500 years of Reformation, and now?

Message given on April, 5th, 2017
Copyright 2017 by Thomas A. Bloomer

We are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran reformation, and although many people around the world are praying for a new reformation, many of them don’t really know what they are praying for. What does something that happened 500 years ago have to do with us today?

We as missionaries should study what happened during the reformation, especially in Geneva, as it was the deepest and most rapid case of nation transformation in the history of missions. It is not an easy thing to transform a nation, but that team of Frenchmen did it. They weren’t perfect. They got a lot of things wrong, but they did far more than any other group of people has done since them in 500 years!

Reformation or Revival?

So what is reformation? In simple terms, “It is when a nation is transformed in one generation, with new institutions, new laws, and a new worldview.” A reformation is very different from a revival. In a revival, there should also be the beginning of a nation’s transformation. But most of the time, as seen in history, the revival has affected the Church deeply but not the entire nation.

One of our first speakers in our early schools was Duncan Campbell. He had been in the Hebrides revival in Scotland, where they would go to a certain valley there and hear choirs of angels singing. And the church was open every night. Both the non-Christians and the Christians walking to the church would fall on the side of the road under the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit and under conviction of sin.

Many of you have heard about the revival in Wales around 100 years ago. In that revival they taught restitution; in other words, if you had stolen anything you had to pay back that person. There were a powerful series of revivals with Charles Finney in America in the 19th century, one of the most powerful being in Rochester, NY. They say that after that revival, the prisons just emptied over a period of years because there was no new crime. The bars shut down, because no one went drinking anymore. Until very recently Rochester has been known as the most generous city in America, the highest ratio of giving to the population.

So a revival can go very deep. One definition of a revival is that Christians “get on fire with God” and the unbelievers come around to watch them burn. But in a revival there is usually deep conviction of sin and confession. Some revivals have given birth to charitable institutions like hospitals and orphanages. But the laws and political institutions remain relatively untouched, and the revival usually lasts only one generation.

A Snapshot in Scripture

In the 18th year of King Josiah’s reign (2 Kings chap. 22 to 23), he was about 26 years old. He guessed somehow that the money that was supposed to be going to repair the temple was not going there. So he took charge and ordered the financing and general repair of all the temple buildings. In cleaning up the temple they found the book of the law in the House of God. Most people believe that this was the first five books of Moses and of the Bible (the Pentateuch) that they had found. When the king ordered that the scroll be read to him, he went into mourning and tore his clothes, because he realized that they weren’t living according to the law of God. The Lord pronounced judgment on the nation but promised to spare Josiah because of his righteousness. At that point Josiah started tearing down the idols all over the place, bringing a purification of idolatry in the nation. Josiah also reinstituted the Passover.

Josiah’s work was largely limited to what we would call it today the sphere of religion. There was no reformation of the business sector, of buying and selling. There was no mention of help for the poor or the orphans. It was a powerful moment in the history of Israel, but like many of these moments, they lasted for the lifetime of that one king. Better examples of what we are talking about are found in the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra rebuilt the temple. It was smaller than the first one, not nearly as glorious, but he rebuilt it. Nehemiah came along a bit later and he rebuilt the city. Many people see this as two stages of what the Lord does in a nation. First he has to rebuild and purify the Church, reestablishing worship at its center and cleaning out corruption. But the second phase, the one we haven’t seen enough, is when the nation itself is rebuilt.

The Moravians and Calvin

In the past there has been a noble attempt in Geneva to bring every single area of life under the Lordship of Christ; to take only the Word of God as the authority, not just for the Church, but for the nation. Today the Lord is leading many churches out into their communities. It is not just worship and intercession that will bring reformation. These can bring revival — in the revival that happened in Geneva in the early 19th century, there were generations of prayer before that revival broke out. There was one English lady who came to Lausanne and prayed for Geneva for decades. The Moravians sent teams to Geneva for three generations to pray for revival. But Calvin was not satisfied to work just with the Church; he wanted to start with the Church. In starting with the Church he started with seeking a personal encounter with God for every individual in the city. And there was a total reformation of the Church.

Calvin and his team believed that they had discovered the exact New Testament pattern for the Church. Most of us don’t think that means black robes and funny caps, but that’s what they came up with in Geneva. Calvin had lived under a very unjust king and judicial system, and nobody, especially the Church, was interested if, for example, the poor even had enough to eat. The Church worked with the king and other nobles to institutionalize injustice, and thousands of Calvin’s friends had been put to death.

This seems to happen most severely in systems of centralized power, where more and more power goes to one person or one family. This creates a spiritual structure where evil powers can take over. During his student years in Paris, Calvin would have thought about this. How should people live? If we could start over with just the Word, and rebuild everything on the principles of the Word, what could that look like? What if we could take care of the refuges and the poor? The unemployed? What if we could educate every child? Even the women? What if we got the Bible into the language of the people and taught everyone from the Bible how to live? How should families function, what are the responsibilities of the fathers and mothers? What if we could get jobs for everyone and/or start businesses in their homes if they didn’t have a profession? What would a just government look like?

Calvin had to run for his life. But because the French king and his forces were trying to kill him and all the Frenchmen who joined him in Geneva, Calvin had the advantage of not just studying theology and being educated in law. He also experienced living under an unjust government, so he knew what didn’t work.

So then in Geneva the Lord led Calvin into a vacuum. The political leadership had crumbled, most of the Church and economic leadership were gone, and the city had no defense against the Duke of Savoy. People were desperate for change, and that’s when revival happened. (Just about every revival we know of in history has come into a nation where there is a huge felt need for change.)

