How Not Reform a Church
How Not to Reform a Church
Pastor Jim Savastio
Good afternoon. Good to see you all. For those of you who don’t know, I am not Gordon Taylor, so if you came anxious to hear Gordon, you still have time to get over and hear our brother Steve Weaver in the other room. But I am going to take up the subject that was assigned to Gordon, and that is I want to deal this more positively, not really “how not to reform a church” but more in line of how to go about that work of reformation. I’m going to say just a couple of things, read a passage of Scripture, and then pray and then get into the material.
I’ve been involved in ministry since 1979 and have been a part of a reforming church. My home church in Ballston Lake, New York, was in some ways a typical Southern Baptist church. It had a lot of the trappings of a traditional, conservative Southern Baptist church at that time. In some ways, it was not typical. We had a very strong expository ministry of the Word and a very serious-minded pastor who was committed to the long haul at that particular church.
In the early 1980s he began to preach through the book of Ephesians, and because he was an expositor of the Word, he went through and unashamedly handled the text as it is given there. And so that meant that as he came to chapter 1 of Ephesians, he began to speak about some of the doctrines of predestination and election, and that began some rumblings in the church. Then some months later he became acquainted with a group of Reformed Baptist men and became acquainted with confessional Christianity. That process meant that there were going to be certain changes that were going to take place in the life of the church. There began to be a re-examination of every aspect of church life and bringing every aspect of church life under the scrutiny of God’s Word. So a passage like Isaiah 8:20, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them,” became one of those foundational truths in the life of that particular church together. So I watched some of this from afar and some of it there with the church hands on, as that church went through the process of reformation.
In 1990 I began to be involved in a church plant in Louisville, Kentucky. There was a group of ten people that were committed, best they knew, to a historic and confessional Baptist church being planted in the area, and if you know the landscape of Louisville at all, this is years before Dr. Mohler came. It was some years before the turnaround at Southern Seminary. Southern Seminary was a fairly to moderate liberal seminary at that time, and that had affected and infected the churches of Louisville. I’m thankful that there has been an ongoing reformation of many churches or what some of the brethren call a revitalization of older churches, younger men coming into older churches and striving to, line upon line, precept upon precept, present the truths of reformation and to bring the church along, much more in lines with what the Word of God had taught. There were practices that had been brought about and done, in some cases, for generations. There were merely traditions of men. They were not rooted in Scripture, and so there was a desire to evaluate those things in the light of the Word of God.
I have been involved, as I say, in ministry for some thirty-six years or so. I’ve been a part of several churches and been a part of the process of reformation and revitalization. I’m also working quite intimately with a number of pastors and churches in Louisville who are going through that process again, although I myself in my primary ministry in Louisville over the last twenty-five years. I came in as a church planter where people were not having to deal with putting away things so much as it was “teach us from God’s Word, open up the truth to us, show us where these things are in the Bible, and we’ll follow.” And I think that’s the heart that we want to try to represent.
If you have your Bibles, I’m going to invite you to turn with me to the book of 2 Kings 18, and this may seem like a strange section of the Scripture to talk about church reformation. Yet, I do believe that we have here the kind of heart and the kind of pattern that we need to seek if we are going to be involved in reforming the churches according to the Word of God. What I want to do is look at some truths in the life of Hezekiah. We read in verse 1:
Now it came about in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem; and his mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. He did right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; he prospered wherever he went. And he rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. (vv. 1–7)
Well, let’s pray and ask God’s help as we consider these truths this afternoon.
Our Father, we do thank You for some time that we have to study Your Word and to study its application for us as pastors and as churchmen. Father, for those who are involved in churches that are already reformed and reforming and for those who may be at that time, that exciting and yet fearful time of the beginning of the process of reformation, our Father, we do thank You that Your Word is given in order that the man of God might be complete, that he might be thoroughly equipped for every good work. And Father, we thank You that in Your word is all things that we need in order to be what You have called us to be as Christians and as churches, all that we need as ministers of Your Word. So Father grant to us, we pray, a greater sense of confidence in Your Word and in Your truth and, Father, in the power of Your Spirit to accomplish great things. And we pray all of this in the name of the Lord Jesus. Amen.
I want to open up some truths from this passage of Scripture because I do believe in the truth of the old adage or proverb that a picture is worth a thousand words. And very often it’s very helpful for us as we’re trying to understand what the process, in this case of reformation of the church, ought to look like and how we go about it. I could open up several doctrinal passages and then try to draw from that certain lessons for all of us, but I think here in taking the life of a man, and even a man living obviously under the old covenant, and a king, that there are certain truths here that we can glean that would help us in the process of reformation.
Let me just say, first of all, what I mean by reformation, and in some ways we can use the word restoration, not recognized in church history because that term has a lot of bad connotations to it because those who have been involved in restoration movements have very often been unorthodox in regard to doctrines such as justification by faith and a host of other things. But by restoration what we mean is restoring the church to its glory, to its beauty, so that it looks like and it functions like that which we read about in our Bibles, which is to say that there ought not to be in practice and in what we teach a great disparity between what we see in our Bibles and what we experience in our life together on the Lord’s Day or in our gatherings together midweek or in our life together as the people of God.
