I don’t recall which clue first warned me about the problems with this church. Books by Jesus Seminar heavyweights Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan rested near the front of the ornate sanctuary, ready to explain for visitors why Jesus’ resurrection was a myth. Rainbow flags signaled this is an “open and affirming” congregation for practicing homosexuals. Perhaps it is no coincidence the church baptized only two children in the last year. Sunday attendance has never topped 100 so far in 2011, though the facility could seat far more.

Even after observing all these worrisome clues, however, I was still taken aback by what I saw on the church’s basement bookshelf. Not one but two copies of the New World Translation of the Bible lurked to lure in unsuspecting readers. Do the church leaders not know the Jehovah’s Witnesses twist God’s Word to recruit for their cult? Or do these leaders just not care? Seeing these blasphemous Bibles in a church took me back to a painful time when I learned that a United Methodist seminary had kicked out a young Anglican congregation meeting in their space and welcomed the Mormons in their place. Apparently it’s not enough for liberal Protestants to reject orthodoxy. Some must also welcome heterodoxy.

You might wonder, then, why I was snooping around this church. Actually, its leaders were friendly and hospitable while I spent a few days celebrating the church’s most famous pastor. With this pastor’s engraved likeness looking down on the crowd, I read an academic paper on publishing during the First Great Awakening. I joined a handful of scholars from around North America to celebrate and investigate the legacy of none other than Jonathan Edwards, pastor of the Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1726 to 1750.

Unnerved by Today

We can only hope God’s grace protects Edwards from seeing what sin hath wrought in his beloved hometown. Once renowned in the Western world for uncommon devotion to Jesus Christ, Northampton now excels in queer theater. Anyone who has learned from Edwards, an unusually gifted theologian of the gospel, would be unnerved by a trip to modern-day Northampton.

The contemporary scene provides fodder for his critics. When I was in seminary, a fellow student hectored me over Reformed theology. He asked if I had ever visited Northampton and offered the city as proof that Calvinism ruins gospel witness. The comment stung, and my on-ground reconnaissance last week turned up no evidence to refute him. After leaving Northampton I headed east for Boston, once a thriving stronghold for Puritan pastors like Cotton Mather and pious patriots like Samuel Adams. I’m staying in a hotel across the street from Harvard, founded by Puritans in 1636. Less than 100 years later it was considered so dangerous for Bible-believing students that Edwards enrolled at Yale. You may know that Yale was so worrisome by the end of Edwards’s life that he agreed to serve as a president of a young college in New Jersey. Edwards died after only a few months in Princeton, but it’s unlikely he would have made a huge difference, at least in terms of the school’s current tolerance for the appalling ethics of Peter Singer.

It Can Happen to Us

What should we conclude, then, by observing this distressing pattern? Has the gospel failed? After all, this problem is not confined to the Reformed tradition, no matter what its opponents may argue. Germany today cannot give Lutherans much comfort. I’ve seen plenty of rotten Methodist churches from the inside, where portraits of John Wesley hang on walls but none of his teaching finds a home in hearts.

If at first this trend worries us, we can find comfort in the Bible. There we read that the resurrected Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age as we take his gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19-20). If Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead and ascended into heaven at the right hand of the Father, then we have no basis for despair, no matter what the limited evidence we can see might suggest.

But we find in Scripture another, rather unexpected antidote to fear. It lurks behind the remarkable testimonies compiled in Hebrews 11. Abraham set out in faith for a Promised Land he’d never seen (Hebrews 11:8). Moses rejected the treasures of Egypt for reproach with his enslaved people, whom God delivered through his leadership (Hebrews 11:26). David felled the Philistine giant with merely a sling and a prayer (Hebrews 11:32).

The author of Hebrews guides us through the hall of faith so this cloud of witnesses might encourage us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which cling so closely,” so we would “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). He does not mean, however, to suggest that we can summon the faith to persevere in the truth and protect the gospel by merely following their example. No, there is only one hero whose ultimate act of faith looses us from the bondage of sin and delivers us from the domain of darkness. The Bible has room for only one lead actor. Everyone else belongs in the supporting cast.

Abraham loses faith and tries to save his life by sacrificing his wife. Moses loses his cool with the grumbling horde. David loses control over his eyes, and we see that he won’t win any award for “World’s Best Dad.” Every hero but Jesus will fail us. God will not share worship with another. So when our merely human leaders inevitably fail, whether in their lifetimes or legacy, God intends for their negative example to bring his unmatched faithfulness into high relief.

Future generations may wonder how Bethlehem Baptist Church of all places could lose its missionary zeal. They may look back on a theological downgrade at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. If the Lord tarries, they might mock a ministry called The Gospel Coalition that lost the gospel. If it happened to Edwards, Luther, and Wesley, it can happen to us.

We should take every precaution to guard our confessions and plead with the Holy Spirit to give our descendants the new birth. Even these efforts, however, guarantee nothing. The history of redemption is littered with the rise and fall of evangelical empires. Only God remains the same, and only God deserves our worship.