Iterative Reformation

Iterative Reformation

by Bob Burridge ©2012

It’s a tragic thing when God’s word becomes confused and mainly forgotten. Without a standard, immorality becomes accepted as normal behavior. Without respect for God’s Kingship over all things, leaders begin to neglect their responsibilities and overstep their authority. They start to unjustly interfere in their people’s lives.

That could describe many moments in history. It certainly describes what we see today.

Reformation 3000 Years Ago

Almost 3000 years ago, in 931BC, the Great United Kingdom of David divided when King Solomon died. The Southern tribes stayed loyal to Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The Northern part of the Kingdom turned to an unbroken line of evil kings. God ended their place in history after a little over 200 years with captivity at the hand of Assyria.

Nearly 80 years after that, the Southern Kingdom came under the rule of King Amon. He was only 22 years old and was not a strong leader. At that time, a new threat was growing against the nation from the Neo-Babylonian Empire. But instead of turning the nation to God for help, Amon led the nation deeper into idolatry.

Some in his administration wanted him to be more aggressive against the threatening world. With evil hearts they secretly conspired, and assassinated their incompetent King.

But the people of Israel didn’t want ambitious assassins to sit on the throne of David. So the people rejected this unauthorized government. The revolutionaries were killed, and Amon’s 8 year old son was crowned as their next king.

To the few faithful believers remaining, things didn’t look very hopeful. The nation had turned from God. It was surrounded by threatening empires. Now they were going to be led by an 8 year old king.

But God had a plan – a plan that was greater than anything they expected at that time. Reformation was going to come from a most unexpected place. It was not because of a great preacher or prophet. It was not carefully planned by skilled committees. There were no special revival meetings scheduled, or mass advertising campaigns.

Real reformation comes in God’s time, in God’s ways, and always by God’s grace. But this does not mean we just wait around for it to happen. There are things we are called to do.

This chapter in the history of Redemption begins with that 8 year old boy who became King. His name was Josiah. We don’t know much about his first 8 years on the throne. When he was 16, 2 Chronicles 34:3 tells us that God moved in his heart, and he sought after the God of David. In his 12th year as king, when he was only 20, he started a campaign to get rid of the pagan idols. The altars for the worship of Baal were torn down, and the pagan priests were executed. But the greatest advancement came as a surprise to all of them, even to Josiah.

When he was 26 he ordered his workers to repair God’s Temple in Jerusalem. During the restoration work, Hilkiah the High Priest came across a lost copy of God’s word.

In 2 King 22:11 it tells how Josiah reacted when he read the book of God’s law.

“When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes.”

Josiah was devastated. God’s word brought him face-to-face with the seriousness of violating God’s covenant. He called the priests together and commanded them saying in verse 13,

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

The king’s men went to the prophetess Huldah to find out what Jehovah would say to her. God’s message was that his judgment would eventually fall upon Judah. The nation’s rebellion deserved the judgments promised in the book of the Law they found. But God would bless Josiah because he repented and acted in faith. He trusted in God’s word.

2 Kings 22:19-20 tells us God’s message for the young king,

“because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.” And they brought back word to the king.

The king gathered all the people at the temple where God’s word was read publicly. Josiah put together an elaborate and thorough campaign. The Passover was restored and celebrated just as God said it should be in his Word. He restored God’s worship to the way it was commanded to be in his word, and he got rid of the idols and false altars the former evil kings had allowed and sanctioned. It was important to guard every detail of the feasts and temple worship. God had carefully crafted it all to point to the promised Redeemer who would one day die in their place.

2 King 23:25 gives us this memorial about Josiah,

Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

After his 31 years of godly rule, Egypt and Assyria threatened Judah. King Josiah took off his royal robes and went with his army against Egypt’s Pharaoh Necho. In that battle, at the age of just 39, Josiah was shot with arrows from enemy archers. His men took him from his chariot and brought it back to Jerusalem where he died. They gave him an honorable burial and crowned his 23 year old son Jehoahaz to be the next King.

Josiah was God’s instrument in bringing about one of history’s great Reformations.

