Reformation, Revival and the Religious Right
Tom Ascol In 1 Chronicles 13 an incredible event is recorded which is filled with instruction for modern evangelical Christians. David had secured his kingdom and established his headquarters in Jerusalem. The ark of the covenant, which symbolized the blessing and presence of God, had never been returned to the place of prominence among the Israelites since its capture by the Philistines more than forty years before. After consulting with the leaders of his kingdom, David announced an initiative to bring the ark to the capital city. The Scripture says that “all Israel” followed his leadership and marched with him to Kiriath Jearim to take the ark out of storage.
No expense was spared. A brand new cart was built to carry the ark. Loud music marked the occasion as David himself led the choirs and bands. But before the parade progressed very far something tragic happened. The oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and the ark was in danger of falling to the ground. Uzzah, one of the priests who was driving the cart, grabbed the ark to keep it from falling. In response, God killed him.
Not only does this seem severe to modern sensibilities, it also appears on the surface to be exactly opposite of what one might have expected. Uzzah was attempting to do a good thing. Was it not noble to try to keep the ark of God from falling to the ground? We might rather have expected God to bless and reward him for his quick thinking and fast action. After all, even if what he did was not exactly proper, surely his heart was in the right place.
Uzzah was a Levite–a Kohathite. He was trained to transport the holy objects (including the ark) in the Tabernacle. God had given very specific instructions on the manner in which this was to be done. Numbers 4:1-5 spells it out in detail. The first mistake that Uzzah (and all the Israelites with him) made was in selecting the wrong method by which to move the ark. The new cart was an idea taken straight from the Philistine transportation handbook and completely ignored God’s simple instructions (cf. 1 Sam. 6:7 and Num. 4:13-15, 7:9). This led to his second mistake: he placed his hand on the ark. Numbers 4:15 contains this sober warning: “But they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die.” In discharging their duties the Kohathites were not to touch the ark under any circumstances.
Evidently, Uzzah forgot this crucial part of his training. Or maybe he just reasoned that drastic circumstances–a falling ark–call for drastic measures–a helping hand. Whatever his reasoning may have been, Uzzah’s sad experience teaches that good intentions never justify wrong actions. In fact, well-motivated actions that disregard clear biblical instructions are always disastrous for God’s people. It is just that sometimes the disaster is not so obvious.
Conservative American evangelicals are living proof of this principle. Since 1979 we have witnessed growing efforts from numerous evangelical organizations to lead churches into the arena of political activism. The first organization of note was the Moral Majority, which was founded in reaction to the terrible immorality which was permeating our land in the late 1970s. Its design was to marshall conservative Christians into a potent voting bloc to press for conservative family values in our nation. Millions of members gave millions of dollars and worked millions of hours to promote a moral agenda through political processes. Before it disbanded in 1989, the Moral Majority was credited with putting evangelicals on the political map and successfully campaigning for the elections of Presidents Reagan and Bush. The so-called “religious right” became somewhat organized participants in American politics.
Since then the Christian Coalition and other similar groups have stepped to the fore in calling on evangelicals to stay politically mobilized for the purpose of curbing the moral blight which is withering our culture. The efforts of these groups were instrumental in the Republican landslide of the 1992 Congressional elections and also in shaping the Republican platform in the recent presidential campaign.
There is within the religious right much which is commendable. Their stated motivations and intentions are worthy of every Christian’s appreciation. Who among the people of God is not dismayed over the cultural decay all around us? Adultery, fornication, homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia are now widely hailed as standard practices of the new morality. Governmental corruption is accepted as inevitable. Educational lunacy prevails at what are supposed to be the highest centers of learning. The prophetic judgment against “those who call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20) cannot help but resonate within the heart of the believer.
We all recognize that some kind of action is called for, and at least the religious right is doing something. They will not allow us to close our eyes to the moral degeneration all around us. As citizens, individual Christians who fulfill their calling in this way can provide a tremendous ministry. It is right and proper for Christians to be involved in every level of politics as individual citizens. But when they call for a Christian congregation to become institutionally involved in political activism they are guilty of distracting that church from its God-given mission. It is precisely because of this that the religious right’s proposals are disastrous for evangelical churches.
