Presented at Florida College on February 10, 2011
If the Babylonian exile presented a challenge to the people of Israel, it may be that their restoration from exile was an even greater test. The work of rebuilding Jerusalem and the spiritual life of the people was no easy work — especially as the years wore on and the work remained incomplete. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah – and the prophetic preaching of Haggai and Zechariah – the great work was begun and continued for a while. But eventually, the restoration fell short, and it was time for the prophet Malachi to do his work.
Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament in our English Bibles. After this oracle was delivered, God did not speak prophetically to His people again until John the Baptist appeared preaching in the wilderness of Judea over 400 years later. The message of Malachi, whose name means “My Messenger,” was God’s last word to Israel prior to the approach of the kingdom of the Messiah. A little book of terrifying warnings and glorious hope, it is just as relevant and powerful today as it was in about 435 B.C. when it was first presented.
The famous decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C. had allowed the captive Jews in Babylonia to return to Judea to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. Those who chose to return did so in several groups: the first under Zerubbabel, and later others under Ezra and Nehemiah. Those who came back first faced hardship, but they had the advantage of the excitement of an important undertaking in its early stages. As the years came and went, however, disillusionment and disinterest set in. By the time Ezra and Nehemiah arrived, they found social and spiritual conditions dangerously low. The walls of Jerusalem still lay demolished — but worse, the religious life of the people had badly deteriorated and called for urgent repair. “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi” (Mal. 1:1) addressed the spiritual needs of Israel in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, 100-150 years after the first Jews had returned from Babylon.
Reading the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi together, we come up with something like the following list of characteristics of the times:
- Spiritual apathy (Mal. 1:2,13; 4:6).
- Corruption of the priesthood (Neh. 13:4-9,28-31; Mal. 1:6; 2:1-9; 3:3,4).
- Degeneracy in worship (Mal. 1:7-14).
- Withholding of tithes and offerings (Neh. 10:32-39; 13:10-14; Mal. 3:8-12).
- Breaking of the Sabbath (Neh. 10:31; 13:15-22).
- Cynicism and lack of moral discrimination (Mal. 2:17; 3:13-15,18).
- Disregard of God’s marriage law (Ezra 9:1,2; Neh. 10:30; 13:23-29; Mal. 2:10-16).
- Social injustice (Neh. 5:1-13; Mal. 3:5).
In Malachi, the expression “fear My name” is of central importance. Underlying each specific condemnation of Israel’s sins is Malachi’s basic charge: the people had failed to fear God. The trouble was not unlike that of the Gentiles described by Paul in the New Testament: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful” (Rom. 1:21). Thus, the little book of Malachi is a call to the genuine reverence which must ever characterize God’s people.
But if Malachi is a call to reverence, this presents us with a remarkable situation. How is it that having endured the captivity for 70 years — and now having labored at the restoration for over 100 years — Israel needed to hear sermons on reverence? Aren’t “restorationists” the ones who understand the need for reverence? Aren’t they the ones who call others back to a true regard for God?
To the priests of Malachi’s day, the Lord said, “The lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth . . . But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi” (2:7,8). Malachi’s “burden” was to confront his brethren with their hypocrisy. As those who should have been continuing the work of restoration to the Lord, the leaders had discontinued, and even perverted, that work. No, they had not dismantled the previous restorations externally; outwardly, things still looked as if they had been “restored.” But in their hearts, the restorers had drifted back into a rebellion and irreverence so disgusting that God said, “‘Who is there even among you who would shut the doors, so that you would not kindle fire on My altar in vain? I have no pleasure in you,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘nor will I accept an offering from your hands’” (1:10).
So look at the sad situation that confronts us at the end of Old Testament history: the ones who had begun the work of restoration from Babylonian exile had “turned aside from the way” (Mal. 2:8 ESV).
In Malachi’s day, it was the restorers themselves who needed restoring!
