holy God by insisting and repeating, without qualification, "He is for you."
Of course God...loves all people (Psalm 145:9), Jesus came to save sinners, not condemn, we all agree on that, but is his message to lost sinners one of affirmation only?…
"He is for you" unaccompanied by anything else suggests that God is pleased with unrepentant sinners as they are, who neither know, love, nor follow him - there is no hint in this song that people need to turn to this God and change their ways, in order to experience his full blessing.
The Bible repeatedly states, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (e.g. Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; Proverbs 29:23; Matthew 23:12; Luke 1:52; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5.)
The truly humble are not those who care for the vulnerable, or NHS workers (by means of paid work or voluntary service), but those who acknowledge their sin and turn to God. Have we forgotten that all our righteousness is but filthy rags before a holy God? Those who do not accept this truth, regardless of whether they are doing kind and compassionate things at this time, remain enemies of the living God, cut off from him, and condemned to death for eternity if they don’t repent.
We actually read in many places that he is "against" even his own people when they are sinning. (e.g. Ezekiel 5:8; Nahum 3:5; Rev. 3:3.)
Jesus's opening words were not "bless you" but "repent and believe the good news" - and his followers carried on in the same vein in the evangelistic sermons we read in the Book of Acts.
Please could you consider adding, for example, one of the following verses, perhaps with a brief explanation, to convey this vital aspect of the gospel message? Acts 3:26…Isaiah 55:6…Romans 8:1…
I notice that in the description section there is information on some of the charitable works that churches are doing. Would it not be better to let good works speak for themselves, and speak what good works can’t: the gospel. That only through repentance and faith in Jesus, can we truly say that anyone is blessed, and included fully in the words of Romans:
“Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35)…
I hope and pray that you receive this message in the spirit in which it is intended. I desire to see Christ exalted, the Church purified, the lost saved…
All I'm suggesting is the addition of, for example, Isaiah 55:6: "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near."
THE MESSAGE ABOUT OUR NATION
In part the problem arises from the fact that the words of this song, the Aaronic blessing, are lifted out of context. In Numbers 6:23 it is expressly the people of Israel that are the recipients of this blessing, not the pagan nations. Moreover, even for God’s own people the blessing is not exactly unconditional. By chapter 14 of the same book God has judged this entire generation of Israelites for their lack of faith and disloyalty, killing some of them instantly with a plague (which confronts any simplistic dismissal (“He’s not like that”) of the possibility that God has sent Covid-19) and condemning almost all the rest to die in the desert during the following 40 years of wandering. There are curses as well as blessings in the Torah, and many, many laws to do with holiness.
I am not saying that it is wrong to seek to apply or to wish a blessing upon a pagan nation. “God bless you” is good! “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). But I am saying that this message needs clarification, qualification, or it can mislead and in fact achieve the very opposite of the blessing that it’s seeking to bring.
The question is – and we’ll come back to this at the end – what actually is the real blessing we can give to our nation at this time?
“He is for you” (repeated many times) makes a significant break from the rest of the song in at least two ways. Not only is it not in the original Aaronic blessing, or in any of the other similar blessings cited; it is a declaration, a statement, whereas everything else in the song is a prayer, a request (“May…”).
We have to be more careful with statements we declare over people than we do with wishes or hopes. We have to make sure such a statement is true and not misleading.
Anyone who’s seen me try to kick a football into a goal can imagine how damaging it was when I was led to believe, through an off-hand comment by a coach, that one day I could make it into the 1st XI! More seriously, when a toddler is running towards a road, a message of “Well done, look at you go!” is inappropriate - irresponsible, in fact. A doctor does not affirm habits that are killing her patient.
Spiritually, a godless nation is on the road to destruction, and our affirmation merely speeds them along that path, suggesting that they’re in no danger whatsoever. This is spiritually irresponsible.
I felt the same spinetingling sensation from this song that everyone else felt, until the addition “He is for you” went on repeat and I started to feel very uncomfortable with what this could communicate to a godless nation.
THE MESSAGE ABOUT OUR CHURCH
All this is one half of the message – the message to the nation about the nation.
The other key element in this message is a message to the nation (perhaps to ourselves as well) about the Church, expressed through what tops and tails the video and is found in the description section underneath.
