A Problem Nearer Home Than You Think
On the way home after church a father noticed his child was whimpering and crying. The father spoke to his child, “Son, what is wrong?” The little boy replied, “The pastor said every child should be raised in a Christian home. But Dad, I WANT TO STAY WITH YOU AND MOM!” Isn’t it amazing how children have an uncanny ability to perceive the human heart?
What do you think the main problem is in churches today? Apathy? Compromise? Immorality? Disunity? How would you respond if I suggested the main problem in churches today is atheism? Not intellectual atheism nor absolute atheism, but practical atheism.
If you want to raise the dander of today’s Christians, all you need to do is mention Madelyn Murray O’Hare – the most famous atheist of our time. Merely mentioning her name breeds outrage in Christians. She said God did not exist and this caused tremendous disgust and revulsion among Christians. Yet there are millions of church members who live as if God does not exist and nobody so much as bats an eye. There are comparatively few atheists, but practicing atheists are legion.
The Devil is not an atheist. He is a practical atheist. He knows there is a God, but operates as if there were no God. He believes in God, but he does not love God. The Devil knows he will give account to God, yet he persists in his rebellion. He acknowledges God, but does not glorify God. Stephen Charnock said, “The devil knows there is a God, but acts like an atheist; and so do his children.”
Psalm 14 states, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” This Psalm catalogs some characteristics that accompany atheism. “Corrupt…abominable works…filthy” denotes moral bankruptcy. “Not seeking God, lack of understanding, and prayerlessness” speak of spiritual bankruptcy. When the text refers to “Eating up God’s people like bread” it is a portrait of relational or social bankruptcy. The atheist has no desire for God in his heart and no resemblance of God in his life. For the atheist life consists only of self-centered concerns. Earthly existence is therefore reduced to materialistic and hedonistic (self-indulgent pleasure) pursuits.
There are few that deny God with their lips, but millions who deny God with their lives. Belief in God is at an all-time high while morality is at an all-time low. Our currency states, “In God We Trust,” but our policies prove we trust anything but God. Our denominations claim to represent God, but in principle and practice are actually opposed to God. Our conservative churches claim to believe the Bible, yet very few obey the black and white injunctions it contains. Christians in America have a high regard for the Bible, but only thirty-eight percent read it weekly. In reality most professing Christians have no more regard for the Bible than junk mail – they don’t even read it!
- Atheists live as if there were no God, so do practical atheists.
- Atheists do not pray, practical atheists seldom pray.
- Atheists do not study the Bible; neither do practical atheists.
- Atheists do not hide the Word of God in their hearts; neither do practical atheists.
- Atheists boast they can get along without God. Practical atheists do little more than pay God a Sunday call.
- Atheists do not lay up treasure in heaven; neither do practical atheists.
- Atheists do not set their affections on things above; neither do practical atheists.
- Atheists don’t lead their families in devotions; neither do practical atheists.
- Atheists are concerned with those things that can be seen, heard, and felt; so are practical atheists.
- Atheists have little concern for others; so it is with practical atheists.
- Atheists live for today; so do practical atheists.
Essence Of Atheism
Atheism is “No God-ism.” It denies the existence of God. Of course, the atheist is not lacking in faith; he is lacking in evidence. Because he does not want a God in his life, he rules God out of existence.
If there is no God, life has no meaning. If there is no meaning, life has no purpose. No God, no meaning, no purpose, no right or wrong we are all cosmic accidents. A Russian atheist said, “Either there is a God or there isn’t. And either way, it’s a frightening possibility.” If God doesn’t exist, nothing matters.
Pure atheism is rare. Ninety-seven percent of Americans say they believe in God. Our problem is not intellectual atheism, but practical atheism.
Essence Of Practical Atheism
Practical atheism dismisses the notion of God. It is not an outright denial of God; it is more of a subtle disregard for God. Thomas Adams said, “Atheism is the main disease of the soul.” When the Word of God declares, “God is not in all their thoughts,” it points to mankind’s gross inconsideration of God.
