Sometimes renewal comes by backing up.
The most successful movie of 1985 was Steven Spielberg’s Back To The Future. The science fiction adventure comedy film reminded us that there are times when you have to move back to go forward. Renewal requires a return.
Sometimes nations seem frozen in time, with little change and no progress as far back as people can remember. Some seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Perhaps we need to go back in order to move forward.
We often speak of needing revolution or reformation to bring “change” to our countries or better yet to bring progress. But revolution and reformation are not the same thing.
The root of revolution is revolt. First used in the 1540s, and derived from the French revolter, it means “to overthrow, overturn.” A revolution is an overturning of the foundations as opposed to a returning to the foundations. A revolution is a rejection of the past, an upending of history.
The word reformation comes from reform. First used around 1300, it meant “to convert into another and better form.” It was derived from the Latin reformare “to form again, change.” The basic idea is not to overturn the foundations but to re-form, to form again from the foundations. This is more the idea of a renewal. Noah Webster, lexicographer of the new United States, defined reform, “To change from worse to better; to amend; to correct; to restore to a former good state, or to bring from a bad to a good state; as, to reform a profligate man; to reform corrupt manners or morals” (Webster’s 1828 edition).
Notice the positive direction in the concept of reform. This is not change for the sake of change, not overthrowing something and hoping for improvement. To reform is to form again, to move from worse to better. One historical example is the work of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect in England to move from the corruption of manners to civilizing the culture.
To reform is to restore the foundations, not overthrow them. The French Revolution and the Enlightenment were a revolt against first principles. They were a revolt against God. The Reformation in Europe, the revivals in England, and the Puritan founding of the United States, each marked a returning to first principles, to form again from the acknowledgement of the Creator God, the Creation Order, and faith in His Son and our Savior Jesus Christ.
In his book A Free People’s Suicide, Os Guinness speaks of the hope of a nation’s renewal through its people’s return to foundation principles. He sees this pattern in the Exodus of the Jews, the conversion of Christians, and the revival and reformation of the American Puritans.
In other words, all three movements- Jewish, Christian and American- share a striking feature that sets them apart from much modern thinking: A return to the past can be progressive, not reactionary. Each movement in its own way best goes forward by going back. … the most creative remakings are always through the most faithful rediscoveries. Put differently, when religious or political beliefs become tired and lost [sic] their vigor, the way to reinvigorate them is not to modernize or rebrand them cosmetically…The way forward is to return to the source that gave rise to them in the first place.[i] [emphasis added]
James Davison Hunter, writing in his profound book The Death of Character, says:
We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a credal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character but without conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.
In short, we need to go back to letting God be God. We need to confess personally and as a culture that we have made ourselves god instead of worshiping and serving the Creator and living in the reality of the circle of creation (Romans 1: 18-23). There is hope, but we need to re-turn to first principles and then begin to re-form our lives and our societies from His existence. In short we need to abandon the worship of self for the worship of God, and correspondingly we need to forsake psychological language of modern society for the theological language of our founders.
Or to put it differently, to move into the future, we must repent - to be reminded – in the Biblical sense, both personally and nationally. We must return from the atheistic worship of humankind or the pantheistic worship of creation and return to a recognition of the existence of the Creator God, his Creation Order, and of Christ as Savior and Sovereign over all of life, including my own.
There is hope for the future, but to find it we must return to the past. The hope is found only in the gospel of Christ and his kingdom. As Jesus said, He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:5). The wonderful thing about the death of Christ and the gospel of the kingdom is that, quite literally, this day can be the first day of the rest of your life. This day can mark the rebirth of a nation. But these new beginnings occur by re-forming, not by revolting.
For the global church, it is time to stop merely praying. It is time to stop pretending, to stop playing church and sleepwalking into the night. It is time to wake up and repent. It is time to return to first principles and reform our countries based on those everlasting truths. It is time to rebuild the institutions, structures, and laws in our societies to reflect these first principles. It is time to move back to the future.
- Darrow Miller