The Ongoing Need for Restoration
Malachi illustrates one of the most important principles in the Scriptures: true restoration is an ongoing work. As members of the “Restoration Movement” in the United States, we sometimes speak of restoration as something that has already been accomplished and just needs to be maintained. To use Robert F. Turner’s famous metaphor, we think of the church today as a completely restored “little red wagon” in which we may ride home to heaven.
But as Malachi shows, restoration must be more than a one-time endeavor. Unlike Christ’s work, which was accomplished once and for all (Hb. 9:26-28), our work of restoration must be a continuing effort. There will never come a time, as long as we sojourn here, when we will not need to return to the touchstone of God’s word and ask: “Where have we departed from God’s truth? What is there about us that needs to be restored now?”
The Degradation Principle. Restoration must be an ongoing work because of what I call the “Degradation Principle.” The Degradation Principle says that, over time, everything tends to degrade or decay. Nothing can be done and then be left alone. Without constant maintenance, refurbishment, and restoration, things fall into decay. We see it in nature, as well as in man-made activities. Unless new energy is infused and efforts are made to return things to their intended state, they fall into disrepair. Anyone who has ever owned a house surely understands this!
In spiritual matters, two things are surprising about degradation:
One is that it can happen so quickly. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). Human beings are nothing if not fickle, and having made an effort to adhere to God’s word, we can “un-adhere” to it very quickly.
But second, we often don’t see what is happening. When Malachi confronted his brethren with their need to come back to the Lord, they had no idea what he was talking about. “‘Where is My reverence?’ says the Lord of hosts to you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised Your name?’” (1:6). “You have wearied the Lord with your words; yet you say, ‘In what way have we wearied Him?’” (2:17). Then and now, restorationists can be some of the blindest people in the world. The more we have preached on the need for others to return to God, the less we see our own need to be restored. Cf. Rom. 2:17-24.
The Degradation Principle operates both individually and congregationally.
Individually, we all tend to degrade. It takes constant vigilance (1 Cor. 10:12) and many “returns” to the Lord to stay on the path that leads to heaven. Anyone who thinks that he can be “restored” to the Lord by obedience to the gospel and then put himself on autopilot for the rest of his life, is simply not facing the facts. Going to heaven requires many mid-course corrections. Some of these will be little and some big, but all of them will involve the work of restoration. Our lifelong attitude needs to be that of David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit” (Psa. 51:10-12).
Congregationally, things do not “stay put” any more than they do individually. A congregation may be in the lineage of the Restoration Movement, and it may have made efforts in the past to measure itself by God’s word, but over time, degradation will occur. No congregation is permanently safe from the kind of slippage that took place at Ephesus: “I know your works, your labor, your patience . . . Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent” (Rev. 2:2-5).
Neither individuals nor congregations can rest their confidence in any previous restoration. For one thing, the previous restoration was probably not complete, but even if it was, there is no guarantee that degradation has not taken place since then.
Both as individuals and as congregations, we are “works in progress.” If we are in fellowship with Christ, we are on our way to a complete, final, and perfect restoration to God in eternity, but until then we are in constant need of correction. In evangelism, I cannot hold myself up as a perfect example of what God intended a Christian to be; I can only recommend to others the standard to which I have committed myself. And collectively, I cannot represent the congregation of which I am a part as a completely restored example of what a local church ought to be. When asked why I worship where I do, I usually say, “It’s the closest thing to New Testament Christianity that I have found in the community where I live — but our restoration to God’s standard is still incomplete.” It is not the Lord’s people but rather the Lord’s standard that never changes. For our part, the process of coming back to that standard, again and again, is a work that will never be finished in this life.
At this point, we need to be careful. The need of every congregation for ongoing restoration does not mean that no distinction can be made between churches that belong to the Lord and those that don’t. The scriptural expression “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16) would be meaningless if it were impossible to be anything other than “of Christ.” And the Lord’s warning about removing the Ephesians’ “lampstand” (Rev. 2:5) implies a distinction between churches that He recognizes and those that He disavows. With individuals as well as congregations, we must be cautious in judging whether certain ones belong to the Lord or not, but the existence of difficult or ambiguous cases doesn’t mean that the call can’t ever be made. In most cases, the facts are clear.