The pervasive atheism at work in lives of people all around us is contagious. Who would not admit how easy it is to be consumed with desires and distracted with thoughts that are not after God? Scripture states, “My people have forgotten me days without number.” Indifference toward God really means no respect for the person of God, no concern for the will of God, and disobedience to the Word of God.
This non-regarding of God will ultimately lead to an antagonism toward God. When the liberal theologians announced God was dead in the 1960’s they were not reporting a fact, they were expressing a desire. When men go so far in sin, “They do not like to retain God in their knowledge.” They have a secret death wish. They wish God was not. Like water will extinguish a flame, the carnal heart would extinguish God if it could. Dismissing thoughts of God from the conscious mind is practical atheism.
Practical atheism also distorts the image of God. Stephen Charnock said, “It is more commendable to think him not to be, than to think him such a one as is inconsistent with his nature.” The U. S. mint melts down old coins in order to make new ones. They burn old paper money and print new bills. Similarly, the practical atheist would mint a different nature of God, which would be more accommodating.
Idolatry is pretending God is different than He really is. When a person conjures up a false image of God, he is expressing his secret wish that God was different. This violates the second commandment’s prohibition against idolatry. The graven image, or imagined god, is nothing more than a projection of the mind. This false god exists only in the mind of the person who created him. The reason idolatry is so hateful to God is because the idolater rejects his Creator (God) as He is. It has been said that in the beginning God created man in His own image and ever since the fall man has tried to return the favor!
The Israelites, weary of waiting for Moses, fashioned a golden calf to suit their own tastes. This forbidden misrepresentation of God was their attempt to pare God down so He was manageable. They sought to reduce God to a visual image because He could be controlled more easily. The contemporary corollary is “Wal-Mart Religion.” It’s cheap. It doesn’t cost anything. Wal-Mart religion is easily accessible you don’t have to part with your sins to obtain it. A third reason it is popular is because you can take it back if you don’t like it. You can opt out for carnality anytime. Is there not something about God and His holiness that makes men very uncomfortable? History as well as experience demonstrates man’s insatiable inclination to fabricate a deity that is useful and beneficial. Everybody wants a god who will do things for them not a God who can do things to them!
Practical atheism rejects the authority of God. Not many church people deny God with their minds, but millions deny God with their lives. How many can defend the Lordship of Christ doctrinally while denying the Lordship of Christ personally? Atheism is not too strong a word to describe those who acknowledge God, but walk as if there were no God.
You can tell a church is backslidden when it moves from a prophetic ministry to an apologetic ministry. The emphasis moves from a corrective stance to a defensive stance. The vital concern shifts from the heart to the head, from the practical to the cerebral. Instead of “reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with all doctrine and patience,” the pulpit couches itself in reasonableness, respectability, and relevance. The church broadens itself to the point where everyone is comfortable except the man who really believes something with conviction. I know this is hard to grasp because the standards have been so low for so long that hardly anyone questions our traditions of compromise.
A young pastor started to disciple the couples in his church. He began to meet with both husbands and wives in their homes and help them learn to walk with God. About the same time a situation arose that called for disciplinary measures within the membership. He led the congregation to exercise church discipline according to scriptural guidelines. The purpose of discipline within the church is to restore those who have fallen into error. Many of the “old guard” wouldn’t stand for these non-traditional measures and left the church. Think about it. Discipleship and biblical church discipline split the church. These people did not care what the pastor preached as long it had no bearing on how the church functioned! This must be “Churchianity” because it surely isn’t Christianity.
It is sad but true that the type of “ministry” most of us have been brought up with has failed to produce godly men and women as the norm. Spiritual maturity is the exception, not the rule. Is it overstating the case to suggest that churches are actually the breeding grounds for practical atheism? Could it be that the predominant style of ministry (make a decision/join the church/expect nothing more) has conditioned millions to a lifestyle of atheism? The typical church has far more members than attend on Sunday morning. This is a bragging point when it should be cause for shame. The Sunday night crowd is about half of the Sunday morning attendance. Mid-week service normally represents a fraction of the membership. I recognize that mandatory attendance at every function is not our goal, but the casual and trifling manner in which churches operate illustrates a flippancy that is unworthy of Christ.
