Few, if any, in our generation have seen true extensive reformation, a theologically-driven, conscience-heightening, heart-expanding, church-altering, culture-challenging movement of God's Spirit. We can read about these merciful intrusions and investigate the lives of the ones used to bring in floods of light from eternity. Others who lived through or experienced the immediate impact of these blessings have left to us fresh impressions of the instrumentality used in such times. Horatius Bonar has left a succinct analysis that might be helpful in causing us to yearn to see, or be, such instruments in our day. Bonar calls us to consider the kind of men God has used in reformation. What weapons did they employ? What were their methods? We can be sure that if there is no reformation in the pulpit there will be no reformation in the pews. We ask, on the human side, whence comes their success? There are always men involved. There will be no life in a church where there is no life in the pulpit.
They are in Dead Earnest
First, Bonar observes, "They were in earnest about the great work of the ministry on which they had entered." There is always a dead seriousness about God's Word and God's Work. They sensed the greatness of the weight as "stewards of the mysteries of God." Churches that come alive always possess the gift of men who lived, labored and preached like men who were in earnest about eternity, and eternity-bound souls—men who were grave, that is, serious, men who had their eyes lifted to heaven. Everything they did and said was marked by earnestness; yet, as Bonar reminds us, their "fervour was not that of excitement." They were genuine and earnest men who knew that "necessity was laid upon them." They felt the urgency and weight of the cause of the gospel that was entrusted to them. They threw their "whole soul into the conflict." "They dared not take their ease or fold their arms; they dared not be indifferent to the issue when professing to lead on the hosts of the living God against the armies of the prince of darkness." In an age of conflict, some might seek to rest secure as reaping the spoils of political power from a doctrinally-driven denominational battle. If victory does not involve genuine humility and true spiritual earnestness, it is a Pyrrhic victory, worth less than nothing, yea even costly of spiritual life.
They are Determined to Succeed
The second thing that Bonar mentions as an element of true reformation is that its instruments are "bent upon success." When a man enters Christ's army, he must be bent on success; otherwise, he is a traitor to Christ and to His cause. I said, success, not statistics; there is a difference. There may be spiritual success with or without great statistics. If we would see our churches come alive, and stay alive, we must be warriors who have set our hearts on victory and fight with believing anticipation of victory under the guidance of our great Captain. Shepherds, Bonar observes, cannot sit "idle on the mountain side in the sunshine or the breeze, heedless of their straying, perishing, bleating flock." There must rather be a watching, guiding, guarding and feeding of the sheep committed to our care.
They were Men of Biblical Faith
Third, reformation in the church comes under the ministry of "men of faith." There must be plowing and sowing of the right kind of seed (the gospel of the grace of God), plowing and sowing in hope. The word of truth must be on their lips. There must be some going forth weeping, bearing precious seed, knowing that in due season there will be reaping if we faint not, knowing that our labour in the Lord is not in vain, knowing that we will return, bringing our sheaves with us. There must be some pleading with God for men and some pleading with men for God. Fix your eyes on God's promises and plead with the psalmist; "Remember thy word unto thy servant, whereunto thou hast caused me to hope" (Psalm 119:49). Reformation leaders "had confidence," Bonar insists, "in the Saviour whose commission they bore." They had confidence in the "Holy Spirit's almighty power and grace." So we must operate by faith in His power to take the wax of this world from the ears of poor, deaf sinners—faith in His power to open the eyes that are blinded by the dust of this world—faith in the power of the Word of God, that is, in the message, the gospel, knowing it will not return void (Isaiah 55:11). The gospel is "...the power of God unto salvation" (Romans 1:16). If we would see a church come alive we must be going forth with faith in the power of the gospel.
They were Men of Consistent Labor
Fourth, "They were men of labour." The ministry is infested with preachers who encumber the ground. There must be some bearing of the "burden and the heat of the day." There must be some "unwearied toil of body and soul" (time, strength, substance). This is what the New Testament and church history reveals. Bonar reminds us that the great apostle himself was "in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger, and thirst, in fasting often, in cold, and nakedness." No time for "levity, sloth, or pleasure." There must be a laboring for eternity. There are a lot of fruitless preachers who do not labor for eternity. Reformation men must have their backs to the world and their eyes on the goal. They must not entangle themselves with the affairs of this world, that they may please Him who has called them to be laborers in His vineyard.