The Only Corrective to Degradation. Since there is no avoiding the process of degradation, all we can do is take measures to correct it when we see that it has occurred. And the only corrective, of course, is God’s word. If we would be members of a “Restoration Movement” worthy of the name, we must be willing to return to the Word continually — never ceasing to evaluate ourselves by its standard and always willing to make new adjustments when they are needed. Doing this requires honesty, courage, and repentance.
As members of the Restoration Movement, we have characterized ourselves as a “people of the Book,” and surely, that is what we ought to be. But having recommended the Book to others, are we ourselves of a “poor and contrite spirit” and do we truly “tremble” at God’s word (Isa. 66:2)? It’s easy to say yes, but when was the last time you examined yourself and honestly asked whether you were in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5)? It’s time we started paying attention to that passage that we’ve known about for so long: “we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away” (Hb. 2:1).
Some Problems and Pitfalls
While it may be difficult to start (or restart) the work of restoration, the difficulty does not end once we’ve gotten started. While it is going on, restoration can run amuck, as we’ve seen in Malachi. Here are just a few ways that restorationists, past and present, have had trouble.
1. Measuring by the Wrong Standard. The quality of any restoration is limited to the standard (or “original”) to which people are trying to return. In spiritual matters, the standard must be nothing less than God’s word: the perfect, unchanging norm before which the reverent person “trembles” (Isa. 66:2). If, instead of God’s word, we measure ourselves by a previous generation, our restoration is bound to be inadequate, no matter what kind of “golden age” that generation may seem to have been. And by the same token, restoration will also fail when the standard is what is trendy or “contemporary” right now.
2. Not Seeing the Need for Personal Repentance. It is always easier to see the steps that others need to take than those that we need to take. Spiritually blind, and failing to have removed the beam from our own eye (Matt. 7:1-5), we call for those around us to “return to pure, simple New Testament Christianity” — as if we had already done so, without the slightest taint of degradation remaining on our part. Or we think that pursuing restoration would simply mean leaving our current congregation and worshiping with a more authentic assembly, with no real change needed on our part other than switching groups. In either case, our list of ways that people have “departed from the truth” always seems to be a list of ways that others have departed.
But repentance is an integral part of restoration (Dan. 9:1-19), and restoration without personal repentance is usually shallow, if not outright hypocritical. The restorationist’s attitude must be: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).
3. Going Too Far . . . or Not Far Enough. Human beings are prone to extremes, and nowhere do we see this any better than in restoration movements. Either restoration fizzles out before the job is done or we swing to the opposite extreme and start fixing things that aren’t broken. We seem incapable of avoiding the extremes: going too far or not going far enough.
4. Limiting the Reform to Externals. One of the worst failings of many restoration efforts is that they are limited to external practices and fail to address the inward character and attitude. This type of restoration amounts to little more than rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
Certainly, if there are external practices that are dictated by God’s word, we need to adhere to those, and if there has been a departure from them, they need to be restored. But more often, the thing that has deteriorated is the hearts of God’s people, as we see in Malachi. The deeper need of our day (and this is true across the entire progressive-traditional spectrum) is for restoration of the spirit of apostolic Christianity, including the other-worldly outlook of Christians in the New Testament, their spirit of sacrifice, and their radical reverence. If restorationists do not address issues like these, their reforms will be superficial.
There is no shortage of talk today about restoring “simple” Christianity. In particular, many feel that a return to biblical Christianity necessitates smaller congregations, different seating patterns in the assembly, more casual dress, and so forth. Often, the underlying assumption is that non-traditional practices (a misnomer, strictly speaking, since these practices just tap into a different tradition) always go hand-in-hand with a deeper spirituality. But in the real world, neither of these is necessarily accompanied by the other.