The message is that the UK Church is “very much alive”, as evidenced by the production of this song by so many Christians and churches joined together in unity, and by our good deeds:
Many of the churches included in this song have assisted with supplying over 400,000 meals to the most vulnerable and isolated in our nation since COVID-19 lockdown began. This alongside phone calls to the isolated, pharmacy delivery drops and hot meals to the NHS frontline hospital staff.
I have to say that publicising this here – I don’t say the acts themselves, they are just simple acts of kindness – but publicising this here is nothing more than virtue-signalling, seeking to impress the culture about how good or impressive the Church is. I don’t say that it is done with malicious intent – I’m not even claiming it’s done consciously – but the purpose of this text is plain for all to see: it's to signal our virtue, and I want to suggest that it’s off-key, because it is Church-proclamation in the place of Christ-proclamation.
Is it coincidence that the only causes cited here are of the kind that are likely to impress the secular world around us? And nothing here that might offend? Can you imagine here, “Proudly defending the lives of thousands of unborn children from abortion”? Of course not. For one thing, it wouldn’t be true (we’re hardly doing anything at all to defend the babies), but for another, even if it were true, can you imagine it being trumpeted on a video like this? No. Because the whole point of this pronouncement is to earn brownie points with popular culture, exalting the Church according the criteria of the world, rather than exalting Christ according to the criteria of the Bible. Seeking to win favour in the world’s eyes, rather than in God’s eyes. There is a big difference.
This is in the middle section of the Venn diagram at best – but there’s no middle section when it comes to our hearts and who our Master is.
Intended or unintended, this twofold message from the UK Church to the nation – “You’re ok, and we’re ok too” – is problematic in and of itself: it deviates from the authentic gospel which declares that no-one is righteous and we all need Christ.
But the problem is intensified when we consider the context of all this in a little more detail.
Civilised though this nation may appear to be on the surface – the police are generally quite polite and friendly, most people obey traffic lights, we’re rather good at queueing and saying “sorry” to strangers when we’ve done nothing wrong (e.g. looking at the same item on a supermarket shelf) – in reality we are one of the most wicked nations on earth.
Almost every year we kill more unborn babies proportionally than any other country in Western Europe – last year it was 1 in 4 babies in the womb, more than 200,000. More than that, we are global accelerators of this worldwide genocide, pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into killing babies in Africa for example through the likes of Marie Stopes International, whose CEO we paid £434,500 last year with our taxes, and whose founder was a racist and a eugenicist.
Our streets are red with the blood of innocent children, and not content with the bloodshed here, we go abroad to spread violence there too.
Is this the nation that, as Neil Bennetts sought to clarify, receives “the applause of heaven” which we are “joining in with” as we sing this blessing over them? Is God pleased with our nation?
As Jesus makes clear in Luke 13 – helpfully expounded by Andrew Carter here – we should be very careful before grading some people as more evil than others. We should also exercise a healthy agnosticism when trying to understand why, for example, a certain nation might have been struck particularly badly by a plague, as J.John constructively points out here. Peter Saunders is absolutely right that we can find Old Testament and New Testament examples of God actively sending plagues in direct judgment of specific sins. But it would be a bold thing to claim to know exactly what and why God is doing right now with Covid-19.
However, one thing is crystal clear, wherever one lands on the question of whether God sent or allowed this (and all the above, including Jesus, make this point emphatically): the response is always to be the same: repent!
At the very least, what we are seeing here in our nation is a wake-up call. Is the Church at odds with God’s wake-up call? By way of our soothing, affirming lullaby saying to the nation: “It's ok! Go back to sleep”? Are we muting his wake-up call to the nation?
Is this really the time for a “well done”, a round of “applause”, a “we’re [God's] right behind you”? Needless to say, it is the very NHS that we praise so uncritically that is funding the slaughter of all these innocent babies. We ought to be careful before we say in any simplistic way, with Neil Bennetts and Justin Welby, that all health workers globally are doing the will of God or bringing his presence "regardless of whether they would name it as such."
Bloodshed and idolatry (which abortion is, as a form of child sacrifice offered up to the gods of our age) invoke the curses of God, not his blessings.
Of course we know and rejoice in the fact that at the cross Jesus became a curse for us: he bore the wrath of God for our sin, and made a way for us to be saved. Neither idolatry nor bloodshed are unforgivable! But how will our nation know about this if we don’t proclaim it, especially when we have such an incredible opportunity to do so as this crisis and this song which has reached millions?
The gospel is not learned by osmosis, or by people feeling positive about a song or good about the Church.