Calvin came up with the system of diffused power. The power was not going to be concentrated in one family or in a few families. In most of the nations of the world today power is concentrated in a few hundred families. They call this the elite. They work very hard to keep the privileges and wealth for themselves and to not allow the rest of the people to share it. This is what we have in America. We have a small elite taking literally 100 of billions of dollars for themselves, with no concern that people do not have enough money to buy food for their families.

The point is that Calvin and his team had studied not just theology but each of the areas of society very deeply. Calvin had studied law. Viret, the only Swiss man in the team, was a pastor in Lausanne and had also studied education. He wrote massive books of biblical theology of education which are being reprinted now after several centuries of being unavailable. Viret was also a man of prayer. They had done their homework — years of intense study — to prepare them to bring a message to the nations on how to live. For example, they told the bankers that they cannot charge so much interest because that will keep a country poor. And they said that what they need to value are the family, education and hard work.

These principles which Calvin and Viret taught the bankers to do during the Geneva reformation are the same principles that the World Bank is teaching to the world today. But Calvin was the first one to come up with the system and to write it down. Calvin developed a lot of his thinking through the theology of the importance of each individual. Until the 16th century Europe was a group oriented society. Every important decision was taken by the group. The individual had no authority, and very little value, especially women. But the feminists of Europe look to Calvin as the one who first started recognising that women were no less important than men.

Calvin’s theology of the importance of each individual being created in the very image and likeness of God was at the basis of his educational system. Everyone needs to know how to read the Bible for themselves. It was the basis of his theology of the Church; there are no priests because every believer is a priest. It was at the root of his thinking about democracy. He gave us democracy out of the French reformation — that every well-educated citizen, including the women, should be able to share in decisions concerning the nation.

The Next Step

We have now gone too far in the direction of individualism. Our next step is to rediscover what true community means. One of the main social problems we have is isolation. Loneliness. Many people consider that Paris is the city of love, but it has the highest percentage of people living alone than any other city. We need to rediscover in our Christian groups what community can be. I think this is why the Lord has given us teams and bases in YWAM. To figure out how communities work. To figure out what can destroy them, to figure out how we can do things better. We have learnt some things, but on the whole, we are still at DTS level in terms of developing our communities. There is a lot that the Lord wants to teach us about community. I just read a book recently called, “Community of Forgiveness”. It is a powerful book. The author realized that many of us have a shallow understanding of forgiveness. As a result, we don’t dwell in the forgiveness of God and we don’t live in forgiveness with our brothers and sisters either. In many, many churches their biggest problem is gossip and division, both in Switzerland and in America, and I’ve heard about it in many other countries.

We need to figure out more ways to open up our communities to people who are seeking God. How can we do that better and do it wisely? Some of our YWAM works are doing these kinds of things in their towns. They are working with the young people, the children, the municipality, to make the town a better place to live, and there is tremendous openness to their message.

I think the Lord wants to do that a lot more, but this all has a price. You don’t transform a nation without laying your life down. If you are serious about doing that, you will be facing some evil powers head-on. Some of them have been in charge for a long time and they are not going to give up any territory without a struggle. They will counter attack. They will find any weakness, any opening in our lives, any cracks in our foundation, to blow us away.

I believe we are coming to a time when more of us are going to have to lay down our lives literally, like the Coptic Church in Egypt. The Easter bombing in two churches and the beheading of 21 of them in the Sinai was a wake-up call for them. Many Coptic Christians who hadn’t been going to church have started to go to church, and the churches are overfull. They’re declaring their forgiveness of the violent Muslims. And they’re declaring that they are ready to lay down their lives.

I visited the Museum of the Desert in Southern France. This church of committed believers that lived through the second wave of persecution in France at the end of the 17th century, went through unbelievable persecution by the other king of France. They sang all the Psalms, and one of the Psalms they sang was, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” For us this is a cheerful song, but at that time, if someone was caught pastoring that church in France, he was either immediately executed, or sent to row the king’s galleys, longships with huge oars used in the Mediterranean. The rowing is so difficult they died after a year or so. If the pastors were to be executed on the spot, they would go up the steps to be hanged singing, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The Protestants all around would start singing with them. Rejoicing! Even as they watched their pastor being hung. It was such a powerful testimony that the army wouldn’t let them sing it anymore. It shook up the soldiers that people could go to their death like this.

When we talk about a new reformation, we are not just talking about hard work, some serious study or some bible verses to learn about the area you want to work in. We are talking about mastering that professional area as well, so that you have something to say when the door opens. The Lord has said that if you are faithful in a little he will give you authority over ten cities. (And in one gospel he says, “I will give you authority over much.”) I know very few Christians who are preparing seriously to take authority over ten cities. Yet if we really believe what Jesus said, we would be studying things like water systems, waste treatment systems, urban composting, education and government. We would be studying how to do all that stuff, and we would be leading voices in each one of those fields. There are, of course, some who have that authority, but there needs to be more of us that take it seriously and know what it means to be a good neighbour.

We want to take seriously what Jesus said when he told us to pray that the will of God shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. We have prayed that all our lives, hundreds or thousands of times, but what are we praying for? What does it look like when things on earth start becoming more like they are in heaven, concretely? Does that mean we sing better? With instruments that are more cool? Well, maybe we do, but I think it means a lot more than that.

We honor the memory of the hundreds of thousands of committed believers who left their homes, left their houses and their lands, so they could have the freedom to worship the Lord, because He meant more to them than anything else. We know they are part of that great cloud of witnesses, who are looking down at us over the balcony of heaven and hoping that we will go further than they did. As the Lord leads us more and more into prayer for a new reformation, let us trust him to teach us what that means, what that costs. May we see some of the incredible blessings he wants to bring to our cities.

By Tom Bloomer
University of the Nation’s Emeritus Provost

French Version