My work right now takes me into all parts of the country. I have the privilege of speaking to churches large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural, young and old. My observation is that there is very little correlation between how traditional a church’s worship style is and how spiritual-minded its members are. I’ve seen every possible combination: from non-traditional churches that are cesspools of immaturity and immorality to traditional churches that are so spiritually mature I felt embarrassed to be in their presence. The fact is, adjustments in worship style do not automatically translate into strong inward character. In my experience, the connection between non-traditional externals and true spiritual strength is little more than coincidental.
Granted, there are sometimes expedient reasons for adjusting our outward practices in a non-traditional direction. But let’s not call this “restoration,” and let’s not be so silly as to think that any set of seating patterns, songbooks, or styles of dress is inherently more “spiritual.” Within the limits of scriptural authority, these questions are, at best, matters of judgment and expediency — and usually, they are just matters of personal preference.
Sometimes, the externals don’t even need to be changed to accomplish real restoration. In Malachi’s day, the “restoration of the restorers” did not require changes in the structure of the temple services, but rather repentance in the hearts of the worshipers. So today, if any of our externals are unlawful by God’s standard, they must surely be restored to that standard. And in matters of judgment, if we find a more expedient means of implementing God’s standard than we have used in the past, we need not be afraid to switch. But let us understand: the manipulation of external practices is not synonymous with restoration.
5. Descending into Pharisaism. Over time, even the most sincere restorationists tend to become Pharisees. Historically, Pharisaism began as an effort to resist the encroachments of Hellenistic culture on Jewish life during the intertestamental period. Those who would later be known as Pharisees were concerned (quite rightly) about the extent to which many Jews were accommodating themselves to Greek modes of language, dress, and entertainment. (It could easily have been the Pharisees who coined the expression, “Brethren, we are drifting.”) As the years went by, however, concerns that had been restorationist hardened into ungodly attitudes. The Pharisees got to the point where they bound their list of issues as the only list that anybody needed to be concerned about, they insisted that their answers to every judgment question were the only answers that sound people could accept, and they eventually became hypocrites, unwilling even to live by their own rules (Mt. 23:1-3).
It would be amusing, if it weren’t so sad, how quickly restorationists can become Pharisees. Starting out with genuine concerns that some aspects of our faith and practice may be illegitimate, we gravitate toward others who share those concerns. The first thing you know, we have adopted an “inner circle” mentality, and are showing the signs of spiritual pride and condescension toward those who are less enlightened. Before long, we have delineated a new tradition about how God is to be worshiped, and we find ourselves becoming increasingly intolerant of disagreement. We bind our new tradition much more exclusively, and with greater isolationism, than any of the “traditionalists” whose “rigid” ways we thought we had to separate from. In no time at all, we’ve gone from progressive change-agents to the conservative guardians of a new status quo (secretly uneasy that our children may reject our “restoration” when they become adults, since by that time our “new” traditions will have become passé).
History is clear: the restorationists of today are the Pharisees of tomorrow. None of us is immune to this tendency! But this is not an argument against restoration; it is simply a warning that restoration is a slippery slope. The only way to avoid disaster is to come back to God’s word often enough — and honestly enough — to see when we’ve become Pharisees and to repent.
Some Practical Applications
With the above cautions in mind, let us turn to a few practical areas where some good restoration work might be done today. If, as we have argued, restoration is an ongoing work, what are the points at which we need to bring ourselves back to the standard of apostolic Christianity? Despite previous efforts at restoration, where may it be said that we today have “turned aside”?
1. Accommodation to Mainstream Culture. Religious groups have always had to wrestle with the question of how far to go in accommodating themselves to the mainstream culture. In the intertestamental period, as we’ve seen, the Jews had to debate the extent to which they could dress like the Greeks, speak like the Greeks, attend the Greek entertainments, and so forth. It should not be surprising that today we have to grapple with the same issue: how far can a Christian go in adopting the dominant culture of the day?