Reformation 2000 Years Later

In 1517 another Reformation took place. It was almost 2,000 years after Josiah, a millennium and a half since the time of Jesus Christ. Again, superstition and false teachings were confusing people about what God’s word said. Powerful leaders controlled armies and manipulated weak nations which had become dependent upon them. The economy was balanced on high taxes which included subsidies for a corrupt church. With deluded church councils in tight control of everything, it looked bleak for the few faithful believers.

Martin Luther was a church scholar who struggled with a sense of his own moral guilt. He knew that it was impossible for a perfectly Holy God to simply ignore the times when he failed to be obedient.

This awareness led him to deep fears, self-beatings, and tears of shame and agony. His knowledge of God’s word was limited by the grip of the oppressive church. The Bible was hidden from the people, and virtually unknown to most of the ministers of the church.

It’s said that Luther was overwhelmed when he saw a complete copy of the Bible for the first time. It was chained to a podium at the University of Erfurt. For ten years he poured over the Scriptures in search of what God actually said. He could not find support for many of the teachings presented by his church. Instead, he rediscovered in that Book the truth about how we are justified by God’s grace through faith, based upon the work of Jesus Christ and nothing else, so that we might live for God’s glory. That’s what sparked a new Reformation.

It was clear to him that there was only one way to set the people free from the bondage of grieving souls, from the grip of sin, false teachings and manipulative leaders. They had to learn and to trust in the infallible promises and grace of God revealed in Scripture.

He wanted the church to test its teaching by the Bible alone, and to submit to what they find there. The church and all of what was wrongly called a “Christian society” needed to be Reformed.

Luther drew up 95 Theses, statements for scholarly debate. On October 31st, 1517 he had them posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It was the eve of All Saints Day (which is November 1st). That’s when people from all over Europe came to that cathedral. They believed they would receive special blessings by looking on the relics, attending Mass, and by doing various kinds of penance. Luther saw that all these religious exercises were absent from God’s word. His Theses were circulated and drew attention to a message that had been lost.

Luther had no interest in becoming one of history’s most influential people. But what he did on that seemingly average October day has shaped the whole course of Western civilization.

He wanted the message made available to every person: scholar, farmer, housewife or child. He went on to write books and to carefully translated the Bible into German so all in his country could read it on their own.

They needed to know the Bible well enough to use it as a test of what they hear. They needed to know the gospel of grace, that Jesus Christ made full atonement for sin. The church could not add to what Jesus did, nor did it control who would receive the benefits of the Cross. It was by faith alone that sinners are declared innocent by the work of the Savior.

That Bible chained to a podium, taught how the chains of sin and guilt were broken by our Redeemer. The Bible isn’t just the best light to guide us in the dark. It’s the only light.

These reformations were not planned by committees or advertized as campaigns of men. The one started in the heart of a young king battling an established pagan culture. He found a copy of one of the Books of Moses and trusted God’s word. The other started with the prayers and Bible study of an unknown scholar. He found a copy of God’s word and let it test the teachings so popularly accepted in his day. There have been several times of reformation recorded in the Bible, and in the history of the church that followed.

Reformation is an Iterative thing in God’s plan.

Something is iterative when it repeats with each step targeting and progressing toward a long term goal.

When unbelief seems to choke out any hope, God Sovereignly moves to display his amazing power and grace. He brings forth his Word, often in unpredictable ways. By the power of the Holy Spirit that word transforms lives, it has at times transformed the world.

Reformation Today

We live in another of those times when the basic facts about Christianity are very confused. We face enemies who see what the Bible teaches as a barrier to their own self-serving ways. There’s a growing attitude of entitlement that expects others to do all the hard work while others just take. What the Bible calls immoral, is more and more defended, even protected by misguided laws. People are ridiculed and called bigots for believing what the Bible says. God’s Word isn’t well known or understood today, even by those who claim to preach from it and teach it. Is there about to be another iteration of reformation moving us yet closer to the finale of the ages?

Will there be a true 21st Century Reformation? We can’t know what God’s going to do tomorrow, but he tells us what we’re to be doing today. Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us,

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Though we know that only God can transform people and nations, there are things we’re told to do.

One thing God calls us to do is to pray for his will to be done here on earth. Prayer isn’t the cause of Reformation, but it is one of the tools of Reformation. God uses the prayers of his people.