A recent letter from a recognized leader of the religious right illustrates this concern. It was mailed out to 100,000 “Bible-believing pastors” across the United States. “Our great nation stands at a crossroads today,” the writer says. “That is why I am calling on you to help me make a difference [emphasis added] by using your church to hold a voter registration drive,” he continues. After spelling out a four-step process to be followed before, during or after a Sunday worship service (including instructions for ushers, etc.), the most telling line in the whole letter comes: “Perhaps most important of all, please join me in praying for a national revival to come to America.” Perhaps? Is there really some doubt that appealing to the Almighty Sovereign of the universe may not be as important in the church as holding a voter registration drive? Sadly, the answer for many, if not most evangelicals is “yes.”
Pastors and churches all across this land, under the siren call of political activism, have lost confidence in God’s ordained means of accomplishing God’s ordained purposes. Whether because of ignorance, expedience or unbelief, many evangelicals are guilty of adopting strategies from the Philistines in an effort to restore a sense of God’s presence in our society. “If only we can get our man elected…if only we can get this law passed…f only we can get this judge appointed, then, things will get better; then, we will have made a difference!”
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is not true. It is also woefully naive and ultimately self-defeating. Martyn Lloyd-Jones regarded such efforts by evangelicals as “sheer folly.” Did we learn nothing during the “Reagan-Bush” years? After “making a difference” three times by voting for the “right man” can we say that the moral slide of our society was slowed at all? This is in no way to disparage the administrations of those two presidents. Rather, the point is that the election of conservative political leaders has not solved the moral maladies which provide the rallying cry for the religious right.
It is simply naive to hope that it would be otherwise. The Psalmist knew this and so he warned God’s people,
Do not put your trust in princes
Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
His spirit departs, he returns to his earth;
In that very day his plans perish (Ps. 146:3-4).
It is not that the agenda of the religious right is too radical. It is not radical enough. They greatly underestimate the depth of the problem. We cannot “Christianize” culture. The nature of sin guarantees that. Neither are we called to try! Did Jesus or Peter or Paul ever try to organize believers into a voting bloc to “Christianize” any geo-political structure? Culture can and will be positively influenced when its participants are made disciples of Christ.
The moral crisis in our nation will not be solved by getting the right people in the White House, Congress, and on the Supreme Court. Society will not change until people change. And the only way that people can be changed is by the sovereign power of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consequently, proclaiming that gospel in the power of the Spirit is the task to which churches must give themselves. This constitutes the only great commission which we have received from Jesus Christ.
The moral decadence of this generation has a spiritual root. As long as evangelical churches overlook this fact or fail to absorb its implications, they will continue to be seduced by worldly wisdom in their sincere but misguided efforts to “make a difference.” Alexis de Tocqueville was prophetic when he warned that if America ever ceased being good, she would cease being great. But why has America lost her goodness? Is it because we have elected the wrong people? Because we outlawed prayer in the public schools? Because we have passed immoral laws? No. These are symptoms, not causes. The reason, very simply stated by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is that “America has forgotten God.”
But we must push the question even further. Why has America forgotten God? Whose job is it to speak for God, anyway? Not the schools; not the government; not the culture. That responsibility has been given exclusively to the Church. The sad reality is that the Church–including Bible believing evangelicals–has been derelict in her duty. Our nation is in a mess because our churches are in a mess.
Research consistently shows that the vast majority of evangelicals do not believe in absolute truth. Over 80% believe that in salvation, God helps those who help themselves and over 75% believe that people are basically good and that good people go to heaven whether or not they believe in Christ. Most evangelicals cannot even define justification–the very doctrine which Luther correctly described as that by which a church stands or falls! Doctrinal preaching has been judged out-of-date in many churches. Most members of evangelical churches do not even attend the worship services. Church discipline has vanished almost completely from the scene.
The above facts about evangelicals call for something far more radical than a voter registration drive. They call for reformation or judgment. “The time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). It is high time that we wake up and see the seriousness of the situation. Political activism in the name of the Christian Church has dire consequences. It salves the evangelical conscience thereby inhibiting much-needed self-examination and it diverts resources and energy away from the legitimate work of churches which includes seeking genuine renewal.