They were Men of Patience
Fifth, "They were men of patience." Since this virtue assumes so much about the nature of gospel labor and Christian affection, I will spend a bit of time here; be patient. They had a willingness to "labor long without seeing all the fruit that they desired." Sow, sow, sow—day after day. Teach, teach, teach—week after week. To emulate them, we cannot be soon weary in well doing. We must keep that passage in mind that says, "Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (James 5:7-8, NKJV). "Many a good plan has been aborted by impatience," Bonar surmises; "many a day of toil has been thrown away by impatience." Men cannot force reformation, or force a church to life. Yes, there must be "intense longing for success," but much patience must be joined to that intense longing.
How many times does Christian history illustrate the truth of this observation? William Carey laboured seven years before he baptized his first convert. Adoniram Judson toiled in Burma seven years before he harvested one soul. Morrison sowed seven years in China before he baptized one Chinese. Moffet declared he waited seven years to see the first evident moving of the Spirit in Africa. Henry Richards spent seven long years in the Congo before he saw his first convert. What were they all doing for seven years? They were laying foundations, sowing heavenly seeds thinking of future generations. They were patiently laying a foundation.
We live in a church age where the foundations have been re-moved. God is interested in foundations and future generations. God began by laying a foundation. The psalmist said, "Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth" (Psalm 102:25). God said, through the evangelical prophet, "My hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth..." (Isaiah 48:13). When Solomon built the temple—where did he begin? The Bible answers that question. Solomon began where every true builder begins—laying a foundation. "And the King commanded and they brought great stones and hewed stones TO LAY THE FOUNDATION..." (1 Kings 5:17). How long did it take? "In the fourth year was the foundation of the house of the Lord laid..." (1 Kings 6:37). Four years! It takes patience to lay foundations! It was also a costly foundation. "And the foundation was of costly stones even great stones..." (I Kings 7:10). Notice, it says costly, and even a cursory glance at any reformation you will see that it costs to lay a foundation.
Most churches do not have enough doctrinal foundation for sound biblical evangelism. We live and labour in what I call pre-evangelistic days. True worship and true witness will be a certain and sure result of reformation. But laying a foundation is very, very costly. And concerning the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian captivity, Ezra shows it was costly in that it was through much tribulation and suffering that the foundation was laid and the temple built to the glory of the Lord. Yet they were enabled to sing and praise God for it! "And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord; because he is good, for his mercy endureth forever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy" (Ezra 3:11-12).
We live in a day of cheap, quick, slick and frothy foundations, and our churches are reaping the sad, pitiful, painful, pathetic results. Carnal men do not want to be in the foundation business. They are not concerned for future generations. The only men who are interested in a true foundation are those who have their eyes fixed on eternity. It is costly. It is painful. It is laborious. It is not showy. Who wants to see concrete poured in a footing? Hard, dirty work. I know, I was in construction for over twenty-five years.
The great apostle was a Master-Builder of churches. Where did he begin? "...as a wise Master-Builder I have laid the foundation..." A foundation on truth. And if you want to know how he did it, read the Book of Acts. It has the answer: prayer, preaching, teaching, tears. Missing in our generation are prayer and tears, the substantial outworking of genuine spiritual patience. Let us look at just one example as to how the great apostle did it. "Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews" (Acts 20:19). "Therefore, watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" (Acts 20:31). If there were more tears there would be less splits and more souls won. Paul wrote with tears. "For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you" (2 Corinthians 2:4). Hear him writing to the church at Philippi. "For many walk, of whom I have told you often and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ" (Philippians 3:18).
We have so many facilities. We have comfort, equipment, literature and church machinery; communications for promoting the gospel is at an all time high. If machinery and mechanics were a true measure, the church has never been better. But where are the Bible tears shed in laying foundations. Where are the Christ-like tears? Where are the tears of St. Paul? Where are men who are laying foundations with tears? Oh, may God deliver us from being like the church at Laodicea that said of herself: "I am rich and have gotten riches and have need of nothing." But Jesus said of her, that she was wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. No substance. No foundation, just frothy, carnal superstructure.
Joel, the Old Testament prophet, who prophesied of the Holy Spirit's out-pouring at Pentecost (Joel 2), in the same chapter said, "Even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning...Rend your heart and not your garments, Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity." Let us try this kind of tears.
