I have a rare collection of prayers in my library of the English Reformers. It was collected and edited by Henry Bull in 1566. One of the prayers is titled, “Another Prayer Meet For the Present Time, That God Would Turn Away His Plagues Hanging over Us For Our Sins.” Here’s a portion of the prayer to help us consider how strong in faith the English Reformers were at moments like ours:
We confess and acknowledge, O Lord, that it is our sins which have moved you to wrath, and to show such fearful tokens of your displeasure towards us in these our days; first with fire from heaven, betokening your hot burning indignation and wrathful displeasure for sin which abounds at this day, and then with such horrible and monstrous shapes against nature, as was never seen here in our days, in no time before us, which do betoken to us none other thing, but your plagues to come upon us for our degenerate and monstrous life and conversation; and not last of all, by great mortality, plague and pestilence, you have terribly threatened us, fatherly warned us, and mercifully called us to repentance.
These prayers, from the most learned Reformed scholars and pastors of the 16th century, are worthy of emulation. What’s interesting to note is how the Reformers were willing to recognize the frowning providences of God as clear warnings of divine displeasure for sin. They recognized that the “shapes against nature” and the certain things of providence that they never witnessed before, conveyed a strong message. For them, the “plague and pestilence,” were threatening’s to the world, even fatherly warnings to God’s people, calling everyone to repentance.
Our pushback of reading providence too specifically (and rightly so) has left a void in how we speak of the judgment of God in times like ours. After all, who wants to sound like the angry evangelical calling out specific groups of people for being wicked sinners? Without question, Luke 13 provides a strong warning against a misreading of providence that attributes terrible events that happen to people as the result of their great sinfulness.
Further, Jesus would not let us read providence to say that the bad things that happen mean that God is specifically judging someone for their specific sin(s). We are not to draw links from particular judgments to particular sins. We speak generally of these things. For instance, we have no right to say that someone who gets the Coronavirus is being judged by God as a worse sinner than those who do not contract it, or for some specific sin. Jesus would have none of this. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” Jesus asked. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). All people are equally worthy of the judgment of God and Jesus used these events to force people to consider their own standing before God. The verdict has long been given: all have sinned and are under the just judgment of God.
But in these cases, it would be equally wrong to ignore the providence of God. There is a very serious message everyone should consider in the dark moments of God’s providence. Jesus is telling us that these terrible events are warnings of the judgment to come. Therefore, we should repent today.
THE SHUTDOWN AS WARNING
I believe the church should pay close attention to our Coronavirus moment. As I write, people are facing the possibility of loss in many forms. Things have suddenly become very serious for a society that has lived according to the mindset of the rich fool who looked upon all his wealth and proclaimed, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Americans live believing that life will go on as it always has. We are like the people of 2 Peter 2 who deliberately forget the judgments of God that fell upon the world as we run swiftly into sin.
This is why we must consider the warning that comes with the unleashing of the Coronavirus. Like the prayer cited above, something is unfolding before us that we have never witnessed in our lifetime. Whether everyone agrees with the severity of the virus is not the issue. We all agree that society is shutdown, churches are banned from meeting, social gatherings of all kinds have ceased, and the economy is threatened with countless businesses closed and unemployment skyrocketing. Jesus told us that these things would happen. Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places at various times are the beginnings of sorrows or birth pains (Cf., Matthew 24). These are painful indicators of the impending and inevitable final judgment.
Consider, however, the similarities of our current crisis to the Apostle John’s description of what is to come upon Babylon in the final judgment:
“For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her . . . . all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!” The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, “Alas, alas, for the great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste . . . . For in a single hour she has been laid waste. Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more; and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more, and a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more, and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more” (Revelation 18:8-23).
Revelation 18 says that the final plague of judgment will bring an end to the economies of the world. The luxury and wealth Babylon enjoyed is taken in an hour, leading to death and the final judgment. This is the death no one can escape. The joyful celebrations of weddings and gatherings are over. Work stops forever and the economy takes its ultimate plunge. Worst of all, the light of the church and the gospel is seen and heard no more in Babylon.
This requires us to stop and think for a moment. Hasn’t the shutdown of everything given us a small foretaste of Rev 18? Consider the things that have happened over the last two weeks:
- The economy is shutdown.
- Social events, including weddings, are banned.
- The church cannot gather.
- Death is everywhere.
Though on a much smaller scale, what we are facing are the things that happen in the sudden final judgment. We are living proof that it doesn’t take much to bring life as we know it to a halt, in a moment. This is a worldwide phenomenon, accomplished by a little virus. Quoting the Reformers, we are facing something we have never seen here in our days.
COME TO JESUS, TODAY!
All this to say, an event like this should be a clear call for everyone to repent and escape the judgment to come. Sadly, the message of judgment is almost non-existent in the church today. But the church has a solemn responsibility to warn people of the wrath to come. The church shouldn’t be afraid of recognizing God’s providence in times like this and calling all people to repentance and faith in Christ. All people are called to turn from sin and come to Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation with God. As the Reformers recognized in the midst of a heavy providence, God is terribly threatening us, fatherly warning us, and mercifully calling us to repentance.
The greatest silver lining in this dark cloud, however, cannot be missed. We are still able to publish the best news ever, a lamp is still shining in Babylon, and a voice is still sounding forth the summons of Jesus, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). But make no mistake: the day of salvation is not forever; the time is short.
Jesus is merciful, gracious, and longsuffering. Come, repent and believe, and enjoy the blessings of God’s salvation. Christ’s word, in the midst of this present chaos, is a sweet word of everlasting peace to all who believe, “Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Revelation 18:4). In all the noise of our pandemic age, that’s the infinitely worthy voice we must hear.
[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at Abounding Grace Radio. Published here with permission.]