Let’s say somebody was converted on a desert island, they’d never been to a church, never heard about churches, and yet, like Robinson Crusoe, they’re there marooned on an island, and they have a Bible, and they’re able to read that Bible, and with the help of the Holy Spirit they’re able to understand how a man is made right with God. There all by themselves they repent of their sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and they begin to read in their Bible about this community of people, the called-out ones, our Lord’s ecclesia, the church, and he reads in there with understanding and light from the Word of God, without all of the traditions that can mar somebody’s view, and he’s just looking at his Bible, and he sees what church government is like, he sees what church membership is like, he see something of what worship is like, he sees what the mission of the church is. The hope would be that this man gets rescued and then finds himself on the Lord’s Day among a group of God’s people, and he’s asking himself, “In light of what I have read will I now recognize this community of believers as being like what I have seen here?”
Do you understand? If your mission was to go to an airport and pick up a speaker for a conference, and you’d never met him, but he describes himself, and he says, “Well, I’m about 6’4”, 190 pounds, I’ve got all white hair, and I’ve got a beard down to my belly.” Well, he ought to be fairly easy to spot. So if you see a 5’5” guy, you know, “Well, that’s not him.” You see a little black woman. “Well that’s not him, obviously.” And you go through and through until suddenly, and if this guy came up and said, “It’s me,” and he’s actually 5’10”, and he weighs 250 pounds, and he’s got a clean-shaven face, you’d say, “Well, I never would’ve recognized you by your description.” We can all say that we are a certain thing, but what are we in reality, and does the description of the Word of God match who and what we really are? So that is what I mean by reformation.
Now one of the great reformers among God’s people in the history of redemption, I’m going to submit to you, was this man Hezekiah. He may not be the best example; I think maybe Josiah of the old covenant saints might be the best example. But there are some things here in the life of Hezekiah that I want to bring out and that I want to apply.
Let me just give a couple of things by way of historical background. Hezekiah is the twelfth king of Judah. He is the son of an unbelieving king, Ahaz. He ascends to the throne, as we read in the Scriptures here, at twenty-five years old. This is probably, historians believe, 726 BC, and he reigns again for twenty-nine years. If you know the narrative history of Hezekiah, you know he’s not a perfect man. There are certain things in his life that we could look at from a negative perspective, certain things that he did that we might regard as foolish and even costly, but he is presented to us here in the Scriptures as a man who loved and who feared the Lord. He is the son of one of the worst kings of Judah. Ahaz was a horrible king, a horrible man. He was a man who had grossly polluted the worship of God, and though now without the benefit of a godly father—although we might argue that he may have had a godly mother. His mother is the daughter of a man named Zechariah, a man of whom it is said in 2 Chronicles 26:5 “who had understanding in the visions of God.” So he at least had a godly maternal grandfather.
But by the blessing of God and by the converting work of the Spirit and by the enlightening work of the Spirit within his heart he sets his life on a very different course of action than that which defined his father. Listen to one old Puritan who writes about his life.
He says of Hezekiah:
His great piety, which was the more wonderful because his father was very wicked and vile, one of the worst kings, yet he is one of the best, which may intimate to us (1) That what good there is in any, is not of nature, but of grace, free grace, sovereign grace, which, contrary to nature, grafts into the good olive, that which was wild by nature, [alluding to] Romans 11:24. (2) That grace gets over the greatest difficulties and disadvantage. Ahaz, it is likely, gave his son a bad education as well as a bad example . . . but when God’s grace is at work who can hinder it?
And so the fact that he inherits a very bad situation, that he inherits a very bad tradition, is not going to be a hindrance to this man from trying to do and be everything that God calls him to do and to be. He’s not going to throw up his hands at the beginning and say that it all looks impossible.
Sometimes a man will inherit a very bad situation in a church, and he’s so overwhelmed by what he sees, he has no idea where to begin, and he is so afraid to start anywhere and everywhere, and what happens very often is that he compromises his conscience. He tries maybe to speak truth on the Lord’s Day, but he fears ever trying to implement that truth because of what it is going to do or what it may cost him or what it may cost the church. Hezekiah, again, I think is a very good example.
So let me bring out several things about him and apply them to the work of reformation. The first thing I want to bring out is that true reformation begins with heart religion. The second thing I want to bring out is that true reformation must look to Scripture alone for its parameters. And finally, true reformation is dependent upon the blessing of God. I’ll have a few practical things to say here at the end, maybe not as neatly packed in there as I might like, but I just have a few things I want to bring out to give encouragement or exhortation.
But first of all, true reformation begins with heart religion. Two phrases I want to key in on here just for a few moments. The first is found in verse 5, and then the second is found in verse 6. We find that Hezekiah, as a reformer, trusted in the Lord God of Israel. Hezekiah trusted in the Lord God of Israel. We read in Psalm 84:12, “O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in You!” God’s blessing rests upon men and women and boys and girls who put their trust in the Lord, not just for salvation but for anything and everything in the rest of their life. Our Lord, in His prayer that He taught His disciples to pray, taught us to be dependent people: “Give us this day our daily bread.” And that is in a summary statement, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul. Don’t lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path.”
