By Josh Wilson
We live in a time in which the church in this culture is in great need of reformation. In some churches, this need is seen in the spiritual malaise that settles upon congregations where members are content just to “play church” and disregard the scriptural command to exercise their spiritual gifts for the edification of the body and the advancement of the Gospel. In other churches, this need for reformation is seen in the wholesale abandonment of the local church by younger generations who walk away from “organized religion” for their own idolatrous brand of “spirituality.” Now more than ever the church in this culture needs reformation. But can a pastor, who is committed to reformation, come into to such churches and bring about reformation? A brief look at two reformations in the history of the Israel, one before the exile and one after, suggests that he cannot, but that is no reason for despair.
Israel’s Pre-exilic Reformation
Just prior to the exile, Israelite religion was nonexistent. The scriptures tell us that during the reign of Manasseh, the Israelites, led by their own king, did “more evil than the nations had done whom the LORD destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:9 – ESV). However, after the wicked reigns of Manasseh and his son Amon, the godly King Josiah rose up and brought reformation to the land of Judah. It was during Josiah’s reign that the lost and forgotten Law of the Lord was found again and read to him (2 Kings 22). In his hearing of the Law, King Josiah mourned and wept before the Lord and cried out to Him in prayer on behalf of himself and the people, and the Lord showed him mercy (2 Kings 22:19-20). Josiah then established the rule of the Law of the Lord and brought reformation to the land by putting an end to all the idolatrous worship practices of the people and by restoring Israelite religion to its proper place among them (2 Kings 23).
This reformation, however, like Josiah’s life, was short lived. After Josiah’s death, the people of Judah quickly rejected the Law of the Lord and returned to their idolatrous practices during the short reigns of Josiah’s own sons Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:31-32), Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:36-37), and Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:18-19). These sons of Josiah, as well as one grandson whose reign was brief, ruled Judah until God destroyed the nation by the hand of the Babylonians who then carried the people away into exile (2 Kings 25). Not even twenty years had passed, barely a generation, from the time of Josiah’s death to the time of the exile. So why did Josiah’s reformation fail and why did it fail so quickly? The prophetic books, like those of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, suggest that this reformation failed because it was merely external; it only changed the outward practices of Israelite religion and not the hearts of the people. This is why after Josiah’s premature death, the people so quickly and easily returned to their old, idolatrous practices. But why weren’t the hearts of the people also changed by Josiah’s reformation? The scriptures tell us that the hearts of the people weren’t changed because God had already determined that their hearts would remain dull until His judgment upon them was completed (Isaiah 6:9-13). Furthermore, it was because of the wicked reign of Manasseh that God declared that His plan for judgment upon His people would not be thwarted and that there would be no opportunity for pardon (2 Kings 23:24-27; 2 Kings 24:1-4). Josiah’s reformation failed because God, in His judgment, did not grant reformation to the hearts of His people.
Israel’s Post-exilic Reformation
Just after the exile, Israelite religion was in better shape than it was prior to the exile. However, the Israelites and their leaders still walked in disobedience to God. Their leaders exploited the people by overtaxing them to the point of debt enslavement (Ezra 5), and both the people and their leaders married foreign wives (Ezra 9:2). (The context of Ezra 7-10 suggests that these marriages to foreign wives were a violation of the Law of Moses, probably Deuteronomy 7:3-4, which would then imply that these marriages were to foreign wives who worshipped other gods and who bore children that also worshipped other gods.) However, men like Ezra and Nehemiah rose up and brought reformation back to the land of Israel. Under their leadership and prayers of repentance before the Lord (Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 1), the rule of Law of the Lord was once again established, and the sinful practices of the people were curtailed. A great revival also took place among the people where they hungered to hear the Word of God, they confessed their sins with mourning and weeping, they praised the faithfulness of their covenant God, and they made oaths to walk in obedience His Law (Nehemiah 8-10).
This reformation, unlike that of King Josiah, clearly was both external and internal. The hearts of these people were indeed turned back to the Lord. But why did the reformation of Ezra and Nehemiah succeed in changing the hearts of the people, but Josiah’s failed? Could it be that God’s judgement of destruction and exile had taught these exiles a lesson, and thus, their hearts were ready for reformation? Hardly! Before the exile and even before Josiah had reigned as King of Judah, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had also experience God’s judgement of destruction and exile by the hand of the Assyrians. Shortly after that judgment, King Hezekiah, King Manasseh’s father, had instituted his own reformation in the land of Judah. The king even sent messengers to the remnants of the northern Israelite tribes to encourage them to return to the Lord. However, rather than return, most of them scorned and mocked the messengers (2 Chronicles 30:10). Their own destruction and exile had clearly not prepared their hearts for reformation.
The reason the reformation of Ezra and Nehemiah brought reform to the hearts of the people was because God changed their hearts, and He had determined to do so long beforehand. Around a thousand years before this post-exilic reformation, God had declared in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 29-30) that after His people had been exiled, He would bring them back to their land and change their hearts. Deuteronomy 30:5-6 (ESV) states, “And the LORD your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” God also declared through the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 36), who was himself a Babylonian exile, that He would bring his people back to the land and change their hearts. Ezekiel 36:24-27 (ESV) states, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Thus, the reformation of Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded because God, in His mercy, granted reformation in the hearts of His people.
Now let’s come back to our main question, “Can a Pastor reform a church?” Again, the scriptures make it clear that he cannot because the reformation of a church is ultimately the reformation of the people, the reformation of their hearts. A reformation minded pastor does not have the ability to reform the hearts of God’s people. This should be a humbling truth to him. However, this is no reason for him to despair because the scriptures also make it clear that the reformation minded pastor serves the Living God who can and does reform the hearts of His people. Thus, the reformation of a church is God’s work, not the pastor’s. So what a pastor can and should then do is establish the rule of God’s Word among God’s people through preaching, and through prayer, he should cry out to God to grant reformation to His church. Now given the state of many churches today, God’s intent may be to bring judgment upon a church rather than reformation. However, the reformation minded pastor can take comfort in the knowledge that his prayers to the Lord will be heard (1 John 5:14-15) and he will be rewarded for his faithfulness (1 Peter 5:4) whether God sends judgment or grants reformation to his church. And ultimately, the pastor should take comfort in the knowledge that God will indeed fully and completely cleanse and restore His church, His bride, to Himself in the Age to Come (Revelation 19:6-9).
Josh Wilson is a professor of Bible at Missouri Baptist University and pastor of First Baptist Church in Park Hills, MO. He is a part of the leadership team of Founders Midwest and is an occasional speaker at the annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference Midwest. If you would like to attend the Southern Baptist Founders Conference Midwest, be sure to check out our Facebook page or visit our website for more information.