What am I talking about? Something that is produced in the soul rather than from physical pain. Tears that indicate distress of spirit, agony of a broken heart. I am talking about a disposition of heart, not necessarily drops of water rolling down your cheeks. The first time the word tears is found in the English Bible is 2 Kings 20:5. It is the occasion of God telling Hezekiah that he would die very soon. This drove him to prayer and tears. The king became so desperate that the attention of God was turned not only to his prayers, but to his tears. "I have seen thy tears" (2 Kings 20:5). If the law of first mention means anything here it may indicate that God does not come to our rescue until He sees our tears—that distress of spirit, that agony of a broken heart. Paul's teaching was watered with tears. Jeremiah knew something about tears. "A voice was heard on the desolate heights, weeping and supplications of the children of Israel; for they have perverted their way, and they have forgotten the Lord their God. Return, you backsliding children, and I will hear your backslidings" (Jeremiah 3:21–22, NKJV). "Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" (Jeremiah 9:1, NKJV). "Let them make haste and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears, and our eyelids gush with water" (Jeremiah 9:18, NKJV). "But if you will not hear it, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord's flock has been taken captive" (Jeremiah 13:17, NKJV).
Jesus wept over a lost city. He, more than any, incarnates the patience that is costly of personal tears. In Luke 19:41–42 we see the Redeemer's tears. "And when He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes." What do we see in this passage? We see the Redeemer's deep interest in the state of man. We see the Savior's compassion to the chief of sinners.
Reformation of a church requires patience both in foundation-work and demolition-work. That involves prayer, preaching, teaching and tears. These four things together, the hallmarks of patience, eventually turn to reformation.
They were Men of Strong Doctrine
Sixth, clear and convicting doctrine about man's sin and God's prerogatives of mercy characterize times of reformation. Many professing Christians will take offense. You will also see some dust from the exodus. It is painful to see people leave the church, but some will leave. In genuine reformation of a church three things will always happen; some will leave, some will want to get rid of the preacher, and thank God, some will get right with God. There will be results—not always saving results. In John 6 Jesus preached the crowd away—there were results!
Study Paul's epistles and you will find he laid a doctrinal foundation. I believe we are in a reformation period of history where many will be called upon by God to do some Pauline evangelism and lay some Pauline foundations. In many cases the foundations that he as a wise master-builder set have been removed [1 Corinthians 3:10]. Many large churches have meager doctrinal foundations. If a church is to be reformed and come alive with persevering pursuit of the glory of God, there must be a doctrinal foundation of a full exposition of the person and work of the Lord Jesus and the character of His gracious salvation. This principle is easily discerned in Paul's letters to the Romans, the Galatians and the Ephesians.
How justly we rejoice that the conservative cause is looking up; a conservative reassertion of biblical inspiration, however, forms only a threshold for a room that has to be furnished fully. Biblical inerrancy is fundamental, but is only one part of the doctrinal foundation; we must continue to Bible doctrine-Baptist doctrine—the doctrines of our Southern Baptist fathers. This gives peculiar relevance to Bonar's wording of this observation that "They were men whose doctrines were of the most decided kind, both as respects law and gospel." He spoke of a "breadth and power about their preaching—a glow and energy about their words and thoughts", that demonstrates they were "men of might." Captured by truth and by the urgency of biblical issues, "their trumpet gave no feeble nor uncertain sound, either to saint or sinner, either to the church or the world." In loving God and reaching for souls, "They lifted up their voices, and spared not. There was no flinching, no flattering, or prophesying of smooth things."
These words come as encouragement to the wise and courageous and with deepest gratitude for the doctrinal progress already made. Nor does this reminder imply that only an ignominious few are pursuing this goal. I know, and find joy in the knowledge, that the following admonitions already ring true in the ministry procedure and goals of many. I only remind us all of a serious stewardship bequeathed to us. These doctrines were true in the days of J. P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly, W. B. Johnson (the first president of the Convention), R. B. C. Howell (second president), Richard Fuller (third president), John L. Dagg (the first Southern Baptist writing theologian) and B. H. Carroll. These men stood on a doctrinal foundation. The Bible has not changed. The God of the Bible has not changed. If their doctrine was true in their day, it is, therefore, still true today because neither God nor the Bible has changed. Again, we rejoice in the conservative victories but I want to assure you that even if conservatives had a complete takeover—if we do not get on the biblical, doctrinal foundation of our Fathers, in 30 years we will be right back where we are today.
Question! What good is an infallible Bible if its doctrinal content is ignored, or disregarded? Yes, and often perverted. It is not just a book with a black cover—what does it say? What does it mean and how does it apply to life and death? It is the content of the Bible—what does it say about God? About His law? His Son? About man and his condition? What does it say about God's infallible, immutable plan of redemption? Read Dr. Nettles' book By His Grace and For His Glory, for an honest history of Baptist life and Baptist doctrine. (Someone asked me what I thought about it. I said, well I bought 2000 copies—that should answer your question.)