The devil is no longer fighting the church he’s joining it! All you need to do to join the average congregation is say you believe in Jesus and you are in! It seems too obvious that theological clarity and precision concerning what it means to be saved is sorely needed. One of the reasons Jonathan Edwards was dismissed from his church was on account of the “halfway covenant.” Parents had children who lacked assurance of salvation and these parents wanted their children to receive communion anyway. Edwards strongly opposed offering the elements to unconverted people. He rightly believed that people needed to be regenerate before joining the church. The halfway covenant opened the door for unsaved people to have their names on the church role. Could it be that this conciliation opened a “can of worms” that has wrought devastation to this very day?
How trite to say, “The Bible is our rule for faith and practice,” while the personal and ecclesiastical conduct is diametrically opposed to the Scripture. The most accurate index to a person’s beliefs is not his words, but his actions. At least the atheist is consistent. He denies God and lives out his unbelief with a lifestyle that backs it up. But the practical atheist plays the hypocrite. He “professes to know God, but in works he denies Him.” It has been said a hypocrite is someone who is not himself on Sunday! Granted, no one is perfectly consistent. But the ever-widening chasm between faith and practice represents gross deception. “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22).
How To Become A Practicing Christian
As fallen men we are all born with atheistic hearts. As North Americans we are accustomed to atheistic religion. As practical atheists we are experienced in “no-God-for-me” lifestyles. Is there hope for a practical atheist? Yes, because the “things that are impossible with men are possible with God!”
The first step is recognizing God as your Creator. “Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3). We are not the products of our own efforts God made us. God does not exist for us we exist for Him. This acknowledgement is only the beginning and means far more than mental assent.
Second, you must repent of your practical atheism. We were holding an open-air meeting in downtown Roanoke, VA. After the preaching a young man wanted to debate. He told me he did not believe in God. I asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what do you believe in?” Boldly he replied, “I believe in myself.” In response I said, “I gave up on myself years ago!” This man was an intellectual atheist he did not believe in God. In order to become a Christian he must cease believing in Self and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. In short, he will have to go out of the “god-business,” and so will you and I! No man can serve two masters. A fool lives as if there were no God. The wise man stops believing in Self and transfers his trust to the Lord Jesus.
This means you must realize God is your boss. When Saul met Christ on the Damascus road he said, “Lord, what would thou have me to do?” Paul not only recognized Christ as Lord, he willingly submitted to His Lordship. The word “Lord” means “master, ruler, controller.” When Paul called Jesus Lord, he recognized He was God and yielded to His authority. Later as an apostle he wrote, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Lordship obviously implies ownership “ye are not your own.” When I acknowledge Christ owns me because He purchased me, it carries a multitude of practical implications.
Those who would follow Christ must relinquish their rights. Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” The Cross serves but one purpose death. Everybody is standing up for their rights but very few are willing to take responsibility for their wrongs. Calvary provides the solution for a man’s rights as well as his wrongs. Whenever you find a man who is willing to side with God by taking the witness stand against himself in honest confession, the blood of Jesus cleanses him from all sin. And when that cleansed man surrenders his rights by taking up the Cross, he is delivered from the tyranny of self-will. He is dead to sin and alive to God. The answer is not the consecration of the old man, but acknowledging our old man is already crucified with Christ. And this is the gateway to an empowered and obedient life!
To be a practicing Christian requires consistency. Herein lies the challenge of applying one’s belief in God and His Word to the issues of life. The Christian life, of necessity, must be a supernatural life that can only be lived under the power of the Holy Spirit. This calls for daily emptying, daily filling, intentional yielding, and cooperation. Thinking rightly about God, rejecting the wrong, recognizing God is in control, and renouncing self-centeredness is the way out of nominal Christianity.
Practical atheism is a grievous insult to God. It is hateful to God, harmful to His church, and hurtful to us. Shouldn’t our prayer be, “Lord, let me never again live as if You did not exist, but let me always live my life in the reality and vitality of You being my God. Amen”