Hezekiah, who do you look to, who do you trust in? His faith was not in himself. His faith is not in his army. It was not in his treasury. It was not in his family. It was not in his heritage. It was not in his wisdom. He trusted in the Lord. His hope, his trust, his confidence was in the God who had made a covenant with men. He had, as the Scriptures say, the Lord always before him. Because He was at his right hand, he would not be unsettled.
Now again this terminology conveys at least two things. First of all, saving trust but then what we might call daily practical trust, and I’ve already tried to articulate some of what I mean by that. If you’re going to be a reformer, you’re going to need to be a man whose hope and trust is in the Lord. It’s not going to be on your education. It’s not going to be on the fact that you’ve studied. It’s not even going to be on the fact that you stand on the shoulder of theological giants.
One of the things I do take comfort in, but I do not trust in, I do take comfort when I read our confession of faith and recognize where we stand in the stream of church history, that we are in a wonderful place. We have a history and a heritage that is outstanding and excellent, and some of the great men and women of church history are either of our blood brother and sister, theologically speaking, or first cousins. I mean, we have a great family. And if you want to try to persuade somebody on the basis of the truth that you hold to, sometimes we will march out the history of the names of those in church history that agree with us. But our hope is not in men like Charles Spurgeon and John Bunyan or Jonathan Edwards or Martin Luther or John Calvin or William Carey or Kiffin or Knollys or whoever. All these great men did great things in the kingdom of God and preached great, but that’s not where our trust is in. Our trust is in their God. Those men would not want us to trust in them. Those men would consider themselves unprofitable servants.
So here is Hezekiah. He has looked to the Lord for his salvation, but he continues to look to the Lord. Day by day he has a living dependence upon the Lord his God. Verse 6 says, this is another aspect of it, “He held fast to the Lord.” He clung to the Lord. In a way that barnacles cling to the bottom of a boat, this man clung to the Lord. He followed him. He stuck close to him. Some of you might know what it’s like. I don’t know if any of you all may be popular in some certain setting, and somebody kind of attaches themselves to you and follows you around, and people might joke, if they’re not with you, and say, “Well, where is your shadow? I thought everywhere you went he went.” There might be somebody like that. My son—wherever dad was, he always wanted to be.
My sweet little doggie, particularly over the first few years as a rescue dog, wanted to be always with me. It was like he knew I rescued him, and he was very grateful. One day I’m going to do a series of sermons on the theology I’ve learned from my dog, and I have learned rich theology from my dog. I sound like I’m weird or a heretic there, but I really have. And I’m trying to learn. In fact, I feel very often my dog is trying to teach me. The Lord is using my dog to teach me about prayer and about dependence. That dog can do nothing for himself, and so he looks to me. I very often think I can do a lot of things by myself, and I don’t look to the Lord.
But anyway, the point is that he followed me around. If I went to the bathroom, he’d be outside the door. Still to this day, I go to bed, he’s right outside my door. I have to watch I don’t stumble over him in the morning when I get up. He likes to go where I go. He wants to be where I am. That’s how Hezekiah was with the Lord. It was like he was the Lord’s shadow. He followed the Lord wherever he went. He was attached to the Lord. He loved the Lord. He followed God, and the words expressing his devotion to the Lord, the same word used in Genesis 2 to describe the loving relationship of a husband and his wife: “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined, or cleave, to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Again, this is the way all of God’s people are intended to be. Deuteronomy 10:20: “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him and to Him you shall hold fast.” It was given to all the people, but so many people didn’t do that. So many people today who fill our churches, and sadly, even some men who are in ministry are not that way. What I’m getting at here is that at the heart of being a reformer is going to be somebody who has in them a passion for the glory of God and a passion for the Word of God. They so love God and they so love God’s Word, they so want to be everything that God wants them to be, and they so want everybody else to be everything that God wants them to be, and it begins with this kind of heart. God wanted then, and God wants more now than mere outward conformity to His standards and His commandments.
We all understand that, right? Isn’t that one of the great indictments that our Lord gives to pharisaical religion? “These people draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus could say of the Pharisees that when they sit in Moses’s seat, “Do according to their words but don’t do according to their deeds, for they say and do not.” That is to say, all right, there are certain things, fine and right, outwardly that you ought to do so. You ought to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. You ought to read the Scriptures. You ought to have prayer in your worship. You ought to have the Word of God. You ought to faithfully celebrate the sacraments. But you understand that you could do all of that and have the curse of God upon you? Because if all you do is just make sure outwardly that all the theological ducks are in a row—and it’s not bad that you want to cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s and have your ducks in a row. It’s not wrong to want to scrupulously do and be all that God wants you to be. It wasn’t wrong for those who heard about the tabernacle to have the exact color and the exact amount of rings and the exact height and the exact kind of wood and the exact kind of poles and carry it exactly the right way. That’s not Pharisaism. That’s not legalism. That’s heartfelt obedience. But you can have all of that outwardly, but if you don’t love the Lord, remember what Jesus said about the church in Ephesus, which was in so many ways such a diligent orthodox church, such a busy church, a doctrinally faithful church that loved truth and that hated error, and yet Jesus says, “You’re in danger of no longer being a church if you don’t have restored to you your love for Me.”
