The Reformation was a great work of the Holy Spirit of God, and it was a royal mess. Is there a problem?
One of the problems we have when we remember and appreciate great events from the past — which of course we ought to do — is that a number of these messy details fall away and are forgotten. This means that when we pray for a return of such a kindness — a divine intervention, an awakening, a reformation — we frequently have a wildly distorted view of what we are actually asking for. Reformations are never accomplished to the sound of polite golf applause in the background.
There are many examples of this principle — ranging from the presence of sweat to the palpable need for courage — but I want to focus on one particular aspect of it. Those laboring in the work of reformation, those praying for God to grant us a great revival, often do their preparatory work in the face of great criticism. Often the critics are very capable, and their arguments are cogent. Those working for reformation are sometimes tempted to redouble their efforts, not to mention their prayers, in the belief that the arrival of a great reformation would finally vindicate them against their critics. What it would more likely do is triple the number of their critics. The critics don’t go away until the reformer has been dead for a safe number of years, and it is time to burnish his legacy.
Jesus talked about this phenomenon. We know we are to honor the great men of old because we have seen their tombs and monuments (Matthew 23:29–32). We don’t see the crowd gathered in front of that prophet’s house back in the day, with the mob’s leader swinging a rope around menacingly, and we certainly don’t see that mob leader’s great-great-grandson as the most likely candidate to be the chairman of the board of trustees of the historical society dedicated to preserving the mausoleum of the great prophet who at one time walked among us.
The critics of reformation are such because the reformation has not yet carried the day. Once it carries the day, they will consolidate behind the gains of that reformation as a very effective way to manipulate it toward their own ends, and to sandbag against the next reformation.
I have sometimes entertained myself with thoughts of great men from the past paying a time travel visit to institutions that were named after them. Many of these thought experiments end with furniture scattered around waiting rooms, broken glass, and police sirens in the background. And if you doubt that there could be actual mayhem — for that doesn’t sound as pious as we would like — reflect on what happened when Jesus, the name of God, showed up at the place where God made his name to dwell (Deuteronomy 12:11). First he made a whip, and then he made a commotion.
The curators of the prophetic presence much prefer it when their prophets are deceased, and when they have been deceased for a generation or more, they move out of the zone of criticism entirely. Two generations and it is possible to buy a floor buffer for the marble rotunda. But those who prepare the way for reformation have a thankless task and routinely face a barrage of criticism. They sometimes grow weary of it, and come to believe that one of the first things that would happen (if the Spirit moved in reformation) is that all their former critics would slap their foreheads and say, “Oh! This was actually all prep work for a great reformation!” As one great essayist put it once — I believe it was Montaigne — “don’t hold your breath.”
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