Repentance must always be preached but it seems especially out of tune for the Church to omit it at this time, singing a song of affirmation to our nation when we are so godless and so bloodthirsty, when a genocide (greater than the Holocaust) is raging on our watch.
I fear that this may come to be known as our “Sing a Little Louder” moment.
This leads us from considering the context of the nation to the context of the Church.
Is this really the time to be trumpeting our own vitality? Are we really healthy?
Last year we sought to engage the organisers of the HTB Leadership Conference (many of the churches taking part in The UK Blessing were represented there; I spoke personally with the leaders of some of them), pleading with them to address the urgent matter of the genocide taking place under our noses. I am not sure that it is possible to overstate the level of apathy we encountered, both on the part of the organisers and the delegates.
Favouring culturally more popular causes and subjects in the programme, abortion was avoided, and so we took to a large street display outside to educate these 5,000 church leaders on the reality of the global genocide that we the people of God need to stand against.
It wasn’t a protest; it was a plea for help.
As one volunteer put it, thousands of church leaders walked by on the other side in an “outbreak of Levitis”. Some even mocked. I can count on one hand how many I saw sincerely engaging with the reality of the genocide.
None of this would matter, if it weren’t a reflection of our wider and consistent response to this genocide over the last 50 years. We have turned a blind eye, and walked by on the other side.
Moreover, by refusing to teach on abortion within the Church, we have created environments hospitable to in-the-womb child abuse within our churches, we've enabled it; we tolerate child sacrifice within the Body of Christ.
The idolatry and bloodshed of child sacrifice invoke the wrath of God like almost nothing else in the Bible (e.g. Psalm 106:34-42). It causes him to be “disgusted” with his own people and seems to be the final straw that prompts him to hand them over to their enemies in defeat and exile.
Our churches – not only our land – are soaked in the blood of innocent children, slain at our own hands, offered up to the gods of our day. Is this really the time to trumpet our own vitality, when we won’t even admit this problem?
The Bible has something to say to those who sing songs whilst neglecting justice:
Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Those who offer religious acts with blood on their hands are shunned, their ceremonies are useless, even their prayers are despised:
When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
I remember watching in shock as the cameraman for the HTB Leadership Conference came out and stood, just feet away from huge banners showing the victims of the violence of abortion, angling his camera slightly away from them of course, and took footage of happy young welcome team members and delegates for the slick montage video that was to capture all the highlights of that year’s conference. In a sense, so long as you know what was just to the left of the shot, nothing could capture the atmosphere of the conference more accurately: smiling and laughing and ignoring a genocide.
When we consider how seriously God takes child sacrifice and injustice, and how unseriously we take them, it seems a strange time to declare triumphantly that we are “very much alive”. In fact, I think the words of Jesus to the church in Sardis might be much more appropriate for us today:
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
I remind us that these words were written to Christians.
We have blood on our hands, it’s critically significant, and a well-produced song or hot meals for the NHS doesn’t even begin to address it.
A song that suggests “you’re good and we’re good too” seems especially out of tune when we consider our context.
The way in which the song has been received by many confirms some of my worries.
These reactions collated by Premier sum it up pretty well.
Many have taken a fuzzy feeling as proof of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The Holy Spirit can be felt, of course, but let us not forget that he is the Holy Spirit – he is not really known apart from repentance and faith in Christ, and as the letters to the churches in Revelation confirm, the manifest presence of the Lord Jesus in a given church is contingent on their listening to his voice and obeying it. It is not wrong to feel good about a worship song, but there’s a distinct lack of “thinking caps” in the reactions to this one, which is concerning when one remembers how almost any song well sung by human voices in harmony can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand. We need to be discerning.
Others have celebrated the sheer numbers of people getting together to make this video and the numbers of people viewing it (2.5 million) as evidence that God is in this and the Church is onto a good thing. We count and hold it up as a sign of vitality; King David counted (1 Chronicles 21) and was judged for it (interestingly, with a plague – yet again challenging the idea that God “isn’t like that”). The New Testament letters show a colossal lack of concern for numbers in the churches. We really need to move away from this worldly way of thinking.
Still others have claimed that the unity of all these different churches and denominations contributing to the video, in and of itself, is a sign of vitality. And this is becoming an increasingly popular idea – that if only the Church will unite, we’ll see revival.