So Hezekiah wanted something more for himself and something more for his people than outward conformity. Now we’re going to see he does want that. But he didn’t merely want a people who were outwardly morally pure, who did not worship idols, who kept the Sabbath day, and meticulously observed all the patterns given for worship. He wanted a people—God wants a people—who are devoted to Him. Brother, all of that ought to be wrapped together. It ought not to be said of anybody, “Well, he really loves the Lord. He’s really careless in his theology, he’s really careless in his practice, he doesn’t seem to care, but he really loves the Lord.” Then you have another guy, “Oh, he’s very scrupulous, but he’s coldhearted.” Both of those things ought to be anomalies, and in a sense they’re like theological mutations. They ought not to be. Deuteronomy 13:4: “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.” All of those things go together.
Now secondly, and this is really the heart of what I want to get at, true reformation is patterned after the Bible alone. I do want to draw just for moment here this close connection between who he was and what he did. It is that kind of heart that produced this kind of a mind and this kind of action. There is no divorcing, again, between a heart for the Lord and a heart for reformation, no anomaly between what he is in private and what he is going to be in public. He’s not going to be a man who says, “Lord, well, in private I fear You, and I want to be all that You want me to be, but I’m too afraid to implement things publicly.” Here he is a man put into a certain position, obviously a great position of power, and because he has the heart he has for God, he is going to be what God has called him to be. To be a man dedicated to the reformation of the Lord’s people without personal reformation of life is to set about a doomed task. But if our own heart and our own lives are what they ought to be, then they form something of the basis and the power of what we’re going to say and do.
So one of my encouragements, which we’ll get back to at the end, is don’t underestimate the power of your own integrity and your own walk with God and your own example as you’re trying to lead and encourage others on in the things of God. Don’t be surprised that you’re not able to do good to the conscience of another, to grip the conscience of another, to convince the conscience of another, even if you have a string of biblical text, if your own life is not what it ought to be.
So this reformation is patterned after the Word of God. There are a number of examples in the text about what this man did as he sought biblical reformation. Let me give you my little two-fold description of what biblical reformation is. What does it mean to reform a church? It consists of two things preeminently. It consists in the removal of all that which grieves God and in the restoration or implementation of all that God has commanded. That’s a very simple definition of what reformation is. There is no real full reformation without it. It is, first of all, the removal of all that which grieves God, and then secondly, a restoration of that which is in accordance with his Word.
All that which grieves God—all that that is not either not commanded in God’s Word, that has no place in God’s Word, or that which is obviously contrary to the revealed mind of God, and those are in a sense two different things. I mentioned a moment ago Hezekiah had inherited a very bad situation. There had been kings before him who were good men, who sought to do what was good and right in the sight of the Lord. But you’ll note here a difference between Hezekiah and then a man like Amaziah. In 2 Kings 14:3 we read of King Amaziah. Notice here the difference. It says of him, “And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not like his father David.” David had set the bar. In spite of all his sin, it’s hard when we think about Davidit’s an amazing thing—I wonder how many of you can think about David without thinking about his adultery, or maybe his numbering the people. It almost always creeps in the mind. But God is able to say of David at certain times David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and he doesn’t have to give the asterisk. Sometimes he does, except in the matter of Uriah. But here it says of Amaziah that he did what was right but not like his father David. He did everything as his father Joash had done. But here again there is no holding back. That’s the idea. Here is a man, and David serves as the paradigm of the man after God’s own heart, a man who followed the Lord in heart and in practical obedience, and when the Holy Spirit is giving the life of Hezekiah, He says he was David-like in his heart and in his obedience.
He was David-like.
I don’t know who you might have either in the Bible or church history that you might look to and say, “That’s my example. That’s who I’d want to be, and if somebody ever compared me to him, what a joy and a blessing that would be.” David was, again, the paradigm, heart religion, outward obedience, practical holiness. God speaks of the practical walk of David when he speaks to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:14: “If you will walk in my ways keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” So this is what he does. This is Hezekiah.
So the first principle is to remove that which is contrary to God’s Word. It may be traditional, it may have been the way things had been done for generations, it may have been given tacit approval by good men in the past, it may be beloved by certain people in the congregation, it may be something expected by visitors when they come, but if it is not found in the law and in the testimony, ultimately we say there is no light in it. Now you come to verse 4 of our text, and if you been reading with a knowledge of this, as I worked my way through this years ago preaching this, and king after king after king you read about, he did good, but he never took down the high places. He was righteous, but he never took down the high places. Well, in verse 4: “He removed the high places.” That’s like halleluiah, finally! Finally here is somebody who is doing that.
