A Revival Condition, And Condition Of Decline
By James A. Thome (Updated by Don Lamb)
"Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread abroad. Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits" (Song 4:16).
"I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit" (Isa. 5:1-2).
How completely opposite are these two pictures in our texts! The one is a fine garden stocked with rare plants, all in a flourishing condition. It is a paradise filled with sweet-scented shrubs teeming with spicy odors, blooming plants crowned and clothed with fragrant flowers of every tint, and stately trees laden with luscious fruit. It is a well-tended garden, an object of fond admiration to its Gardener, who invokes the rough north wind, and the softer south to blow upon it and draw forth its many perfumes. The fragrance of the garden invites the beloved Lord and Master to come into His Eden, and walk among its trees and enjoy His Eden, and walk among its trees and enjoy the sweet incense and eat the pleasant fruit. Can a more charming picture be drawn?
The other is a vineyard – on a fertile sunny slope, enclosed with firm high walls, carefully cleared of encumbering stones. In it is planted a choice vine. The vineyard has built within in it a watchtower for safety, and a wine press for service. After all these costly preparations are made, the Lord of the vineyard comes at the harvest season to gather His grapes that are expected to be abundant and superior in response to His faithful gardening. But alas! The harvest is worthless: wild grapes, all wild, the same as the vine of the woods bears for the fowls and the foxes, for the wild boar to eat and the wild birds to pluck.
Can these pictures, which are so broadly contrasted, relate to the same subject? Who would believe that the spicy garden with its pleasant fruits, and the vineyard with its wild and worthless grapes, represents one institution, that of the ancient Church?
So unlike, so opposite, my friends, are the appearances of Zion when in a condition of prosperity and when in a condition of spiritual declension!
Solomon in this glowing picture presents the lovely spectacle of Zion in her best condition, during his reign. It was a time when auspicious peace, overflowing plenty, and enlightened devotion shed their healthy influences over the Holy Lands.
Isaiah, on his canvas, sketches Zion after the lapse of 300 years still intact in original structure, and still fertile in undeveloped resources, but depraved in condition and perverted in use. Zion had capacities for excellent fruitfulness but actually bore the naughtiest clusters of fruit in her history. This fruit revealed a sickness so inbred that only desolation could cure it – a desolation that would barely leave the root in the ground!
With these inspired and still fresh pictures suspended in our sight – let us contemplate the subject they suggest, namely the Church – in a revival condition, and in a condition of spiritual decline.
The Church in a Revival Condition
Mark, I did not say in any revival. Some revivals, as they are generally understood, signify a temporary condition recently entered from a state of decline, a condition of sudden excitement of short duration, to be followed by more decline. This is a condition too brief and too ineffective to produce mature fruit. Some revivals may be compared to a warm sunny season in midwinter, a January thaw, which besides melting the snow, causes the buds to swell, only that they may be blasted by succeeding frosts. A revival state is a prolonged established condition of spiritual life, of brotherly love, of fervent mutual prayer, of combined effort attended with appropriate Christian excitement. This may not always be a permanent state, though evidently it can and ought to be perpetual. Yet it must be for some time continuous to deserve to be called a condition. We would define it as – that happy condition of spiritual life following a genuine revival, in which faith, love, union, activity, growth, and usefulness are universal elements in a church.
A church in this condition is blessed with constant accessions. It is like a thriving garden in which new plants are continually springing up from seeds unceasingly sown. This is the natural process of increase; and is far better than occasional and uncertain seasons of ingathering. A prosperous church is a powerful church. From its purity and unity and good estate there goes out a convincing and saving influence. It is seen to be a living body, endued with a divine life. This demonstration of a well cultivated garden is a standing appeal to worldly men. The concentrated light shines into the darkness, exposes its deformities, and reveals the beauties of holiness and the attractions of heavenliness.
