Five books from 2020: prophetic messages for 2021

Jan 5, 2021 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

In one sense, 2021 will be no different to any other year. Going right back to the time when Christ ascended, the task of Christians has been the same: to worship God and live in relationship with him, to participate in and support the church’s outreach and ministry of word and sacrament, to humbly serve in a needy world. In one sense, while kingdoms and empires and fashions come and go; while the church experiences periods of success and failure, power and persecution, the key facts remain the same: the need of sinful human beings for salvation; the unchanging truth of the gospel, the certain future of heaven and hell.

In one sense, things don’t really change, and we just need to keep the main thing the main thing. But in another sense, there is a dynamism to our individual lives, to the world with its rapid changes, and to God’s activity. God’s love for his people is the same throughout biblical history, yet after centuries of faithful, patient and perhaps frustrated prayer through times of great social change by ordinary saints, God suddenly intervenes with the arrival of the Son of God incarnate. Sometimes God appears to be distant; at other times he answers prayer miraculously and persistently. While on one hand the way of salvation is the same for everyone, no-one comes to the Father except through the Son, yet on the other, God relates to each person, not through a one-size-fits-all formula, but in relationship, individually, as human parents relate uniquely to each of their children through their change and development. And while the principles of Christian living in the world are laid down for all time in Scripture, God gives special applied wisdom at certain key times to his chosen leaders.

So, 2021 will be the same as any other year, but also, 2021 a unique year in human history. A year of working out how to respond to a vicious pandemic and its social, psychological and spiritual effects (not just medical and economic). While some familiar problems will continue: planet degradation, materialism, the desperate condition of the poor and those in conflict zones, we need to find ways of facing issues specific to our age: secularisation, sex and gender radicalism, ramping up of hostility against the Christian faith. It should be a year of carrying on the same old routines of worship, work, disciple making within a framework of joy and thankfulness, but also maybe something new: a year of soul searching and repentance, asking, for example:

  • why has the Lord allowed Covid deaths, lockdowns and an epidemic of gender confusion, abortion and marriage breakdown?
  • what specifically is he trying to teach us and what do we need to do?
  • how do we connect the message about Jesus with people where they are (a different place from where they were)?
  • when should we urgently make changes to our familiar patterns?

Five books published in the second half of 2020 are currently sitting on my desk, and answer these and other key questions. All five authors honour the bible as God’s unchanging word, yet all of them offer a specific application of the message for our time. They all exercise the spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:11) of pastoring and teaching (and in some cases, evangelism), yet crucially all display the mark of apostle (visionary leadership on a scale wider than the local church), and prophet – interpreting the signs of the times and bringing God’s specific word to a situation. These first two gifts mentioned by Paul in his five-fold list have historically been celebrated, and it’s fair to say sometimes exaggerated and abused by charismatics, and in reaction, downplayed or even denied by conservative evangelicals. In these books they are properly and powerfully exercised for the building up and maturity of the church.

In “Beyond the Pandemic: Is there any word from the Lord?”, veteran writer and speaker Clifford Hill begins with the response to Covid in the nation and the church. Is what we are facing just ‘one of those things’, and we should just keep calm and carry on with human solidarity and the hope of the gospel? Rather, Hill insists, God is speaking: he has permitted the pandemic, and the less than perfect response of governments and church leaders. Church closures, he says, are a symptom of a national spiritual malaise and part of God’s judgement. The message to both church and nation should not be ‘the Lord bless you’ but ‘repent’. He bases his observations of today’s crisis and his understanding of God’s specific message to us not on a personal hunch, but on detailed exploration of the biblical prophets especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Hill identifies specific sins from which Western culture needs to turn away, including abortion, the racist legacy of slavery, materialism and sexual immorality. Another book is needed to explore the philosophical and sociological background to secularism, the sex and gender revolution and the modern concept of self which is the fruit, at individual level, of a group acceptance that there is no God, and I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul. Carl Trueman’s masterful treatment is “The rise and triumph of the modern self: Cultural amnesia, expressive individualism and the road to sexual revolution”. He explains that the problem is much worse than individual sexual morality. When, for example, large numbers of teenage girls rush to erase their God-given womanhood, and businesses and employees are punished for not celebrating the Pride agenda, culture has reached a dark and dangerous moment. The background is in the teachings of Rousseau, Nietszsche, Marx, Freud and other prophets of humanist individualism and rebellion against the created order, whose ideas now dominate and which need to be understood and countered by the church, not accommodated and accepted as in liberal theology. Trueman provides a lucid and comprehensive guide to something which seems so powerful and complex that many Christians won’t face it.

But in the past, Christians did face apparently victorious evil in culture, and turn things around resulting in the rapid growth of the church and the prosperity of the nation. The most recent example was the early 19th century. The previous decades were marked with spiritual apathy and low church attendance, massive social injustice, and the proto-communism of the French revolution (1793) whose ideas initially attracted many in Britain, but then repelled as the true extent of violence, immorality and godlessness became apparent. By 1860 in Britain slavery had been abolished, laws were being passed to outlaw child labour and establish the foundations of workers’ rights and universal welfare, the nation under Queen Victoria was the richest and most powerful on earth, and 40% of the population went to church, much of which was evangelical. In his second volume of “The Nation’s Gospel”, London lawyer Jeremy Thomas continues his detailed history of evangelism in Britain since the Reformation, and here he explains what the Christian revival of the 19th century looked like, and what principles helped bring it about – while not in any way suggesting that it was a perfect golden age. It’s challenging and inspiring as we face seemingly insurmountable challenges today.

There is a big difference between now and then, however. While Christian beliefs and practice in 1800 may have been nominal, and clergy were often lazy and self serving, at least there were resources available for the church, there was a generally accepted framework of theism, and there was not active persecution of believers, at least not in the established church. What happens when, as in 2021, the memory of even the basic tenets of faith are lost in society, when ordinary Christian teachings are seen as not just dissenting from the norm but harmful, and a shrinking church struggles to pay its existing costs let alone dream of building big new enterprises? Rod Dreher, who wrote the foreword to Carl Trueman’s book, has in his hard-hitting style followed up “The Benedict Option”, and written an account of the church on the margins. To prepare for the “soft totalitarianism” of which church lockdowns, counselling bans and job losses for Christians are a foretaste, Dreher shows how we can learn from the pre-1990 Eastern European church on how to maintain authentic Christian faith and witness in the face of strong and subtle pressures to conform to secularism. His book is called “Live not by lies”, a title taken from a lecture given by courageous Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

The fifth book on the list is about Christian leadership. It does not focus on a time of crisis such as we are facing. although Covid lockdown-induced stress and church leadership which has lost confidence in the truth of Scripture is mentioned. Rico Tice’s “Faithful leaders, and the things that matter most” is a call to pastors, to re-commit to biblical orthodoxy, to kindness, to accountability, to repentance from and avoidance of secret sins, to humble service based on gratitude, to a vision of heaven motivating evangelism. While the recent fall and muddied reputation of high profile leaders is not mentioned specifically, this comes to the reader’s mind as Rico warns against using gospel ministry for self-promotion and the control of others for selfish purposes. Of all five books this is the least overtly ‘contextual’, but its message is relevant as a part of the necessary practical response to the new context we are facing.


See also:

Live not by Lies: a summary in twelve quotes, by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream

Live not by Lies: a review by Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch


Reviews of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl Trueman, 

From Christianity Today

From The Gospel Coalition

From Martin Davie

Related Posts


Share This