Like many of the preachers of previous generations, who often preached against “worldliness,” I believe that many of us have adopted the sinful characteristics of the culture around us to an extent that would be horrifying to our New Testament brethren. They would be shocked to see how we dress, how we speak, and how we entertain ourselves. Perhaps more than any of our forefathers, we have compromised the moral distinctiveness that ought to characterize the Lord’s people in any culture (2 Cor. 7:14-18; 1 Pt. 2:9-12; etc.).
We need a restoration of the strong counter-cultural spirit of New Testament Christianity.
2. This-Worldly Christianity. While the “worldliness” just discussed is a huge problem, I believe we have to fight against an even worse kind, and in too many cases, our generation is losing the battle. More than any previous generation of Christians, our hearts are set on this world rather than the world to come. Because we are more affluent, we are more comfortable in this world — and less likely to think about heaven in any significant way.
But rather than admit our misplaced emphasis, we have redefined Christianity and turned it into something that is supposed to be about happiness in this world. I agree with Larry Crabb, who has written, “Modern Christianity, in a dramatic reversal of its biblical form, promises to relieve the pain of living in a fallen world . . . the promise of bliss is for NOW!” (Crabb 13). Contrary to what Ecclesiastes tells us about the incomprehensibility and unfixability of this world (Eccl. 1:14,15), we attempt to do with Christianity what the secularist tries to do with science: fix life in this world and make it be what we want it to be. This can’t be done, of course, but you could never tell that by the sermons many of us hear.
Are there temporal benefits to being a Christian? Yes indeed, but if you had asked a New Testament Christian, “Which is more important: the already part of the faith or the not yet?” he or she would not have hesitated for a split second before saying, “The not yet part” (Phil. 2:12-14; 1 Pt. 1:13; etc.). Our brethren in the New Testament would, I believe, be shocked at the extent to which we have made ourselves at home in this world and forgotten the fiery message of the gospel about the end of this world (2 Pt. 3:10-13).
We need a restoration of the other-worldly, apocalyptic, eschatological spirit of New Testament Christianity.
3. Consumer Christianity. Today, Christianity, just like everything else, has become a consumer product. Jesus has become a “brand,” and He is merchandised in ways that are hardly distinguishable from the ways that other products are marketed. These are the days of individual choice and customization of products. We go into the marketplace and from the choices that are presented to us, we select those that fit our “lifestyle,” i.e., those that can become a comfortable part of the life that we want for ourselves.
Trained by church-growth marketers, we present ourselves to visitors as a group of people that they would fit in with right away: “Come, be a part of our fellowship. You’ll like us. We don’t have any rough edges, and Christianity, as we practice it, has none of the stumbling blocks that it used to have. It can be an easy, convenient part of your lifestyle, just as it is a part of ours.” And so our congregations become demographically homogeneous, populated by “birds” who are so much of the same “feather” that they would enjoy flocking together even without the Lord.
But those who formed congregations in the New Testament were not drawn by any of “benefits” that the marketers now tell us to offer the public. They were drawn by the promise of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ — or not (Ac. 24:25). And they would be shocked to see how we try to merchandise “brand Jesus” by draining every drop of inconvenience or unlikableness out of the gospel.
We need a restoration of the costly discipleship and self-sacrificial spirit of New Testament Christianity.
4. Radical Individualism. As all of us know, the modern world has become very individualistic. Close-knit neighborhoods are a thing of the past. Families have become scattered. Rarely do people live anywhere for very long. And so, we withdraw into our own little worlds and have little sense that we are a part of anything larger than ourselves. In this kind of culture, where everybody is mainly focused on his own needs, Christians have had a hard time holding on to the “brotherhood” aspect of Christianity.