When a church is steadfast and immovable – not spasmodic in its zeal, always abounding in the work of the Lord, not too good to be on the side of every unpopular cause and issue, and not too conservative in its position to stand in front of good human enterprise – then multitudes will see its good works and glorify the Father in heaven. That church will enjoy a continual ingathering. The joy of the Lord over sinners repenting and souls being saved will be its strength. And these ever fresh accessions, like new births in an earthly family, will serve to keep all the spiritual affections and yearnings of the church awake and in play: therefore prolonging the revival state. There is something to live for, there are young converts to be nurtured; there are incessant knockings at the door for admission; inquirers are asking to be led to Jesus; anxious sinners are asking for the prayers of the Church. With an increased attendance of impenitent hearers during the public services of the church, in the awakened interest and solemnity of such hearers, there is a powerful motive to be revived.
A church in a revival state has a thriving, vigorous, harmonious membership. In a well-ordered garden, every plant is of a choice kind. All the tools of gardening are skillfully used. Nothing is left untried so that the capabilities of every plant may be tested and developed to its utmost. Whatever art and skill gardening can do is done, in arrangement, pruning, protection, and weeding.
A flourishing church has in it, for the most part, plants of God’s right hand planting; and they are to be in due time transplanted; for the Church on earth is a nursery for the Church in heaven. How dear, how precious is this thought!
The utmost variety in God’s garden prevails, and they are all consistent with unity of character, and excellence of kind. This variety with uniform excellence is represented in the context by Solomon: "You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices. You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon" (Song 4:12-15).
Every term is aromatic and denotes the richest variety with the choicest quality. Some of these terms remind us of offerings made to Jesus, of the frankincense and myrrh brought by the wise men of the East as fit incense to the Infant Redeemer. Of the precious ointment of spikenard which Mary poured from the alabaster box on the feet of Him who was soon to be crucified. Thus in a revived church every member is bearing some distinctive fragrance, some distinctive fruit. Further, all the fragrance is sweet and all the fruit is pleasant. Each Christian, like a choice plant, is true to his divine nature and uses, as God’s seed is in him, and he is not his own. He stands up in the garden for Jesus, to please and glorify Him.
The Church is in readiness for the coming of its Lord – the heavenly Gardener.
Its wealth of spices, and its weight of juices in the ripened fruits are kept in store for Him. Rude winds are averted by the sheltered position; and rude hands by the high walls. And when the time comes for the visit of the Beloved, such a fullness of incense and offering awaits Him to cheer His heart. Then let the winds of the Spirit blow over the garden – to make the spices flow out, and the ripe fruits fall. The air is dense with fragrances, the ground is covered with shining fruit, and the branches hang down with heaviness.
The Church in this condition is an object of ideal interest. It is beautiful and attractive like a king’s garden in the East. Eden itself was not more lovely. The saints delight in it, the minister joys over it, and exclaims "my crown and joy!" Each member is identified with it, and calls it "my garden." "Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread abroad." And all, in the Church, unite to present it, with its stores and sweets to the Beloved, and with one heart and one voice they invite His visits: "Let my Lover come into His garden and taste its choice fruits." Consequently, He does visit His garden, and is well pleased – as He was with Mary’s offering; as He was to walk in Eden, until it felt the blight. But alas for Eden, alas for the garden, alas for the Church, Zion does not always continue in a revived condition!
The Church in a Decline
Ah! What a sad spectacle! It is such a sight as the Garden of Eden was to the eye of God when He drove forth our first parents from that lovely but blighted home. Let’s recall the prophet’s representation of ancient Zion. There are its well-laid walls enclosing the fruitful spot, selected out of all the earth for fertility and beauty; there is the strong tower and the costly wine press; all the preparations for fruitfulness still remain. And the vine is the same choice vine that God brought from a far off land and planted with His own hand. Everything looks well; and there are even clusters of grapes awaiting the coming of the Gardener.
He comes, enters His vineyard, plucks the fair-looking grapes, and tests them: plucks again, and tastes, plucks again and tastes; goes here and there and plucks and tastes, ejecting and rejecting with each trial the nauseous fruit from mouth and hand. Finally, with sorrowful disappointment and kindled anger, He pronounces them wild grapes. That discovery turns all the bloom and beauty of the vineyard into deformity. Consequently, the fruit, not the foliage determines the acceptableness of the Church with God.
