Look back over the history of the church and there will always be things to criticize – and with good reason. The church owes its existence not to men, who time and again have made a mess of things, but to Jesus Christ who gathers, defends and preserves her by His Spirit and Word. These are the two sides to the history of the church. There is the side that shows what men have done—and that is anything but flattering. And there is the side that shows what our Lord has done—and that is inexpressively glorious.
The late prof B Holwerda, introducing a sermon about Judges 6 (Israel in the hand of the Midianites), referred to the pattern of deformation, judgement, and reformation that keeps recurring in the book of Judges and that has kept recurring throughout church history. Holwerda has this to say:
As you know, Judges is basically the story of reformation that is continually repeated. Throughout this Bible book there is a strong line: every time again it reveals the deformation of God’s people; every time again God therefore brings judgement upon His church. But also: every time again He saves His people from oppression through a judge, who saves Israel from the enemies and leads them back to the service of the LORD.
There you have the pattern that you find throughout the book: deformation, judgement, reformation. That’s how things were at the time of Ehud, and at the time of Deborah; that’s how things went in the days of Gideon, and of Jephthah; and that’s how it was repeated in the time of Samson and of Samuel.
If you read this book from beginning to end, you say: what a wonder that Israel continued to exist; that it didn’t go under through its idolatry, and through the judgement! For if it had depended on persons, God’s people would have been destroyed permanently right from the beginning and nothing would have become of the church.
And that’s why this book can only bring us to worship God. The fact that the church still exists, and that it advanced, did not depend on people; but it is only because God’s grace triumphed, because He did not let go of the work of His hands.
Well then, isn’t that pattern of events relating to the church at the time of Judges the way it continues to be in church history?
There is really nothing in the world more wonderful than the church. Say ‘church’ and you are speaking of something that is on the one hand the most despicable thing under the sun and at the same time the most beautiful. One the one hand, you sing a sorrowful song so mournful and dark as can be heard nowhere else; but on the other hand, you sing a song of praise so jubilant and joyful as you will find nowhere else.
For in reality the church, as she exists in this world, can always be seen and must always be seen from two sides. On the one side you are confronted with the work of God, a work so beautiful and pure, so sovereign and majestic, that words cannot do justice to it. But on the other side you are confronted with what the people make of it; and seen from that viewpoint it is so bad, so pitiful, so miserable and hideous, that no pen can describe it.
For you can read a book about world history; and that is, as a rule, a lamentable account of scheming and tampering, of war and oppression, of blood and tears. But read a book about church history and despondency overwhelms you. That, now, is the church of Christ and it is a succession of sin and decay. It’s so dirty, you wade through the mud. Can you imagine anything more debasing than this: that this church needs a new reformation every so-many years? That’s because on a regular basis, after every new restoration, she works herself into a hopeless situation again, often after only a few years.
If that was all there was to say about the church, you would turn away from the church in dismay and disgust and exclaim: what a mess!
But don’t for a second forget that other side: that throughout the ages God brought about reformation every time again! Never ignore the fact that the Lord time and again delivered her from oppression, and each time again led her back to His ways. Then your amazement at so much grace will know no bounds! You will stand amazed that time and again He was prepared to listen to His people, and to acknowledge them in their misery! You stand astounded that He never gave up on them. That He never cried: I’ve had enough; I’ll leave them to the consequences of their own doing! Have you ever heard anything so wonderful as this, that the LORD has never had enough of His people, although His people nearly always showed that they’d had more than enough of Him?
And that’s why every new reformation is more humiliating than the previous one. For reformation means that despite having been shown so much grace we have again made a mess of it. The sin now becomes worse, because it has been preceded by so much grace! But reformation also means that the grace of God has become even more abundant; for each time again, despite His people having strayed so often, the LORD began anew.
This triumph of grace, however, makes our responsibility all the greater and our sin all the more serious if, despite all this, we should again leave the ways of the LORD.