The problem here is that it puts unity first, rather than Christ and his word first. Unity in and of itself means very little; it’s all about what or who unites you. If we pursue unity, and try for example to skate over issues of truth or ethics, we’re going to run into trouble.
The crowd was united in Luke 23 in shouting for Jesus to be crucified. In the past the Church has been united in her racist attitudes. Today we are fairly united on our tolerance of child sacrifice. In none of these instances has consensus made something right.
In fact, Jesus in his famous prayer for unity (John 17) also prays that the Father will “sanctify” his followers “in the truth”. There is no Christian unity apart from in “the truth” and in holiness.
This is key because if we put unity first, aside from truth or ethical conduct, we will start to shut down discussion and drift further and further from authentic Christianity; anyone who questions or criticises (like me) is considered an enemy of unity and therefore of revival. But the New Testament does not seem to share this allergy to correction, discipline, and where necessary division.
In his interview with Premier, speaking of unity, Tim Hughes made the point that "we have all these petty disagreements over silly things, but the bottom line is, God loves us". This is absolutely true - we do sometimes have petty disagreements over silly things, and God does love us. But the truth is that some of the issues in the Church today are not "silly" - not in God's eyes. There are things that God calls an abomination which we are beginning to tolerate, defend, and even promote. How God feels about our behaviour matters, even if we would prefer to overlook it.
I am acutely aware of how pedantic and negative all of this will come across, but we cannot afford to miss this key opportunity to observe what’s in our hearts, what makes us tick, and what makes us think that something or someone is spiritually vital. Does it align with God's heart?
The health of the UK Church is probably the single most important thing for our country – we’d do well to be clear on the truth of the matter.
Lots of negativity, lots of criticism, I hear you say: what should the response of the Church be in the present crisis, and what should be our message?
In a word: repentance.
Yes, we should do acts of kindness, yes we should pray a blessing on our nation, but if we do not repent and proclaim repentance, we are not being the Church – we’re just another culturally acceptable, indistinct club.
2 Chronicles 7:14 is often quoted but not much time is spent considering that it is God’s people who are required to turn from their wicked ways, before the blessing and the healing can come. Indeed, it was the evil deeds of God’s own people that brought on the drought, and the locusts, and the pestilence in the first place.
I fear that repentance has all but dropped out of the vocabulary of the UK evangelical Church in 21st century. We expand, rebrand, amplify, multiply, but do we ever repent? Does it ever occur to us?
What if it’s us? What if it’s because of us that our nation is in such a state – and I don’t just mean the pandemic?
It’s on our watch that unrighteous law after unrighteous law has been passed and we’ve hardly said a thing. It’s on our watch that sexual perversion and destruction of the family have been promoted, and it's teenagers and children that suffer for it. It’s on our watch that God’s precious image-bearers, 9 million of them, have been cruelly killed before they even saw the light of day.
It’s on our watch that the Church has imbibed the morals and idols of our day: we’ve followed the ways of the world and rarely been a voice for truth and justice.
It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God… And if this is where judgment begins, it’s where repentance needs to begin too. With us.
If you were to ask me, I would say that right at the heart of our spiritual adultery in this generation is a fear of man. We’ve turned it into a pastoral philosophy, an evangelistic methodology, a church-growth strategy. We avoid offence and persecution like the plague: “If only they like us,” we tell ourselves, “they’ll come in.”
Again I do not say that this is intentional or even conscious. I know that I myself have spent entire years under the sway of this idol to some degree at least without even realising it. It's possible to genuinely believe that this is the way to grow the kingdom. But an idol it is, and it needs to be toppled, and repented of.
We need to repent of this golden calf that renders us so impotent and irrelevant in this generation, unable to truly proclaim Christ and confront sin and stand up for real justice.
To wish a blessing on the nation is a fine thing. But what would be a real blessing to our nation at this time?
It would be to get right with God ourselves, to get real with God ourselves, and then to call – with all grace, clarity, and boldness – the nation to come back with us to God the Father through Jesus Christ his Son, in whom alone there is salvation and life. “Send revival, start with me.”
Only then will we be singing a song that’s truly in tune and a blessing.
This is Part 3 of a 3-part series of blogs examining the UK Church's response to Covid-19.
It is hoped that they make sense as stand-alone pieces, but you are warmly invited to read Part 1, which asks why the response to coronavirus has been so much greater than our response to abortion, and Part 2, which considers the impact of our becoming a "Non-Prophet Organisation".