Look now at the Christian Church in a decline. All the structures and equipment are still around. The sanctuary and its services are still maintained, the pulpit is still vocal, the songs and prayers can still be heard, and the ordinances still observed. The capabilities for good, the resources for fruitfulness, are still available in the Church. The Word of God, in the letter, is still enshrined. And the responsibilities of a church still press on the body. The same Head of the Church still helps and provides; nothing that could be done has been left undone by the Lord Jesus. But the Church has declined from its Lord, and grieved away the Holy Spirit.
Now all its powers, all its culture, all its facilities are perverted to the bearing and maturing of wild grapes. The rites of worship become pompous ceremonies. The preached word becomes a "pleasant song of one who plays skillfully upon an instrument." The Church members are satisfied with "a form of godliness," content with themselves that the root of the matter is in them. Many members go about bearing "fruit unto themselves," each is busy with his own affairs, "adding house to house, and joining field to field." Some are pursuing their own pleasure, rising up "early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of His hands" (Isa. 5:11-12).
They do not stop to reflect what the Church was intended for, what its special endowments were given to it for, and what its appropriate work is.
Think of it, brethren. Would a church in a state of declension continue long in that condition, if they really took it to heart that the work and forces committed to them were consecrated by God for spiritual purposes? Are not the formal activities, the worldly observances, the halfhearted devotion, the nominal piety, and the mock worship of an unrevived church, as sacrilegious an employment of holy things as the use the Babylonians made of the sacred vessels of the temple?
Is not the holy and jealous Jesus offended with these perversions of the Church, as He was with the desecrations of the temple by the irreverent money changers and sellers of doves? For this kind of purpose the temple was not built. Was such a choice vine, in such a fertile spot, with such a secure enclosure, needed to produce wild grapes? Cannot any vine of the desert produce them? Wild grapes! The woods are full of them. For what reason do we have vineyards? That we may get good grapes! What does the world need churches for? Not to multiply evil fruits, of which the world is already so productive.
There is no need of churches in a condition of decline. They do no good; they are powerful only for evil. "Salt is good; but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" (Luke 14:34). A church that is lukewarm does not invite the Lord to visit it, but provokes Him to make it a visitation of judgment. A declining church cannot say to the Beloved, "Come to Your garden and eat of Your pleasant fruits, for behold all things are now ripe and ready." But its clusters of wild grapes say to Him, "Come and see how Your vine has disappointed Your hopes and deceived Your confidence, and mocked Your claims. See the skeptics and scoffers it has made!"
The Decline Must Be Followed by Revival or by Judgments
A condition of decline in a Christian church is abhorred by men, and by God. It is a forbidden state. It cannot be tolerated as a permanent condition. We may speculate about the permanency of a revival state; but that is the only state in which a church has any right to be; and the only state that has God’s blessing on it. Can decline last – can it be installed and acknowledged as a normal condition of the Church of Christ? The parable in Isaiah tells the story: "Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between Me and My vineyard. What more could have been done for My vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briars and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it" (Isa. 5:3-6).
So God by His Spirit also warned the churches in Ephesus and Laodicea. Consequently, we learn that Christian churches are also exposed when they leave the "first love" and produce wild fruit. The lesson is fearfully cautionary. Why the extinction of those primitive churches? What is the voice and meaning of their ruins? Read what the Spirit said to those churches! Ponder well His earnest messages! How He seems to grieve over their decline, even as Christ wept over Jerusalem. How He calls and conjures them to repent! Did He not desire their continual reviving? But what kind of service to God was the church at Laodicea? Or at Sardis? "Having a reputation of being alive," but being dead (Rev. 3:1).
In this city, what is the influence of a church in a state of decline? Wild grapes. Is this its purpose? Does God desire to bless this city and to redeem its people? Then how long will He tolerate a church in decline?
Isn’t His will that every church of His should be revived? This He prefers to laying it waste.
Depend upon it, decline cannot last long. "I wish you were either one or the other," cold or hot (Rev. 3:15).
Dear brethren, what is our condition? Are we in a revival state? Are sinners being converted? What are our fruits? Are we prepared for Christ?
– Originally published in The Oberlin Evangelist February 29, 1860. Updated version used by permission.