It is as if a huge tree of moral evil has grown up in our society. Its imposing branches spread wider while reaching higher, blotting out the sun and killing everything under its canopy. It contains the branch of abortion; the branch of sexual immorality; and the branch of governmental corruption, among others. The religious right, determined to fight against the spread of these evils, go to great expense of time, energy and money to construct a ladder and lean it against the tree. With steadfast determination and at tremendous risk and cost they climb the ladder and begin, as they are able, to saw and hack at some of the more offensive branches. Every once in a while a small limb falls and the “victory” is celebrated with fervor. All the while the roots are growing deeper and stronger. At the bottom, holding the ladder steady, is the devil, very content to let evangelicals trim a few branches as long as the tree itself continues to grow.
It is time for evangelical churches to get off the ladder of political activism and to begin engaging in real spiritual warfare by laying the ax to the root of the tree. In other words, it is high time that churches start laboring for reformation and revival. For if God does not send a powerful work of doctrinal and spiritual renewal, it will not matter which candidates get elected and which laws get passed, our society will collapse under the weight of its own moral refuse.
It is important that we seek both reformation and revival. The former is what takes place when biblical truth is recovered and leads to the purification of theology. As Tom Nettles has noted, “It involves a rediscovery of the Bible as the judge and guide of all thought and action; corrects errors in interpretation; gives precision, coherence and courage to doctrinal confession; and gives form and energy to the corporate worship of the triune God.” When Josiah rediscovered the Book of the Law he led Judah to remove what was unbiblical (Asherah and Baal worship) and to reinstitute what was biblical (worship based on God’s Word, the Passover, etc.). When Martin Luther rediscovered the Word of God he followed the same pattern. He began to teach against unbiblical beliefs and practices (salvation by merit, free will, indulgences, etc.) and began to proclaim long-forgotten biblical truths (salvation by grace alone; justification by faith alone; priesthood of all believers, etc.). The result was a reformation which changed the whole course of western civilization.
Revival is a powerful, sovereign work of God’s Spirit that rapidly expands His kingdom and revitalizes His church. It is, as Nettles has written, the “application of Reformation truth to human experience.” Churches, cities, regions, and even whole nations can be quickly changed when God sends revival. Christians are given fresh zeal and spiritual power. Unbelievers are quickly brought to salvation. There is an intense hunger for the Word of God. During seasons of revival more spiritual work can be accomplished in a day than could otherwise take place in fifty years.
This is seen in both Scripture and history. The whole New Testament is in one sense a revival document. The book of Acts in particular records the work of revival that began with Pentecost. Thousands were converted in a short period of time. New believers grew rapidly in the faith. Churches were planted throughout the Roman Empire. Whole cities were transformed. In short, God worked fast.
The American heritage has been shaped by revival. The founding generation of this nation was still living off of the spiritual capital of The First Great Awakening in the 1730s-1740s. As that revival’s influence began to wane the Second Great Awakening brought new life to churches from the closing years of the eighteenth century to the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Once again society was impacted as numerous humane and educational societies came into existence. The western frontier saw whole regions transformed under the power of godliness. Many Universities were changed from places of skepticism to havens for enlivened Christianity. After this the mid-century Prayer Revival of 1858-59 deeply affected the business communities of the nation in places like New York and Boston. The Civil War, with all of its sorrows, was also marked by powerful revivals among both northern and southern forces.
The twentieth century opened riding the crest of these waves of revival. The Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, if it was a genuine revival at all, was short-lived and centered upon experience instead of God’s Word. Now we find ourselves coming to the close of this century having outlived the influence of those earlier powerful movements of God’s Spirit. The spiritual capital which these revivals placed in our cultural bank account has long since run out. And contemporary churches are themselves so spiritually impoverished that they have nothing to contribute and are consequently making little if any real difference in the world.
Our only hope is reformation and revival. But as long as evangelical churches continue to put hope in political activism there will be little incentive or energy to give ourselves to seeking genuine spiritual and doctrinal renewal. If, however, the tree of moral evil is to fall, we must quit hacking at branches and start doing the hard, painful work of laying the ax to the root. We must begin earnestly seeking God, pleading with Him to revive His work in our generation as we recommit ourselves to preaching the gospel to everyone we can reach. Though revival is a sovereign work and only God can send it, we are nevertheless responsible to heed His Word in doing what we can to seek it. Two important aspects of this responsibility loom large and are particularly needed.