The superficial man will think only of the big show. He is not too concerned how it comes about. He is only concerned with the super-structure. His concern is: Does it work? Not, Is it true? And back of that, often hidden and muffled, but none the less sinister, is not so much the concern for results as concern for the result of results, that is, the results that accrue to the man.
God is concerned about foundations and future generations. To underscore the importance of future generations let me direct your attention to the psalms: "We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generations to come might know them, even, the children which would be born; who should arise and declare them to their children" (Psalm 78:4-6). "One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts" (Psalm 145:4). This will be a test for many men right now. It will cost! It cost the apostles and early Christians. It cost the Reformers and Puritans. It cost some who had to separate from apostasy. It is costing some of you right now!
They were Men of Boldness and Determination
That cost makes peculiarly appropriate a seventh essential in reforming a church according to Bonar's observation: "They were men of boldness and determination." "Timidity shuts many a door of usefulness and loses many a precious opportunity," he reminds us; "It wins no friends, while it strengthens every enemy." Perhaps there never was an age where wickedness assumed a bolder front and attitude. Christian boldness and courage, therefore, is more required in reforming a church. Men must be "strong and of good courage" (Acts 4:13, 29, 31). Whitefield, when the Vicar closed the church door, preached in the church yard. "Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest" (Joshua 1:9) They must be "steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord" (I Corinthians 15:58). This has been one of the greatest secrets of ministerial success.
They were Men of Prayer
Eighth, another essential according to Bonar, "They were men of prayer." Many labor much—study much—but they do not pray. We often hear requests to "Pray for the work." Oh, my friend, I am convinced prayer IS the work! We all agree what we need is the work of the Spirit. Well, how does that come about? Jesus tells us: "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" (Luke 11:13). This is the answer. The best prayers are pleading for the promises of God. Well, Luke 11:13 is a promise.
They were Men of Spiritual Sobriety
Finally, Bonar notices that they were men of solemn deportment and deep spirituality of soul. Where churches have been reformed these are prevailing traits. The man God uses must fight against laziness, looseness, levity and lethargy. "No frivolity, no flippancy, no gaiety, no worldly conviviality or companionships neutralised their public preaching," Bonar noted, "or marred the work they were seeking to accomplish."
How is a church reformed—revived? How do churches come alive? Always with human instruments who are dead serious about the work of God and the Word of God. Men who are bent on success. Men who plow and sow in faith, hope and love. Men who labor and bear the burden and the heat of the day. Men who have much patience—who wait for the precious fruit of the earth and have long patience. Men who lay solid foundations for future generations with an eye fixed on eternity. Men with some Holy Ghost boldness and determination. Men of prayer. Prayer is work—fervent prayer. Men of solemn deportment—no frivolity, no gaiety, sober minded men.
Do you want to know what it looks like in the making? You will see a faithful minister of Christ, surrounded by a small band of praying ones, leading in the battle against the power of darkness. You will see no pomp, no display, no carnal attractions. You will see not a platform artist, a master gimmick maker, or a manipulator of crowds. These things sure make a show but they will not bring a church alive. Oh, for some men with a deep yearning for God and for souls. John Knox, in his old age, was helped into the pulpit by friends, but when he arose to preach, the Spirit of God's love burned in his heart in such a fashion that an attendant said, "So mighty was he in his yearning that I thought he would break the pulpit in bits."
Doctrinal issues already have been mentioned, but at this point, a seeker of reformation must COUNT THE COST OF TRUE REFORMATION. It is the duty of all true men to labor and pray for reformation, and the privilege to hope for and expect reformation. It falls peculiarly to the lot of the God-called preacher, however, to bear the coldness, rejection and hostility engendered often through the public proclamation of truth to a carnal and unappreciative auditory. Some evidence shows that reformation has already begun. It is going on right now, but not on beds of ease in front of applauding audiences. If men in every reformation were abused, misunderstood, misrepresented, reviled, persecuted, ostracized and excommunicated from organized religion, suffered mental and physical agony, and many times death, how can we expect to see reformation without cost (Luke, chapters 9 and 14)?
What will it cost young pastors? Admittedly, sometimes a price is paid for unwise, unloving, arrogant, destructive attitudes and decisions. But even where love, patience and deference prevail, truth is its own hammer and has a shattering effect on the rock of human egocentricity. Speaking the truth in love, therefore, often comes at a high price.
What has experience proved along this line?
But along with these and other costs there comes the joy of a conscience void of offence before God and man. What is that worth?