The American Century

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken December 12, 1999

During the past year we have been looking at the last millennium in church history. Each month we have considered some significant person or event from one of the last ten centuries. Tonight we come finally to our own century. (Properly speaking, of course, we have one more year to go, since the twenty-first century will not begin until the year 2001. But 2000 is such a nice round number that this is a good time to ask what God has been doing in and through his church in the twentieth century.)

It has been a remarkable century. The global population has exploded. There are more people alive today—some six billion in all—than in the rest of history combined. There have been amazing scientific discoveries, like the theory of relativity and the splitting of the atom. There have been rapid technological advances: televisions, computers, and lasers; automobiles, airplanes, and space shuttles. This will always be known as the century when we put a man on the moon.

Sadly, however, a great deal of our most creative energy has gone into developing new ways to kill one another: tanks, aircraft carriers, laser-guided missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and of course, the atomic bomb. For the first time in history we have the capacity to destroy ourselves. The reason we have needed all these weapons is because we have spent most of the century at war. Hence the title of a recent book—Reflections on a Ravaged Century [Robert Conquest (New York: Norton, 1999)]. First we had “the war to end all wars.” Then we had another one, and afterwards we kept on fighting. Despite all our efforts to achieve worldwide peace—the United Nations, for example—there is always an armed conflict somewhere on planet earth, as if to prove that we are our own worst enemies.

It has been a remarkable century, and America has been near the center of it all, which is why some observers call it “The American Century.” The United States is the greatest superpower in the history of the world. Many of the century's discoveries were made on American soil, and it is, after all, an American flag that is planted on the moon. In the providence of God, we were on the winning side in both of the century's two great wars (or all three, if the “Cold War” counts). For better and for worse, our language is the world's language, our products are the world's products, and our culture is the world's culture.

What has been God's purpose in all of this? Only eternity will tell, but it seems that part of his purpose has been to prove that we cannot live without him. In a world without God we are doomed to suffer man's inhumanity to man. Think of Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Tse-Tung, not to mention all their despicable comrades and cruel followers. Then contemplate the words of the apostle Paul: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness… Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools… Therefore God… gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” (Rom. 1:18, 22, 28-29). Since the days of Noah, has there ever been a century which so clearly demonstrates the wrath of God against the wickedness of humanity?

In the face of all this evil, God has allowed his people to suffer. There have been more martyrs in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined. Our own brothers and sisters languished in the gulags, were slaughtered by death squads, or were left to die in communist prisons. This, too, has been part of God's purpose. We know this because the Bible promises that we will “suffer grief in all kinds of trials… so that our faith… may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet. 1:6b-7). Our sufferings have indeed proved that our faith is genuine. Perhaps that is why, in some of the places where the church has faced the fiercest opposition—like China and Russia—it has also witnessed the most rapid growth.

The church has grown. There are, of course, more Christians alive now than in the rest of history combined. Furthermore, according to some experts, the percentage of Christians in the world population (about 34%) is as high now as it has ever been. One reason for this is that this has been another great century for missions. Already the missionary torch is being passed to other nations, but it is good to praise God for tens of thousands of American missionaries who have given their lives to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. It was through their work that the church spread in Asia, Africa, and South America.

This has been a century, not only for missions, but also for evangelistic crusades. Billy Graham has been perhaps the greatest evangelist since the apostle Paul. Certainly he has preached the good news of the cross and the empty tomb to more souls than any man who has ever lived, and with great results around the globe.

Then there is Bible translation. The work is not yet finished, but the end is almost in sight. Especially through the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators, portions of Scripture have been translated into a couple thousand different languages. In fact, there are two examples in the cases at the back of this sanctuary—Bibles translated by Tenth missionaries. This is a reminder that we ourselves have been a part, however small, of what God has been doing in the world this century. In spite of all the wars and persecution, God has been building his church.

I do not love the twentieth century, and I will not weep to see it end. But it has confirmed these two great facts: the depravity of man and the grace of God for dying sinners. Though we may not mourn its passing, we may at least write its epitaph: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom. 5:20b).

[For more information consult “The Church in the Contemporary World,” in Howard F. Vos, Exploring Church History (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 143-206].

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