Illustration: Luther and the text of his Ninety-Five Theses
Where are the Reformers Today?
Some of the most life-changing events in the history of the church have come about due to a stand being taken by one man at a critical juncture. In this year, 2017, we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31st October 1517, an event which lit the fires of the Protestant Reformation. Later the Reformer was summoned to the Diet at Worms, where, on 18th April 1521, he declared: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against my conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.” The Edict of Worms, dated 8th May 1521, declared Luther an ‘outlaw’, together with his adherents. That is the kind of difference that one man can make!
It is interesting to speculate what the church would be like today if Luther had been prone to compromise. The pressure was heavy on him to tone down his teaching and soften his message. Sometimes division is fitting, even healthy, for the church. It is right for the true people of God to declare themselves. Compromise is sometimes a worse evil than division. What an encouragement it would be to see more ministers taking a stand. It is not often nowadays that a man steps out of line. It was so recently with Rev Gavin Ashenden, a senior clergyman of the Church of England and Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen, who made a public stand against the reading of the Koran in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow on 7th January 2017. He resigned from his duties and left the Church of England. Douglas Murray, author and analyst, wrote on the Gatestone Institute website: “Very occasionally – even in contemporary Britain – some good news arrives. No single piece of news has been more invigorating than the discovery that a member of the Church of England has found a vertebra.”
Leadership in history
There are other examples in history of God using men to break the slumber of the church. We had Athanasius (c.296-373) standing against the Arian heresy and almost single-handedly preserving the integrity of the Christian faith. We recall the heroic stand of Jan Hus (1373-1415), fighting against such great odds, and at the base of the fine statue of him in Prague today we read, “Great is the truth, and it prevails”. There is John Calvin (1509-1564), “the creator of the Protestant Church” as B B Warfield describes him, contending against the Libertines in Geneva and achieving for the church freedom from the state in ecclesiastical disciplinary matters. William Tyndale (1494-1536) was hounded to his death “simply because he wanted to reform the church, to restore the gospel, and especially to give the people of England the Bible”. John Knox (1514-1572) was raised up to blow his Master’s trumpet and to rid the Church in Scotland of Roman superstition and idolatry.
George Whitefield (1714-1770), ‘the Revived Puritan’, burst in upon a dead church and a decadent London and saved England from a disaster akin to the French Revolution. C H Spurgeon (1834-1892) stood firm against the rising tide of unbelief in an age of decline, and suffered scorn and ridicule against his person. J Gresham Machen (1881-1937), challenging the growing infidelity of Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church in America, was suspended from the ministry and forbidden to defend himself. Dr D M Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) called the decadent church of the mid-twentieth century back to a God-centred outlook. Time would fail us to tell of others. They were men of one mind – seeking to advance the glory of God and to maintain His truth. They dared to stand alone. They nailed their colours to the mast. They were men on fire and so they were instrumental in lighting others. “Your zeal hath provoked very many” (2 Cor 9:2).
Leadership in Scripture
In Scripture we find similar examples of bold faith and courage. Gideon is raised up to deliver Israel from the Midianites. The real problem then was disobedience in Israel. Gideon had to throw down the altar of Baal. “But the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon” (Judg. 6:34). It means literally that the Spirit of the Lord ‘put on’ Gideon. It is the Spirit who comes to deliver through a man. We see Elijah the Tishbite, coming from relative obscurity, heralding the Word of the God, “before whom I stand”, to confront Ahab and the nation that was steeped in idolatry. Baal worship must be cast out. The prophet “repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down”, and prayed “let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel”. The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice. That day the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal were killed (1 Kings 17:18). Time and again in the history of Israel God raised up a prophet to arouse the people and call them back to obedience. Even after his people had been chastened by their years of captivity in Babylon and had returned to Jerusalem, God raised up Haggai and Zechariah to call them to “Consider your ways” (Hag. 1:5), and the people “obeyed the voice of the Lord their God”. In the Book of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3, Christ comes, through a revelation to his servant John, to trumpet his displeasure with the evils tolerated in some of the Seven Churches of Asia, and to call members of the congregations to repentance.
The Urgent Need Today
It is generally acknowledged that Western civilisation will collapse without a Christian revival. We are in the midst of a rapid spiritual and moral decline. The change that has come about in the last quarter of a century is staggering. We have seen the dismantling of the Judaeo-Christian heritage that underpins our society in Britain and the West. Our liberal elite are ready to give toleration to Muslims, Hindus and other false religions. We have gone beyond mere toleration. Islam is protected against criticism, while Christianity is exposed with impunity to insult and ridicule. The BBC editorial policy bans criticism of the Koran, but not the Bible. We find local authorities removing Christian symbols from buildings or suggesting that schools should not celebrate Christian festivals, lest this give offence to members of other religions. Gideon bibles have been removed from students’ rooms in universities, for it is considered wrong to favour one faith above others. Our inherited Christian culture is being pushed to the sidelines. If there is not a change we face a holocaust. What do we do in a post-Christian secularized culture?
There is no doubt that Western civilisation needs to rise up against the forces that oppose it. The question is: Where is the body with the moral fibre to undertake that fight? It should be the role of the Christian church, which is rightly designated as the ‘church militant’. Without the leadership of the church the nation cannot recover from its present descent into cultural degeneration and the neo-paganism that is its inevitable accompaniment. But is the church in the West in any condition to engage in such a warfare? She is in a weakened state. It has been said, “The supreme duty of the Church is to see that she offends not her God and her Saviour.” It is obvious that as a church and as a nation we have offended God. He has turned His countenance away from us. What the church needs to recover above everything else is the divine favour.
Spirit Anointed Leadership
How did the people of God gain the victory in former times? In Psalm 44 we are reminded that, “They got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them: but thy right hand and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou hadst a favour unto them.” (v3) The Psalmist goes on to describe their present state: “But thou has cast us off and put us to shame; and goest not forth with our armies.” (v9). In such circumstances such as the visitation of chastisements and the hiding of God’s face, the way back must be by humbling ourselves, by confessing our sins and by repentance. We can advocate these things, but the trouble is that we are presently in a kind of deadlock and need a breakthrough.
It is in this situation that the church urgently needs God-appointed and ‘Spirit-anointed’ leadership. Many churches today are obsessed with programmes, strategies and schemes. No true church reformer of past generations announced a programme. Certainly not Luther. When Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg he did not realise he was preparing the way for the Reformation. In his own eyes he was being faithful to the Word of God and openly attacking error. It is sadly true that the church, in a state of backsliding and under judgment, is often fast asleep and it needs just one voice to break that slumber. We need those like the men of Issachar, who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron 12:32). We need men to ‘sound an alarm’. We need men to stand up and be counted. The church needs to hear the voice of God and be aroused from its present slumber. We need reformers.
When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of the dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith. – Abraham Kuyper