From – Possessing the Treasure

A Dead Church

by Mike Ratliff

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1 ESV)

As part of my research for this piece, I did some Google searches on the Internet using the word phrase, “A Dead Church.” It was very interesting reading what “some” people considered the markers of a “dead church.” One fellow was adamant that the two markers which revealed that a church was dead was that its leaders used a Bible other than the King James Version and/or its denomination practiced infant baptism. Other markers I saw were things like the sort of music was used in worship or if there was an over abundance of ceremony or ritual in the order of worship. Are these the markers of a “dead church?”

I received the following commentary by John Piper today in an email from a dear friend.

My Annual Visit to a Mainline Protestant Church

April 6, 2009

by: John Piper

Category: Commentary

I made my annual visit to a Sunday morning service in a “mainline Protestant church” a couple weeks ago. It is an eerie experience. Heart-wrenchingly eerie.

  •       A magnificent building.
  •       A magnificent choir singing, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of he world, have mercy on us” (in Latin).
  •       A closing hymn, “Lord, I want to be a Christian.”
  •       Three women pastors on the platform and two men.
  •       Pews filled with well-to-do looking folks.

The reason I say it was eerie is that much of this religious language means something totally different in their minds from what I mean by it. There is a keeping of the language and a demythologizing of the original meaning.

On one of our earlier visits Noël recalls the pastor saying that when he was a child he used to read stories like the one about Jesus walking on the water as if they were literally true.

What made my visit heart-wrenching was that the children’s choir sang these words-trust me, I am copying them from the bulletin-”Birds and trees, people and plants, dolphin and whale all lives are equal. . . . Sister Rain, Brother Stone bring us back to our true home.”

So when I stand at my study window that looks out over the downtown cityscape of Minneapolis, I pray: “O God, have mercy on us. Send a shocking revival to the churches-and a great awakening to this city. In Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.”

This mainline Protestant Church is dead. It is spiritually dead because its leaders are people without faith. No one can be spirit-filled, spirit-led, Christian without the faith given to him or her at regeneration. This faith believes God and when the Word of God is read, it is believed because it is true. The markers of dead church are given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ in Revelation 3:1-6.

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (Revelation 3:1-6 ESV) 

In Matthew 5:48 our Lord Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He stated in Revelation 3:1-6 to the church in Sardis, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead…” Why was it dead? It had become contaminated by the world just like the church John Piper visited above. It had taken on the world’s values and integrated them into how church was done there. It had disintegrated and was now dead. What is more, they did not realize it. They continued going through the motions of worship and activity, but it was just like the dead religiosity of the Jews in Jesus’ day. In other words, the church as Sardis was very much like the liberal church today; i.e. Dead!

The people in the church at Sardis were physically alive, but they were spiritually dead. Unbelievers were operating the church. Some may scoff at that and disbelieve that churches and whole denominations can be taken over by unbelievers, but this very thing is happening today. Dead men are in the pulpits. Dead men are in the pews. Dead men are running the church and dead men are in control of the denomination. Churches die when those who truly alive in Christ are replaced by dead people. What causes this?

A church becomes dead when unbelievers are allowed to take over ministries in the church. It happens when a church becomes more concerned with form and liturgy than it is with life on a spiritual level. It also occurs when a church becomes more concerned with welfare and social ills than it is about the Gospel. Death occurs when a church loves its religiosity more than it loves Jesus Christ. It may very well love another Jesus and another gospel, but this is the same thing as elevating religiosity over the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Death occurs when a church’s focus is moved away from God’s Truth to Man’s so-called truth. Focus moves away from obedience of Gods’ commands and devotion to Him to material things or any temporal focus. A Church dies because of sin.

Sin in any form that a church tolerates is the root cause of a church dying. It does not matter if the sin is tolerated in the leadership or in the members. This tolerance begins the cycle of death. This opens the door to tolerance of unbelievers in the church. Soon, no one cares who is a believer or an unbeliever. When the man who runs the church is not a believer, and this is inevitable once the cycle starts, then the end comes and the church dies spiritually. The cycle of death begins with tolerance of sin. These sins of commission and omission kill the church bit by bit. Over time, the professing Christians in the church become carnal. The carnal do tolerate unbelievers being part of the local body. This is followed by total tolerance for sin. As the church begins its death throes, God will draw out of it the people in it who really love the Lord Jesus. As they leave, unbelievers replace them. I hear from several believers every month who cannot find a local church in their area that has not become compromised like this. I left a church that was beginning the process of inviting unbelievers in. It was putting one foot in the world while trying to keep one foot in the Church. That was nearly 3 years ago and the pain from that separation is still with my wife and I.