Well, what were the high places? The high places were literal places where people sought to worship God out of convenience, generally on a on a hill. God had appointed a place, and God had appointed times and means by which he was to be worshiped, and that was to be in Jerusalem at the tabernacle and then ultimately at the temple. That’s what God had said. But that was hard to do. It wasn’t always convenient. You couldn’t always get there. So you wanted to worship, and so “Well, why don’t we do something, why don’t we come up with something? Why don’t we innovate?”
All right, brethren, one word that is never used in reformation is innovate. That’s not your goal. It’s not your job. I don’t care how smart you are. I don’t care. Whenever I read the biography of a pastor: “He’s one of America’s, one of Canada’s most innovative pastors,” that’s all I need to read. I’m not going to listen to a word. I don’t want to read what he said. I don’t want to listen to what he says. I want to hear about a man who’s faithful. As we heard about last night, I want to be a man who traces. I don’t know if they even make these anymore, but when I was a kid I used to get these coloring books, and they would have tracing paper in them. Do kids eve use tracing paper anymore? But they would be pages wedged into the coloring book, and you placed it over the picture (and I have a vivid memory of Captain America back in the ’60s), and I could draw over top of it. Your goal was very carefully to draw so that if you pulled back the tracing paper, it should look just like the original. Now when you trace something, nobody’s going to look at it and go, “That is so good. We ought to put that in a museum.” All I’m doing is tracing, okay? I try to make it an exact proportion, look the same way, down to his shield and star and everything else, right? Brethren, all we do if we’re going to be faithful is be tracers. Nobody’s going to hang our work in an art gallery. We have, as I’ve said to some folks, paint-by-number kits. It’s already drawn, and it already tells us this color goes here, and this color goes there, and all you’re trying to do is reproduce what’s on the box. That’s how you succeed in paint by numbers.
And theologically people may not like that, but all we’re trying to do is to reproduce apostolic Christianity in the twenty-first century. So there are things that we get rid of, things that must not be. Here were these high places that people used all the time and had used since Solomon’s time. Ten kings that had gone before had all worshiped and tolerated the high places. Hezekiah, I want to be quick to say, is not the first king who loved God. He’s not the first one who wanted to do what was right, but he is the first to tackle this long-standing problem in the land. He uses God’s word and not what he inherited, not the traditions of men, and not even what good men had allowed in the past, to be his guide.
Now it may be that he was spurred on by the fact that God was judging the land at the time. People were being deported during that time to the north. He saw God’s hand in it, and he knew why God was doing what He was doing, and he was learning his lesson that God is to be taken seriously and that if God has spoken we need to do it and if God has forbidden something we need to make sure that we’re not doing it. He had a view of God, loving though God was, he feared God. You don’t trifle with God. If God says do it, I’m not going to say, “Well, I would but we’ve got an old lady in the church who…” “Well, I would, but you have to understand the pastor before me…” “Yeah, I know…” No, he doesn’t do that, because he’s looking to God.
So he fixes his eye upon the high places. They had been a scourge to genuine worship for years. They had been tolerated by king after king. We read of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:3: “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, except that he sacrificed and burned incense at the high places.” We read of godly Asa, 1 Kings 15:14: “But the high places were not removed. Nevertheless Asa’s heart was loyal to the Lord all his days.” And then Jehoshaphat, 1 Kings 22:43: “He walked in the ways of his father Asa. He did not turn aside from them, doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Nevertheless the high places were not taken away.” Second Kings 12:2: Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days in which Jehoiada the priest instructed him. But the high places were not taken away.” Amaziah, 2 Kings 14:3: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, yet not like his father David; he did everything his father Joash had done. However the high places were not taken away.” Azariah, 2 Kings 15:3: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father Amaziah had done, except that the high places were not removed.” Jotham, 2 Kings 15:35: “However the high places were not removed.”
Brethren, good and godly men, no doubt about it, they had a sincere heart, and yet there were things God wanted them to do that they never did. Now how and why? How did men who loved the Lord never get around to doing something so blatantly obvious? But they didn’t. It was tolerated for decade after decade after decade. Hezekiah has a heart to say, “It doesn’t matter if I’m the first to obey God, or if we are the first generation to do it rightly, I will not allow the disobedience of a past generation to set my agenda.”
But, brethren, also note here, by way of application, don’t despair of reformation simply because something is so ingrained in the life of the church or the people, it may have been that way for generations. And don’t look at it and say,
Well, what can I do? I mean, if Solomon and Asa and Jotham didn’t, then whom I that I’m going to turn the ship around?”
Hezekiah believed it was right, and he got to work. But that’s not all that he does. Now that would’ve been a major triumph. If any of us can be listed in a church history book for one accomplishment, that we did one thing... Luther is always going to be remembered for nailing the ninety-five theses or for his confession at the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand. So help me God, I can do no other.” Right? There are going to be certain people that are known for one thing, and if Hezekiah had only accomplished that, but that’s not all he did. We read that he cut down the wooden image, he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it and gave it a name. There were sacred pillars coming down, wooden images being smashed, and even this national treasure that people venerated.