He’s ordained prayer to be an integral part of the administration of his grace. When we fail to pray we disobey. When we pray, we discover our part in the symphony of providence.

The seeming impossibility of circumstances didn’t discourage the reformers, it drove them to the Creator.

If we hope to see our own lives reshaped into what pleases God, we need to pray for personal reformation. We pray that our beliefs, thoughts and lives would be conformed to what promotes God’s glory.

Though we begin with praying for the reformation of our own lives, we should also pray for the reformation of the lives of our loved ones, neighbors, churches, and nation.

We should set aside time for prayer every day. Between those times we should maintain a prayerful awareness of the hand of God at work in all we experience and do.

Ephesians 6:18, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints”

We pray believing confidently that God can do all things, and will bring about good — in his good time.

God also calls us to know and to honor his word. The Bible tells us what needs to be reformed, and how we’re to go about making those changes. The Bible should inform our prayers, our daily decisions, our attitudes, how we budget our time and efforts. It exposes our foolish surmises, and displays how our Creator designed his world to work.

When I was little, my Dad and I would make toy soldiers out of lead. We would melt down the metal then pour it into molds. When it cooled off and became solid again I had an army of nicely detailed combatants. In time they would get bent and broken in rough battles as they fought the enemy. But I still had the mold. We would melt down the deformed soldiers and re-cast them in the mold to restore their shape.

In a similar way our understanding of the Bible can get disfigured as we battle against evil. We fallen creatures attempt to excuse our sins and make our lives fit in with a lost world. To avoid making waves, we stop stirring up the water, and accept certain sins as if they aren’t all that bad.

The Bible is the mold. We need to recast our understanding to again take on the form God spoke of in his word. We re-form our beliefs and lives back to the way they ought to be.

Sometimes entire nations or denominations go through the rough crucible of melt-down. As God’s children we bring out the mold which is the unchanging word of God. Reformation takes place when the Holy Spirit moves to re-shape, to re-form things to fit what Scripture teaches.

As God’s representatives here in this chapter of history we each need to be regularly and responsibly reading the Bible everyday, and prayerfully thinking about what it says. Look for the principles taught in each lesson, and ask God to show you how they apply in your own life.

2 Timothy 3:14-17, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

There are all sorts of conflicting messages about God and our relationship with him. Make sure your teachers have a sound understanding of the Bible. They should have that attitude of reformation, always following the example of the believers in Berea.

Acts 17:11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

There are many who want to tell you what God says, but few who can separate out the facts from the theories and human additions to God’s word. Popularity and eloquence should never replace soundness of teaching.

Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4:3-4

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

In John 8:44 Jesus called Satan a liar, and the father of lies. Those who promote things that aren’t true, aware of it or not, are serving the Kingdom of Satan.

However, though he may try, Satan cannot keep God’s truth from going out. Neither he, nor the fallen souls deceived by him, can silence the work and word of God. But he does orchestrate confusion by mixing the truth with competing messages. He makes the words mean different things, or burdens the message with added ideas.

The theory of camouflage has been around all through history. Animals blend in with their surroundings so preditors won’t see them. It’s also been used by the military. Camouflage of various sorts makes soldiers and their equipment look like things in the environment. From a distance soldiers, tents, and tanks look like shrubs, rocks and trees, or snow, or sand.

Reverse camouflage is when the environment is adjusted to conceal something. To hide a special book you might slip it in on a bookshelf with dozens of others. To hide red doorway you could paint the whole side of the building red along with the door frame. To hide the gospel you create a library of gospels, each one using the same words, quoting from the same passages (though out of context), and each calling itself the truth.

With so many claims about Jesus, salvation, sin, angels, the end times, and God’s judgment it can be hard to sort out what’s true and what’s not.

We might take comfort in a survey done a few years ago that 91% of the sample believe in God. But the word “god” may be taken to refer to any sort of divine being. 37% of them also believed in Astrology, 34% in ghosts, and 27% in reincarnation. In ancient Babylon, the great enemy of God’s people, almost the entire population believed in god. The terrorists who attacked on 9/11 all would have said they believed in god.

Deception becomes most effective when the truth gets blurred with lies and surmises. When the great Reformation took place in 1517, Luther wasn’t posting 95 questions for atheists to answer. He was challenging a corrupted church that had so confused the gospel and God’s truth with another gospel. It took a great scholar enabled by the Holy Spirit to discover the truth camouflaged in all the lies.