The church at Sardis was only going through the spiritual motions. It may have indeed had a name that it was alive, but God condemns every single religious activity that is not directed by the Holy Spirit. Unbelievers were not persecuting it. Why? The church at Sardis was just a religious form of the world and this is exactly what any church in our day is that is not controlled and directed by the Holy Spirit to serve the Lord Jesus Christ according to God’s will. We were discussing markers of a dead church earlier. We have actually been looking at this over the last few days. Dead churches and disingenuous believers hold to a man-friendly, man-centered, easy-believism from of the gospel. This non-gospel is cross-less, therefore, it also is Christ-less. The genuine Church holds to the genuine Gospel, which is cross-centered, and does not flinch from the reproach and shame of the Cross of Christ. The natural man hates the Gospel. It is hated by the world. Only the regenerate loves it, grasps it, and preaches it. This will bring persecution from the world.

Never forget my brethren that God is in the business of preserving a remnant within that which is dead, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” God always has His remnant. Even in this dead church at Sardis there were still some who were not contaminated by the world. These would be suffering mightily as they were spiritual, but surrounded by carnal and fleshly. They were devout and sincere amongst hypocrites. They were humble among the proud. They were separate from the world, but the rest in that church were of the world. These would be equivalent to those I regularly hear from who remain in their dead church because there is no where else to go. Never forget my brethren, a church is not a building, but a body of believers. The church at Sardis was speaking of every professing Christian in that city. These genuine believers were God’s remnant at Sardis. The emphasis on their garments not being soiled is speaking of their righteousness, which is spotless so it is God’s righteousness. These are genuine believers who are promised that they will receive a new “white” garment and will walk with Christ in glory.

Our Lord gives five key commands to the church at Sardis. These commands are: wake up, strengthen, remember, keep it, and repent. These commands are given to all three different types of members of the church in Sardis. These three types of members are the dead (unbelievers), the sleeping or fleshly professing Christians, and the few who have not defiled their garments.

The first command is “wake up!” (vv 2,3). This can also be translated as “be watchful” or “watch!”. The command is a warning that if they do not watch then He will come upon them as a thief in the night. This is obviously spoken to the unbelievers in the church at Sardis.

The second command is “Strengthen!” This is a command to the genuine believers at Sardis to work to wake up the sleeping professing believers on the fringes. These fleshly Christians are spiritually blind. They are next to dead. This command is to those who see God’s light, reflect it to all, and hear His voice to preach repentance to those who are just hanging on.

The third command is “remember!” This is spoken to the genuine believers at Sardis to remember their salvation. This is a command to continue growing in Grace in their daily walk devoted to Christ. This remembering is keeping the mind occupied with the person of Christ and the miracle and reality of their salvation.

The fourth command is “keep it!” This can also be translated as “Hold Fast!” This is another command to the genuine believers at Sardis. They commanded to hold fast or keep to sound doctrine. This is vital. We are constantly under attacks that are designed to distract us with the things of this world away from God’s perfect doctrines of His truth. These distractions include false doctrines as well. The command to these Christians and to us in our time is to hang on and not let the world distract them from sound doctrine.

The fifth and final command is “repent!” This is given to the unbelievers and the fleshly believers at Sardis. These need to repent. The unbelievers need to believe the Gospel and repent. The fleshly believers need to seek for God to grant them repentance as they turn from the flesh and its debilitating blindness to have their hard hearts smashed by the grace of God.

Sardis was a dead church, but so are countless churches in our time who have become compromised. These five commands are for them as well. Examine yourselves by brethren. If you are in a doctrinally sound and spiritually alive church then rejoice and do not take that for granted. If you are in a dying church and there is nowhere else to go then ask the Lord for the grace to stand firm as His remnant where He has you. On the other hand, if you are dead then the command from our Lord is to believe and repent. If you are a professing Christian who is enslaved to your flesh then now is the time for you to come to the throne of grace for some serious confession and repentance.

Soli Deo Gloria!


[reprinted by permission.]