First, individual churches–including Calvinistic churches–must try to see themselves as God sees them. How many of our local assemblies are afflicted with Laodicean self-deception? Jesus directly exposed this Asian church’s condition by comparing their evaluation with His own: “You say, `I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’–and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). By definition self-deception is hard to detect. The one who is guilty of it obviously does not know it. The only way to avoid this error is to look intently into the mirror of God’s Word–to believe His judgments more than our own. The truth about Laodicea was that they were not as well off as they thought. They were lukewarm and because of their condition Jesus was ready to vomit them out of His mouth.
How many congregations today are even willing to entertain the possibility that just maybe their glowing press reports are completely different from Christ’s evaluation of them? Where are the churches that have any concern that their Lord may be willing to vomit them out of His mouth? After Jesus forced the Laodicean church to face the truth about their desperate condition, He called them to repent and extended to them a gracious invitation. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). He offers to revive this self-deceived, lukewarm church if they will listen to Him and be willing to receive Him.
Such willingness involves the next area of responsibility which looms before evangelical churches. Any serious work for reformation and revival must include a renewed commitment to God’s ordained means for maintaining the life and health of a church. What instruments has God given for the work of a church? Basically, there are only two: the Word and prayer.
In many churches there is a crisis of unbelief in God’s Word. Many have unwittingly lost their confidence in the Bible even while arguing stridently for its authority. The Word of God has been supplanted for lesser authorities which have been imported from the modern world. Psychology, rather than Scripture, governs counseling and personal life; marketing strategies, instead of the Scriptures, guide evangelism; worship is built not on Scripture, but on entertainment; and fellowship is structured by sociology, not Scripture. If we would seek reformation and revival we must humble ourselves to hear God speaking to all of these areas of church-life. We must return to the conviction that the Bible is not only authoritative, it is sufficient. Biblical principles must be seen as regulating every aspect of life.
A return to the sufficiency of Scripture must be coupled with a return to prayer as a priority in the church. Many churches today have canceled the church-wide prayer meeting due to lack of interest. Others who continue to meet find that their gatherings are seldom marked by any felt-sense of the presence of God and very often the prayers sound like they came straight off the triage sheet of a hospital emergency room. If the ordinary prayer life is weak and ineffectual it is no wonder that there should be almost no concern for extraordinary prayer. Yet, if we are to seek a powerful movement of God in our day we must give ourselves to the flesh-crucifying work of prayer and fasting. We must pray as desperate people. We must learn to wrestle with God as did Jacob and refuse to let Him go until He blesses us with refreshing. Such prayer has always preceded revival. Whether it was that small band of men and women in the upper room before Pentecost (Acts 1:13-14), Andrew Fuller, William Carey and their few friends who met to pray specifically for revival every other month for 8 years before the Second Great Awakening, or Jeremiah Lamphier who, almost alone, began meeting to pray in 1857 before the Prayer Revival–every great renewing work of God in history follows this pattern. As Matthew Henry said, “When God intends great mercy for His people, the first thing He does is set them a praying.”
When reformation and revival come, they will come through the ministry of God’s Word and prayer! This is God’s way for His church to do His work in the world. Anything that would intrude on our commitment to these God-ordained means is a distraction and will ultimately keep us from seeking the only remedy which can cure our churches’ spiritual apathy and our nation’s moral decay.
Several months after Uzzah was killed David and the Israelites tried once again to bring the ark to Jerusalem. This time, however, they did not follow the example of the Philistines. This time they carefully followed the instructions of God’s Word. 1 Chronicles 15 tells how the Levites used poles to carry the ark on their shoulders, just as they had been instructed. Verse 26 says that “God helped the Levites who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD.” God’s work done God’s way invokes God’s help. Once the ark arrived in Jerusalem, joy, thanksgiving, and blessing filled the land. God’s power and grace were celebrated and proper service was rendered to Him faithfully. When God’s work is restored, God’s people are revived. Let us labor, then, to see His work–the work of proclaiming Christ’s gospel and fulfilling His commission–fully restored in our day.
May God cause us to “have done with lesser things” and to mourn our foolishness and desperate condition. May He forgive our unbelief and restore our confidence in His Word and in prayer. And may He send a mighty reformation and revival to our churches, our nation, and our world.