For years now when asked what I thought to be the main task of the church – revival or reformation – I have always answered: ‘both’. I have said both are vitally important and we need not choose between the two. It is not an either/or situation but both/and.
We need personal and corporate revival in the churches, and we need to be salt and light in society. We are called to do both and we should do both. Yet if pressed, and asked, ‘Yes, but is one more of a priority to you?,’ I would have to respond as follows:
‘Yes, while I believe both tasks are imperative, I am more and more becoming convinced that it is a dead and carnal church that is in many ways the biggest problem, and our greatest enemy. Unless the church gets its act together, we can do little for the world.’
Indeed, for years now I have been saying, ‘The reason the world is in a mess is because the church is in a mess’. But I always continue, ‘And the reason the church is in a mess is because you and I are in a mess’. We must begin with ourselves.
It’s no use complaining about the pastor or the fellow next to you on the pew. What about myself? How messed up am I, and how am I impeding the work of the Kingdom? What sins in my life need to be dealt with? How many trivial pursuits do I need to renounce?
Judgment must always begin with ourselves. Many passages speak to this. For example, 1 Peter 4:17 says quite clearly: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
Ezekiel 9 speaks about Yahweh’s judgment on Israel, and verse 6 says, “Begin at my sanctuary.” The entire chapter is very important, and worth looking at in more detail. It needs to be read in context, namely the vision Ezekiel received and recorded in Ez 8:1-11:25.
In chapter 8 we learn of God’s harsh verdict on wayward Israel, with major sins specified. Iain Duguid comments: “In four brief scenes, then, Ezekiel has been shown the comprehensive nature of the sins of Jerusalem. . . . It includes idolatry imported from all sorts of surrounding nations (Canaan, Egypt, and Babylon) and involves all kinds of gods (male and female human figures, animal figures, and stellar bodies). This is a unified, universalised religion, the ultimate multifaith worship service. From the Lord’s perspective, however, the picture is one of abomination piled on abomination. ”
In chapter 9 we read of the fierce judgment which must befall Israel, beginning with the sanctuary. Judgment must always start with God’s own people. As Douglas Stuart remarks, “It was foolish enough that any people should worship idols and nature. But for Israelites, who had known the true God and had access to His truth via His gracious covenant with them, such practices were simply atrocious.”
He continues, “Yet it is a fact that knowing the truth does not prevent people from ignoring or abandoning it (cf. Rom. 1:21-22) to their detriment. People are capable of throwing away the only truth that could save them in favor of a lie that appeals to their tastes or habits.”
Israel rightly deserved its punishment. Yet even in judgment God shows mercy. All who have a mark on their foreheads will be spared judgment. The mark is the Hebrew letter taw, which like our letter ‘t’ is cross-shaped. It reminds the Israelites of how God passed over those homes in Egypt where blood was smeared on the door frames in the form of a cross (Ex. 12).
And of course it points ahead to the work of Christ on the cross, and how those who come to Christ are spared the judgment they rightly deserve.
Of interest is who is spared in Ezekiel’s vision. In verse four it says, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” Anyone familiar with the book of Amos will recognise what is going on here.
Yahweh says similar things in Amos 6 where woe is pronounced on those who “do not grieve over the ruin of” Israel. The Hebrew is strong here: those who are not sick in their stomach over the sin and decadence of Israel will be under God’s judgment.
In the same way Ezekiel warns that only those who are greatly bothered by the spiritual apostasy of Israel will be spared the judgment of God. The question is of course, do we have an equal concern for the condition of God’s church? Are we equally grieved and bothered by the sad state of Christendom today? Are we crying out to God to shake up a sleeping and carnal church?
Christopher Wright draws applications for today, noting the harsh wording used in Ezekiel 8, such as “detestable things” and divine “jealousy”: “It is important, though, to allow such words to stand up and hit us. They describe realities that we need to face as Christians – not in relation to the sinful world around us, but in relation to our own actions and attitudes. The sin of the world generates God’s grief and anger. It is the sin of God’s own people that produces God’s jealousy.
“When we profess loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ, to whose self-giving love we owe our salvation, but then live lives that are absorbed with the priorities and idolatries of the world around us, there is something detestable, ungrateful and treacherous about that.”
Sadly, perhaps most Christians today never even get around to reading the Old Testament, so they may be oblivious to such strong warnings. But a careful reading of the New Testament will find similar sorts of warnings. Says Wright,
“Paul warns Christians against the temptations of sexual sin and debauchery with much the same abhorrence as Ezekiel had for the depraved cult of Asherah. He also uses temple imagery to sharpen his point (1 Cor. 5; 6:12-20). And he is not afraid to affirm the threat of God’s jealousy (1 Cor. 10:22; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14 – 7:1). We need to heed such sobering warnings, especially in the midst of current moral laxness in Christian culture.”
Quite so. The world is going down the tubes fast. But so too is much of the church. We must begin to turn things around. A first step is to ask for God’s heart on all this. We must ask Him to break our hearts with what breaks His heart. Only when the church of Jesus Christ gets its act together can we expect to see powerful moves of God in the surrounding world.
So which is it: revival or reformation? I still think we need both, but I am convinced that without the former, the latter will simply not happen. As Leonard Ravenhill rightly remarked, “I am often asked to pray for the healing of the nation. No! I am praying for the healing of the Church. Then the healing of America, Britain and other nations will follow. As the Church goes, so goes the world!”