In the New Testament, Christians saw themselves as part of a “people” who were the Lord’s people (1 Pt. 1:9,10). And this consciousness extended beyond the local church. The Romans, for example, would have been thrilled to receive Paul’s greetings from, and to hear any news about, “the churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16) elsewhere. Today, many of us are embarrassed by that expression, “the churches of Christ.” Granted, Paul did not use it as a proper noun, much less the designation of a denominational entity, but even so, the expression is scripturally meaningful. Our individualism may have been bred in us by long years of fighting against dangerous institutional concepts of the church, but even so, I believe our New Testament brethren would be shocked to see our isolationism, our narcissism, and our unconcern about anything that is happening beyond the borders of our own local assembly (if we are even concerned about the local assembly). They would not understand why we have so little concern for, much less love for, the “brotherhood” (1 Pt. 2:17; 5:9), and why we are so reluctant even to use the term.
We need a restoration of the brotherhood spirit of New Testament Christianity.
5. Self-Centered Religion. One would think that religion would be the last thing in the world that anybody could turn into a self-centered project, but is exactly what has happened. And the change has been so pervasive, most people don’t even realize what has happened.
At this point in history, most people feel perfectly free to envision God as being anything they think is reasonable or agreeable. And when it comes to “serving” God, most people assume that whatever suits them will be acceptable to God. Since all paths lead to heaven, why not pick the one that is most pleasing to . . . you?
Most of us deplore the self-centeredness of modern religion — and then turn right around and practice it ourselves. Rather than commit ourselves unconditionally to God’s glory, whatever that might mean for us (Phil. 1:20), we think of God as existing primarily to solve our problems and give us what we want. Our brethren in the New Testament would be shocked to see how often we think about ourselves, how rarely we think about God, and how humanistically we think of religion as having no higher purpose than the pleasing of . . . ourselves.
We need, above all else, a restoration of the God-centered spirit of New Testament Christianity.
The gospel is a gospel of restoration: a plan whereby God is restoring us to the perfect image of His glory, which image we have marred by our rebellion against Him (1 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; etc.). But the process through which God is restoring us is not yet complete. It is a gradual process, and as long as we live as Christians in this world, we will always be works in progress. So at the most fundamental level, that of our individual relationship with God, restoration must be an ongoing work. How, then, could it be anything less than that in our congregational relationship?
Every generation must do its own work of restoration, coming back to God’s word with fresh eyes and seeing truths that the preceding generation may have had trouble seeing (Ps. 119:18). We cannot depend on the restorations that our parents carried out, and our children will not be able to depend on those that we carry out. Every generation must reconnect itself to the standard of Pentecost: not to the disciples who were baptized that day, mind you, but to the unchanging word — the “law” (Isa. 2:2,3) — that began to go forth from Jerusalem on that day (Lk. 24:47; Ac. 1:8).
Frankly, I am excited about the restoration and renewal that I see taking place among the Lord’s people in our country right now. Nearly everywhere I go, I meet Christians who are far ahead of where I was spiritually when I was their age. It is thrilling to see the new emphasis on serious textual study of the Scriptures, the thirsty desire for spiritual growth, and the realization that discipleship involves a seven-days-a-week spirituality rather than the mere attendance at church services one or two days a week. And often, the most encouraging signs of renewal that I see are those that have appeared informally, with no specific “agenda” on anybody’s part except a desire to grow to maturity in the Lord.
But sometimes minor change is not enough. Sometimes, as in Malachi’s day, there is such a serious need for repentance and restoration that the Lord’s people need to hit the “reset button.” So let me ask you: when was the last time the congregation of which you are a part hit the reset button and engaged in any serious act of restoration? And individually, when was the last time you hit the reset button? Have you ever done so?
Our salvation depends on our willingness to be warned (Ac. 20:29-31), so let me conclude with a warning. Do we wonder why our “Restoration Plea” so often falls on deaf ears and our appeals for others to come back to God have so little impact? Perhaps we, the “restorers,” still have some restoration work to do! Perhaps we need to hear the thundering words of God to those of Ezekiel’s day, still captive in Babylon: “‘I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord,’ says the Lord God, ‘when I am hallowed in you before their eyes’” (Ezek. 36:23).
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