Given the state of our country, it is probably no surprise that reform and revival have been on my mind lately. I’ve been studying through a few Old Testament prophets and was reminded of the urgency of repentance, as well as how quickly God restores and forgives when we ask. His promise to Jeremiah is particularly encouraging: “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer. 18:7-8). It is never too late to turn back.
Being a Christ-follower in a fallen world means we are in a similar place to those Old Testament prophets, calling out to the lost and rebellious to turn and repent. That being the case, it behooves us to prayerfully consider how reformation happens, at least on the human end of things. I fear we may be handicapped by a mistaken blueprint of what true revival looks like and how it begins.
Any attempted reformation–whether of a nation or a marriage or anything in between–which sees itself first and foremost as a project to get other people to behave differently is almost certainly doomed to produce little but frustration and exhaustion. We must think of reformation less as a matter of reorganizing or clarifying and more like a kind of good virus. We need carriers, not captains.
When Jesus told his disciples to first remove the plank from their own eye before removing the speck from their neighbor’s, he wasn’t just offering a warning against hypocrisy. He was also teaching a very practical lesson about the necessary order of reform: first myself, then those around me. “But if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men” (Matt. 7:3-5, 5:13-20).
We do not need to be perfect before we can do any good. If that was the case, we might as well all lie down in despair! But the fact remains that the most practical, useful thing you can do to make the world a better place is to be righteous. And to try by God’s grace to be more righteous tomorrow. From the time of the disciples onward, Christ has spread his kingdom by sanctifying men and women and sending them out into the world–“blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). The funny thing about salt is that, as long as it is salty, it cannot help making everything around it saltier too.
You want reformation? Be righteous.
There are several practical reasons why personal holiness is an absolute prerequisite for national revival. First, God works through the prayers of His saints, but our sins undermine the effectiveness of our prayers. Jesus told His followers, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Peter warned men not to sin against their wives, “so that your prayers will not be hindered” (I Pet. 3:7). We should not imagine that God uses some sort of mystical ratio to parcel out answers to prayer in measure with our virtue, but the Bible is clear that persistent sin disrupts our prayer connection with our Father. How could it be otherwise?
Secondly, our own growth in sanctification “clears the decks” for effective witnessing. Remember, we are supposed to help our neighbor remove the speck from his eye; Jesus just knew that would be difficult unless our own vision was clear. When I talk with Christian groups about homosexual marriage and how we should respond, I always tell them that our present situation is the inevitable result of the blind eye that the American church turned to decades of rampant premarital sex, pornography, and adultery. What credibility do I have when I challenge my homosexual friend to restrain his lust for men if I am completely unwilling to restrain my own lust for women? Nothing wounds the testimony of the church more than a placid attitude toward our own sin.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a young, struggling church in one of the most famously pagan and libertine cities in the ancient world. Yet his letters are fairly matter-of-fact about the sins of the surrounding culture. We are to be in the world while calling men and women out of it, and it is hardly surprising that the world will be worldly. But Paul’s tone when addressing sin within the church is far harsher and more urgent, warning them, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven [sin] leavens the whole lump of dough?… Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:6,8). Sin outside the church is normal. Sin within the church is an existential threat, because it dishonors our God and undermines our mission to “go into all the world and make disciples.”
Asking God to sanctify us, and disciplining ourselves to the hard work of sanctification, is not the most obvious or appealing path to national revival. It is intimidating because it leaves results out of our own hands. If we put our hopes in some preacher or leader or program, we can envision the “how” of the hoped-for reformation that would result. In contrast, revival through prayer and personal holiness depends on the Holy Spirit’s quiet work in millions of hearts, one at a time and uncoordinated by human effort or knowledge. But isn’t that how God’s kingdom has grown for two thousand years?