The Elements in True Reformation
In his excellent (though unlikely titled) book Hot Tub Religion, J. I. Packer asks “What would a work of divine reformation in our churches today look like?” Great question, and I loved the six answers Packer—one of my all- time favorite people—offers.
First, there would be a sense of biblical authority—that is, an awareness that biblical teaching is divine truth and that the invitations and admonitions, threats and warnings, promises and assurances of Scripture still express the mind of God toward mankind. The Bible would be honored again as the Word of God, and the perverse, pluralism of liberal theology, which addles the brains and blinds the hearts of many, would wither and die. The root of this pluralism is that teachers feel free to ignore some of the things the Bible teaches and to pull others out of context. The fruit of it is that God’s people are led astray into dry places and the Holy Spirit of God is completely quenched. Reformation always begins as a call from God to “come out of the wilderness” of subjective speculation and spiritual impotence and learn again in humility the true teaching of the written Word about grace and godliness, knowing that the secret of power for living lies here. Thus, unhappily, reformation always leads to controversy for some resist the message.
Second, there would be a spirit of seriousness about eternal issues. Heaven and hell would be preached about, thought about, and talked about once again. Life in this world would once again be lived in the light of the world to come, and the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” would be seen as life’s basic question once more. For most of this century the church, liberal and conservative, in all denominations, has been so occupied with this world that minds turned to eternity have been the exception rather than the rule. Sociopolitical, cultural, sporting, and money-making interests have dominated Christian minds rather than the laying up of treasure in heaven. A work of reformation would change that, not by withdrawing Christians from these fields of action, but by radically altering their perspective on what they are doing so that God’s glory and eternal values would become the chief concerns.
Third, there would be a passion for God, transcending any interest in religion or cultivation of religiosity. One’s relationship to God would be seen as the most important thing in the world, and a Bible-based awareness of the greatness and awesomeness of God, the eternal Savior-Judge, in whose hands we ever are, would displace all cheap thoughts of God as just a useful pal.
Fourth, there would be a love of holiness growing out of deep conviction of sin, deep repentance, deep gratitude for forgiveness and cleansing through the blood of Jesus Christ, and a deep desire to please God. Casualness about righteousness, cutting moral corners, areas of blatant self-indulgence, love of luxury, and broken commitments have disfigured twentieth-century Christianity at all levels. This would change, as indeed it needs to, for moral standards among Christian people. As in the world around them, seem to be getting worse rather than better. It is frightening to see how little believers nowadays seem to be bothered about personal sin.
Fifth, there would be a concern for the church. Christians would catch the biblical perspective, in which the church is the center and focal point of God’s plan and the display ground of his saving and sanctifying wisdom (see Eph. 3:1-12). They would be deeply concerned about the image that the church presents to the world, and any form of unfaithfulness, carnality, false doctrine, formalism, disorder, or wrongheadedness in the church would cause them distress and send them to their knees. God should be honored, not dishonored, in his church, and the church should show itself strong in standing against the world and testifying to its Savior. These are universal Christian concerns at reformation times, and saints at such times will endure and risk anything in order to see the church move in the right direction.
Sixth, there would be a willingness to change—whether from sin to righteousness, or from lassitude to zeal, or from traditional patterns to new procedures, or from passivity to activity, or any other form of change that was needed. Believers would come together to praise, pray, encourage each other, and see what they could do together to advance the cause of Christ. It would be as if they had awakened after a long sleep. They would wonder how they were able to be somnolent, apathetic, and inactive for so long. What new things they would find themselves doing cannot be specified in advance beyond this general formula, but should God work in reformation, it is safe to say that newness of discipleship and change of ways in some shape or form would be the experience of us all.