Now wouldn’t it be cool to have this thing, to have the bronze serpent that Moses left them? You talk about an artifact. Don’t you wish that was in a museum somewhere? Don’t you wish that the ark of the covenant really was in a museum, that you could go and see it? Do you know what the problem is? You might begin to worship it. There’s a reason none of these things survive. The cross of Jesus didn’t survive. Somebody didn’t take it down and put in a museum somewhere. Paul’s skull didn’t survive. I read about a guy who was visiting in Rome, and he went to church, and they had what they said was Paul’s skull. Then he went to another church, and they said they had Paul’s skull. He said to the second guy, “You know, I was at another church earlier, and they said they had Paul’s skull,” and the man said, “That’s from when he was younger.” I always thought that was a strange.
Anyway, so we would venerate this thing. This is something that God had used in a mighty way, and yet what had happened? It had become an object of worship. It had prefigured the cross of Christ, and yet it had become an object of worship. He saw people burning incense to it, and his zeal for God’s glory was such that he couldn’t just say, “All right, guys, listen, you need to stop. We’re going to stop the incense.” He said, “We’re going to get rid of the thing altogether. It’s become a stumbling block, and we need to get rid of this altogether.”
Now I’m not going to take the time this afternoon to go extensively through the more detailed parallel passage in 2 Chronicles, but let me just read and highlight just a couple of things in 2 Chronicles 29. We read how he instructed the priests to remove the polluted elements out of the house of God and to beautify it once more. Verse 3, “In the first year of his reign, in the first month, he opened the doors to the house of the Lord and repaired them.” So when did he start? Right away. I find too many men—and I want to be careful in this, I’m going to say something at the end—there are too many men who are so worried about offending people in the pew, and yet they’ll offend God. Our reformation, our lack of reformation, must never be because we’re afraid of people, afraid for our job, afraid for our position, or afraid for our reputation. We need to be empowered by a zeal for God. Biblical authority may be established, take place over a time, but you know, in churches, we ought not to have—and I’ve known guys who have had this, you know, like they’ll preach something and say, “Now, brother, we’re sinning in this, and we need to stop, and I have a plan over the next five years to lead us out of this.” I don’t know any other area of life where we do that in. “Honey, I know I’ve been looking at things I ought not to look at, but I’ve got a five-year plan by which I’m going to wean myself off of this.” I hope we don’t reason that way. We are talking about churches, and one of the things we ought to have a confidence in in churches, if they are made of sheep, then they will hear His voice, and they will follow. That’s the heart that ought to be.
Let me just can read a little bit more. Verse 4. This is 2 Chronicles 29:
Then he brought in the priests and the Levites, and gathered them in the East Square, and said to them, “Here me, Levites! Now sanctify yourselves, sanctify the house of the Lord God of your fathers, and carry out the rubbish from the holy place.” (vv. 4–5)
Now there is a whole sermon there about reformation, getting rid of the rubbish from the holy place.
“For our fathers have trespassed and done evil in the eyes of the Lord our God; they have forsaken Him, have turned their faces away from the dwelling place of the Lord, and turned their backs on Him.” (v. 6)
Part of what he is saying is they are, and there are some denominations that are famous for this, you’ve got eight hundred people on the church roles and a hundred people who come. They’ve turned their back from the Lord, from His dwelling place.
“They have also shut up the doors of the vestibule, put out the lamps, and have not burned incense or offered burnt offerings in the holy place to the God of Israel. Therefore the wrath of the Lord fell upon Judah and Jerusalem, and He has given them up to trouble, to desolation, and to jeering, as you see with your eyes.” (vv. 7–8)
That is, we are not enjoying the blessing of God. There are all these things God told us to be doing. You go through, and you pick up your Bible, and you walk through and say, “Listen, there are supposed to be lamps on over here. There’s supposed to be a table here, and it’s supposed to have bread on it, and it’s not there.” Now, yeah, okay, maybe this is obscure, maybe it’s not the most important thing, but why is it that there are things God said to do, and we’re not doing them? That’s the heart.
“For indeed, because of this our fathers have fallen by the sword; and our sons, our daughters, and our wives are in captivity.
“Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord God of Israel, that His fierce wrath may turn away from us. My sons, do not be negligent now, for the Lord has chosen you to stand before Him, to serve Him, and that you should minister to Him and burn incense.” (vv. 9–11)
Then picking up the reading in verse 15:
And they gathered their brethren, sanctified themselves, and went according to the commandment of the king, at the words of the Lord, to cleanse the house of the Lord. Then the priests went into the inner part of the house of the Lord to cleanse it, and brought out all the debris that they found in the temple of the Lord to the court of the house of the Lord. And the Levites took it out and carried it to the Brook Kidron. (vv. 15–16)
It’s almost like saying, “Listen, you went in there with pizza boxes and beer bottles and diapers and things. What in the world is this in this holy place?” There was literally rubbish. We don’t have to spiritualize it. There was literally rubbish in this place that ought to have been viewed as a special place where God is to be worshiped.
Now they began to sanctify on the first day of the first month, and on the eighth day of the month they came to the vestibule of the Lord. So they sanctified the house of the Lord in eight days, and on the sixteenth day of the first month they finished.
