‘Thus saith the Lord, stand ye in the ways and see and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls’ (Jeremiah 6:16).
Some people have a nostalgic view of the past — nothing is to be compared to ‘the good old days’ and ‘the traditions of the fathers’. Others see the need to be contemporary — we must distance ourselves entirely from the past.
Who is right? It all depends on what is meant by ‘the old paths’.
When the Lord, through the prophet Jeremiah, pleaded with apostate Judah to return to the old paths, he had in mind the truths given to their forefathers. These included the Lord’s revelation to the patriarchs, his covenant with Abraham, the giving of the law at Mount Sinai and the reaffirming of that law on the borders of Canaan.
Israel was a people chosen by an act of sovereign grace. It was a nation redeemed by the shedding of blood, now in covenantal relationship with God and required to be holy unto him.
God promised blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience, but, by the time of Jeremiah, Judah, like Israel before it, had shown a fundamental rejection of the covenant. The nation had accommodated itself to the debased religion of Canaan; the people had set up idols in the temple and sacrificed its children to Baal.
Judah in Jeremiah 6 is like a man on a journey approaching a crossroads. But God’s command at this vital point to Judah is to ‘look around’, ‘take stock’ and look for the right ways. He has not fully washed his hands of Judah, but Judah must make the right choices.
We are at a similar crossroads in church and nation today. The church that was restored to the New Testament pattern at the time of the Reformation is scarcely recognisable as such. Just like Judah, it has accommodated itself to the world and to humanism.
Symptoms of decay
Today we see similar symptoms of decay:
Few seem to see the danger
‘To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear?’ (v.10). Where is the person willing to listen? The people lacked the insight to comprehend the divine Word. They were unaware of their danger.
‘How canst thou say, I am not polluted … yet thou sayest … I am innocent’ (Jeremiah 2: 23, 35). This is a people ripe for judgement. We know from the New Testament that ‘judgement must begin at the house of God’ (1 Peter 4:17).
Iniquity is springing up everywhere
As water-springs maintain water in a well at a constant level, so evil is springing up continually (v.7). The current social evils have led to a profound moral decay.
Society is rotten, as we see from the statistics for abortion, children born outside marriage, child abuse, addictions, domestic violence, and corruption among politicians, bankers and TV presenters.
There are more and more scandalous revelations and it is difficult for society to keep the lid on them.
Our leaders are picking away at our Christian heritage
The enemy is depicted as a grape-gatherer picking at the vine of Israel (v.9). Those laws of the land that spring from our Christian heritage are being picked off, one after another, and man-made regulations are taking their place.
There is rottenness in the church
In Jeremiah’s day, the religious leaders were as corrupt as the general populace. Instead of acting responsibly, as custodians and proponents of God’s law, they were condoning the spread of immorality and idolatry.
The prophets were guilty of blatant spiritual deception, proclaiming peace where none existed: ‘If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?’ (1 Corinthians 14:8).
There is no sense of shame
‘Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination?’ (v.15). We are seeing the degrading picture of sin in society outlined in Romans 1 unfolding before our eyes — men committing shameless acts and glorying in their shame. They parade their sin on our streets and even within the professing church.
The call for us today is not to go back to the ways of 50 or even 100 years ago, but to the Protestant Reformation and to its foundation in the New Testament. Here are some of those old paths.
We must relate to the one who is the great Reality. The tendency today is to relate to what man has supposedly become.
Secular humanism affirms the universal and unique significance of humanity. ‘The ties with the supernatural have been loosed, and the autonomy of man has found at last the justification for which it has searched for millennia. That is to say, man outside of Christ has sought for and found his essential identity, not with the God of heaven but with the beast of the field’.
The church has not been immune from this influence. We need to recover the consciousness of the majestic and holy God. Stephen declared: ‘The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham’ (Acts 7:2). We are the children of Abraham and the Lord is still the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
‘If we know God’, says Professor John Murray, ‘we must know him in the matchless glory of his transcendent majesty, and the only appropriate posture for us is prostration before him in awe and reverence’.
Calvin observes: ‘For, correctly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety’.
The great Reality has made himself known in his Word. Without the Word the world is in darkness.
This country remained in darkness while the Roman hierarchy kept the Bible from the people. William Tyndale sacrificed his life so that the ploughboy could read the Bible in his native tongue.
The Reformation can be described as ‘after darkness, light’ (post tenebras lux), but, from the mid-nineteenth century, liberal theologians have tried to destroy the Bible.
The modern viewpoint is to get rid of the sections of the Bible that human reason cannot accept. ‘Think truncated thoughts about God and you will get a truncated God; read an expurgated Bible and you will get an expurgated theology’ (Carl Trueman).
The second century heretic Marcion tried to eliminate all the passages in the Bible except the ones dealing with his so-called ‘gospel’ of love.
The loss of divine transcendence paves the way for the trivialisation of sin. The law of God (the Ten Commandments, which is the transcript of God’s holiness) is not preached.
In Scripture, sin is the very defiance of God’s holiness. To contemporary man, sin is just failure in respect to man.
We now have a system of evangelical thought which militates against conviction of sin. In the eyes of many evangelicals today, the first business of preaching is to win men to the acceptance of the message; the appeal is to receive Christ for happiness and heaven. But we have largely lost the doctrine of the wrath of God and eternal judgement. Without a consciousness of sin, the gospel of redeeming grace is meaningless.
In the light of what we are before a holy God, there is only one way to approach him, and that is the God-appointed way.
‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?’ (Psalm 24:3). The answer is nobody, unless God had taken the initiative. He has approached us in his Son, and in the Son we approach him. There is no other way to God, but through Christ (Acts 4:12).
J. G. Machen said, ‘What struck the earliest observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation was offered by means of the Christian gospel, but that all other means were resolutely rejected. The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolute exclusive devotion to Christ’.
This ran counter to the prevailing syncretism of the age. How much more it runs contrary to the relativism, inclusivism and universalism of our day!
Holy Spirit wrought conversion
When we are in the presence of the living and true God, we are suddenly aware of the depravity of our wicked hearts.
True conviction of sin will constrain self-abhorrence, confession and the plea for forgiveness and cleansing. Those who are by nature ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ cannot respond to the gospel, despite what the Arminian maintains.
What can turn around a God-defying, self-willed, self-centred sinner, but the grace and power of the Holy Spirit implanting a new nature in him? ‘Ye must be born again!’ Such a calling brings, as Henry Scougal maintains, ‘the life of God in the soul of man’.
These truths are the ‘old paths’, along which we must return to God both as individuals and churches. In these paths we will also find ‘rest for our souls’.
John J. Murray
The author is a minister (retired) of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)