We need to separate God’s truth from the flood of false ideas masquerading as the real thing.

Distorted forms of Christianity are popular because they appeal to our self-serving nature. In their times Luther, Ezra, Moses, Paul and Peter rocked the boat. They stirred the embers by championing God’s truth, and God stirred it into a fire.

Now it has become our responsibility. God put us here in this place, at this point in time, and gave us his written word. By his grace he brought us under the influence of the Reformed Heritage which lets the Bible speak for itself.

We are not kings like Josiah. We have no authority to tear down heathen altars and temples, or to call an assembly of the nation to hear God’s word read and explained.

Very few of us could be called church scholars comparable to Martin Luther. It’s not likely that posting points for debate on a church door would get much public attention today. With so many blogs, Facebook pages, and tweets, the average posting gets lost in the flood.

But we should never forget that in Christ we are the children of a Living and All-Powerful God. We’re called to live for his glory, and to promote his promises and principles as broadly as we can every day.

Though you can’t assemble a nation to hear God’s word, or post debate points that change the whole Western world, you can invite friends, family, neighbors and co-workers to come to hear it in your church. You can bring what God says is right and true into conversations, and show it active in your life.

The Canons of the Synod at Dort summarized the Bible’s Gospel Mandate in Article 5 of the Second Head of Doctrine. There it says, “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”

The reason we want to bring reformation to the lives of friends and into the culture around us is not only because of a command to do so. It’s because we are compelled to tell it by our Savior’s work in our hearts. We serve because we love God first and our neighbors as ourselves.

How can we truly understand our helpless lostness, our deep offense in the eyes of God, then consider the wonder of the atonement made on the Cross by our Savior, and the eternal hope we possess by pure grace, and not be driven to explain these truths humbly and clearly whenever we can?

Are we on the brink of another iteration of reform? There is no way to know what God will do, but we know he can transform lives, churches, and nations. He’s done it before. And we know what our job is while we watch to see what God will do.

The 5 Solas of the Reformation (5 things that stand alone) summarize the amazing message we are given to deliver.

First, God’s word alone is the test of what’s true and good. Scripture is the mold into which all we know and do should be poured to re-form our marriages, our parenting, our economy, our worship, beliefs, ministries, recreations, customs – everything.

2nd, Our redemption from the guilt of sin comes to us by God’s grace alone. It’s not up to us or our churches. If not for God’s grace, no one would understand our real spiritual lostness, and how we can be being re-formed into the image of Christ.

3rd, We embrace God’s promises by faith alone. God works an amazing thing in our hearts and minds. He gives us confidence in his promises and provisions. We come to the Savior trusting that what he did for us was a full success. It’s all been done. We add nothing.

4th, It’s by Christ alone that we are forgiven and restored to fellowship with God forever. He paid our debt and clothes us with his righteousness. We find our ability to be reforming in the power of the risen and living Savior and in him alone.

5th, Everything in our lives, all our thoughts, words, and deeds, our worship, our family times, our labor, our politics, our recreations, whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, all should be done for God’s glory alone.

That is reformation! It’s not only a heritage and set of doctrines. It’s a transformation of lives by God’s work of grace, that shapes us into what pleases him most.

Our responsibility is to love God and to live for his glory by the power of Christ in us by grace. Whenever we have opportunity we are to bring the message to those around us. The Gospel and God’s principles for morality and worship should be evident in our conversation and in our lives.

As we see the world melting around us, are we about to see yet another iteration of Reformation? Will God soon move us closer to completing his wonderful plan?

We don’t know. But we do know what he calls us to do, and we know that God can sovereignly use our humble obedience to do more than we imagine possible. He did it with Josiah, with Martin Luther, and in many other times in human history. He can do it today. And if he doesn’t, we will be living as we ought to live, for the Glory to God. This is why he put us here in the first place.

This article is based upon the sermon delivered on Reformation Sunday, October 28, 2012, at Christ the King Presbyterian Church, Seminole FL, in a joint worship service sponsored by the Pinellas County PCA Churches, and the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies.

The Bible quotations in this article are from the English Standard Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.

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