Talk of France? It would be easier to pour the ocean into a teacup! France is well known in England as a place for holidays, good food and cheap wine. Few realise that it has been the cradle of modern philosophers, who have enjoyed the limelight here ever since their ideas helped to do away with our monarchy! France is a spiritual desert, a ‘forgotten field’.
France has a forgotten, but glorious, church history. Less than a hundred years after the crucifixion of Christ, Christian martyrs in the Rhone valley (going as far as Lyons), boldly laid down their lives for Christ. In medieval times too, there were French believers who somehow held on to the true gospel.
Remarkably, the doctrine of justification by faith was taught in Sorbonne, the main University of Paris, as early as 1512 and some five years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.
Yet, in spite of a promising start, the Reformation in France was nearly crushed out of existence. The reasons for its failure are many and complex, but political machination and spiritual compromise were important factors. Since that setback, the true church has remained in a much reduced and largely ineffectual state, apart from a few periods of reviving.
Today, those who would call themselves Protestants are a minority. For the average Frenchman, life continues without any reference to God, although superstition is rampant.
Broadly speaking, the Protestant constituency comprises two groups. Firstly, there are those who belong to the traditional, historic denominations. These denominations have been overtaken by modernism and liberalism, yet are still called réformée, a misnomer leading to confusion. Secondly, there are the évangéliques, Evangelical churches independent in government and fragmented in affiliation, though some are grouped into associations of churches.
Comparing the French church scene today with that of fifteen years ago, one might imagine the situation to be a great improvement. One directory of evangelical churches in France currently runs to a massive 720 pages. A large exhibition for Evangelicals, held every year near Paris, boasts several hundred exhibition stands.
Many new projects have been launched by the Evangelical community in France, including a televised evangelistic campaign and a forum for dialoguing with the political powers-that-be. Several denominations and church groupings have restructured themselves, and are at work in towns implementing their strategies for planting new churches. Thus it might appear that the gospel is making encouraging progress.
Certainly, one can rejoice that there are many in France who fear the Lord; one can thank God for every soul who is born again. It is good to know that there are churches where the sound of the gospel of Christ rings out clearly. However, in reality, the overall spiritual situation among French Evangelicals is far from healthy.
Message of grace
For the most part, French Evangelicals do not hold to the Reformed faith. Although there is much Christian activity, the true gospel message is seldom proclaimed. For example, it was salutary to examine the content of the publicity and literature displayed in the Paris exhibition last November.
Most of this material was concerned with strategies, methods and programs for the churches. But, with the exception of a handful of agencies, the vital and fundamental question of gospel content was not addressed. Yet the only means by which people are saved, and built up in the faith, is the message we preach.
Does that mean that there is no content at all in French preaching? Of course not. But the content is minimal, a theological skeleton centred on man’s needs rather than God’s glory.
At a national gathering of Evangelicals, one brother asked if it was possible to include in the federation’s confession of faith a statement on the sinfulness of the human heart. The reply from the theological chairman was: ‘I had not thought of it’. Reaction from the floor was that if this statement was included several people would leave the federation. So no statement on depravity was added, and everybody stayed together!
Sparks of grace
So is there no hope? Certainly there is hope! The truth of God’s Word is still at work in France. God is not defeated. In the past fifteen years there has been a renewed interest in the doctrines of grace, and a number of people have been delivered from the tyranny of a man-centred ‘Christianity’.
Many of these are now becoming aware of one another, though they are often geographically isolated and sometimes belong to liberal denominations. They are hungry to learn about the grace of God in the gospel, and to make it known to those around them.
It is important to pray for such sparks of grace: that they may, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, become the means of starting a mighty blaze of reformation and revival.
Many dangers threaten the work of the gospel here. Discouragement is one. Others include denominationalism and doctrinal aberration – for example, theonomy. Yet God’s work, though small as a man’s hand, will accomplish what he ordains. Man-made structures and strategies will fade away; the gospel church will remain.
It is indeed a great time to serve the Lord in France, and to pray to the Lord for France!