Then they went in to King Hezekiah and said, “We have cleansed all the house of the Lord, the altar of burnt offerings with all its articles, and the table of the showbread with all its articles. Moreover all the articles which King Ahaz in his reign had cast aside in his transgression we have prepared and sanctified; and there they are, before the altar of the Lord.” (vv. 17–19)
The following verses is a list of the sacrifices of atonement being offered that the people and places of worship might be cleansed by God and renewed. The chapter concludes with offering of glad and reverent and exuberant and extravagant praise, so extravagant in fact that the priest had to call upon the Levites to help them in the preparation of the sacrifices.
Then you can move on to chapter 30 of 2 Chronicles and read of the restoration of the Passover. We read that it been a long time since it had been practiced according to the law of God. And in the offering of the Passover you find something of the heart of this great man as he sends forth messengers from Judah to the remnant living to the north of those who had been left behind after the Assyrian takeover. He warmly invites them to repent and to return to the Lord. Listen to the language, 2 Chronicles 30:1:
And Hezekiah sent to all Israel and Judah, and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel. For the king and his leaders and all the assembly in Jerusalem had agreed to keep the Passover in the second month. For they could not keep it at the regular time, because a sufficient number of priests had not consecrated themselves, nor had the people gathered together at Jerusalem. And the matter pleased the king and all the assembly. So they resolved to make a proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, that they should come to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem, since they had not done it for a long time in the prescribed manner.
Then the runners went throughout all Israel and Judah with the letters from the king and his leaders, and spoke according to the command of the king: “Children of Israel, return to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; then He will return to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria. And do not be like your fathers and your brethren, who trespassed against the Lord God of their fathers, so that He gave them up to desolation, as you see. (vv. 1–7)
I won’t read all the rest of it in light of the time. There are those who did heed, those who did what he had said.
We’re already beginning to get into this, but let me also just highlight what he did. These are some of the things that he restored. There’s also a reference to some of the political reform that went on as a matter of obedience to the Lord. He was going to show his trust in the Lord and not in other nations.
Thirdly (again, our time is fleeting here), true reformation must look to God for success. We find in verse 7 “the Lord was with him, and he prospered wherever he went.” Those are words that are used in the Bible to describe men like Joseph and Samuel and of course David. Now we can say that of all of God’s people, that the Lord is with us, He will never leave us, and He will never forsake us—the great promise of Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you.” Christ is Immanuel, God with us. But what’s being brought out here is that God’s hand in blessing was so patently on him and is so obvious that others would remark upon him—that is, it was more than talent, more than grace, more than ability, more than authority. Here was the blessing of God resting on a man, and others could see it. It was so evident that when he set his hand about doing what God had called him to do, that God owned it and that God blessd it.
Brethren, again, that’s ultimately what we are looking for, and that is obviously what we want. If we would set ourselves to combing through our lives and the lives of our flock and the corporate life of our people and our ministries and what we’re called to do and ask ourselves, “Are there things that we are doing that we have no basis in God’s Word for doing it?” You know, it says in Isaiah 1 when the Lord is describing the multitude of the sacrifices that Israel had, he says, “Who has required this at your hand?” You know what you want to be able to say? “Lord, You have.” Right? “Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why are you reading the Scriptures? Why are you praying? Why do you sing what you sing? Why do you preach like you preach? Why do you do the sacraments in the way that you do them?” “Well, Lord, because You did. We have added nothing.”
And brethren, sometimes that might mean that your services are rather spare. One guy said to me once, “Man, the only way for you to be simpler would be if you didn’t meet.” And we might have that kind of look to people. People are going to come in, they’re going to be looking at certain things, expecting certain things today, but what we want them to see above and beyond anything else is the presence of God and the blessing of God. Matthew Henry wrote, “Those that do God’s work with an eye to His glory and with confidence in His strength may expect to prosper in it.” I believe that we ought to have that kind of anticipation and that kind of expectation as we set about the work of reformation.
Well, let me say just a couple of things in closing, some practical counsel, and the first is this. This goes together. If you are involved in a work of reformation, then you are going to need to prioritize what you’re going to do. I’m going to give a battlefield analogy. Somebody’s out in the battle, and one guy gets a piece of shrapnel in his arm. It’s very painful. He cries out, “Medic!” And the guy next to him has his leg blown off. The medic looks at the guy with the shrapnel in his arm, pats him on the back, and says, “I’ll be with you in a minute. I’ve got to deal with this first.” The guy with the shrapnel in his arm needs to be dealt, right? And he especially is going to be screaming maybe to be dealt with, but it’s not life-threatening. Not now. The other man’s injury may be life-threatening. You’re going to need to prioritize as you come in. Listen, you may come into a work in which you may think there’s fifty things at least that need to be done, that you could already identify. There are doctrinal things that need to be taught, the doctrine is way off, the practice is way off, there’s stuff that goes on in worship, there’s leadership issues, the deacons are running the church—whatever the case might be. And you think, “All right, where do I start? I want to start somewhere.” Again, don’t despair and think there’s so much wrong—like Hezekiah, there’s garbage in the Lord’s house, there’s high places, there’s wooden images, there is this bronze serpent—where do you start? Well, you start somewhere. It’s like going into a house that you bought, and you think, “Everything needs to be done. Plumbing needs to be done. Wiring needs to be done.” But you’re going to have to start in one room. It’s far better to start in one room, finish a room, move on to the next room, then paint one wall in every room, come back and paint the second wall in every room, and try to work your way, trying to do a little bit everywhere. You need to say, “All right, well let’s start with bedrooms, bathrooms, dining rooms, and kitchens, where we do most of our living. We need to get these things done.” I want to give you that exhortation.
I also want to encourage you to labor at the beginning. Without this you’re not going to be able to carry on the work of reformation. Labor for the authority and the sufficiency as well as the inspiration and infallibility of the Word of God. What do I mean by that? All true Christians, I’m going to argue, believe in the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures. If you don’t believe the Bible is the word of God, I can’t see how you’re a Christian. But the fact that people say, “I believe this is God’s word,” does not mean that they believe, first of all, in the sufficiency of God’s Word—that is, that we can actually look to God’s Word to determine everything we need to do as a church. Now I don’t mean, does that mean a 6:00 service versus a 5:30 service? No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what the church looks like, how it’s governed, how it functions, what its mission is. All of that is in the Bible. That’s sufficiency.
But then, brethren, you also need to give the authority. You will sometimes, in church reformation projects, come across the guy that’s going to say something like, “Preacher, I don’t care if that is what the Bible says. This is what we’ve been doing since I’ve been ten, and my daddy built this place.” That kind of attitude needs to be, at whatever level, rebuked, and say, “Sir, we are not interested in simply carrying on a tradition that’s not rooted and founded in God’s Word. And for you to stand here and say, ‘I don’t care what the Bible says,’ says something very dangerous about your soul.”
You understand what I’m getting at? Listen, if our congregation became convinced that we needed to eat a plate of dirt every Sunday, then I hope they show up next week with a plate and a bib and a spoon and not “Ugh, that’s what God wants me to do?” Thankfully, God doesn’t require that, but you understand the heart. If we can demonstrate—and we have to demonstrate—and that means expound the Scriptures, and that might mean sometimes spending weeks and weeks and weeks on something until the people of God are saying to you, “Brother, if that’s true, then why have we been doing this?” and you say, “Ah, good.” “And then why don’t we start to do this?”
Let’s say for instance that you’re in a work in which there’s no public reading of the Scriptures. There’s no time when the Scriptures are read. Or where there is no prayer. These are two things that seem to mark a lot of megachurches. There’s a lot of singing, but there’s not a time in which somebody simply gives attention to the reading of the Scriptures, and prayer is almost always done almost surreptitiously. Have you ever been in a church like that? The guy’s in front, singing a song, and all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, he’s praying. I had no idea because he still playing.” “So, Father, we’re just so happy, God. We’re just so…” And they start singing again and prayer is set to music. I don’t want to get to my pet peeves; I don’t want to get into that. I don’t need mood music to pray. But you need to be able to set these things out.
I mentioned before don’t minimize the factors of your integrity in the building of relationships in love in the process of reformation. You don’t only need to win minds, you need to win hearts. Let people know that you love them and that you have no agenda other than the glory of God and their good. “Brethren, this is for good. I love you. I love you, and I want to see you be all that God wants you to be. Don’t you want to be all that God wants you to be? Are you content to have any area of your life that is so glaringly out of step with the will of God?” Brethren, that’s appealing to the heart.
Look to the long haul, and that is to remember that this is a work that is ongoing. Don’t lose heart after a year or two years. After four or five years, if is not all you want it to be, are you making progress? Continue to teach line upon line, precept upon precept. Consider what the people of God can handle. They may have been a people that had been given milk all their life, and the first time you try to give them something solid, they spit it out of their mouth. It’s not necessarily their fault. Jesus said, “I have other things to say to you. You can’t handle it right now.” The writer of Hebrews said, “Would that I could go on and teach other things, but I can’t, so I have to go back,” and brethren, we have to do that sometimes.
Then a final word of exhortation. Identify and lead your true flock. That’s to say if you begin to realize in the course of your teaching and preaching that you have those that are against you and are plotting your overthrow and everything else, and what’s behind it is not a zeal for the Scriptures, it’s just “we want business as usual,” but there are people that are hanging on your word and people that love what you say, don’t be so slow in the implementation of truth because you’re try to placate the goats that you never lead your sheep. I hope that makes sense. I’ve seen pastors who are so afraid of offending the goats that their poor sheep are like, “Come on! Let’s go! You keep saying this stuff but nothing changes. We’re with you.” Identify your true people and trust the Lord for those results. Look to Him.
I’ve said a little bit about how not to. I hope we’ve given some encouragement on how to reform a church. Let’s pray and ask for the Lord’s blessing in these things.
Father, thank You for this time to be together and to consider these truths. We do pray that wherever we are in the process of reformation that You will help us and lead us and guide us. Father, may it be of all of us that to the Word and to the testimony that that’s where we go. We thank You for the church, which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself, the chief cornerstone. Father, receive great glory and greater glory as we fall more and more in line with Your revealed truth. We pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.