Ruins are sad, yet fascinating remnants of life that has long since departed. They also serve as a reminder of my own finiteness and desperate need of the infinite, eternal, unchanging God of the universe. Much like trying to identify someone by looking at their shadow, ruins give us clues without a clear picture of what once was. And an outsider who visits ruins gets a far clearer picture of the devastation than those who spend their lives dwelling amongst these ruins in their continual decline.
When Paul Washer visited Denmark in 2009, he said “I knew the state of Christianity in Western Europe was bad but I could not believe that the land of the reformation could possibly decline as much as my friends warned me. My friends were wrong – it's even worse than they say it is!” Brother Washer was shocked at the dilapidated ruins of the Reformation as evidenced by the rampant widespread apostacy among "Danish churches".
It was while living in Australia in 2005 that I believe God ignited a hunger in me to learn more about the great Reformation that took place in sixteenth century Europe (whilst acknowledging the earlier pioneers such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus). One pastor in Denmark asked me recently “Cameron, it is great that you have such passion for the Gospel, but why do we have to keep hearing you always talking relentlessly about that one thing?” I responded, “because if you get that one thing wrong then everything else is a waste of time.” We must keep the main thing the main thing. A good soldier knows that his first priority is his commanders last instruction. And Jesus, the Commander in Chief of the universe, gave His final orders when He told His soldiers (and 2 Timothy chapter 2 describes the Christian as His soldier) to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.
Denmark is full of beautiful church buildings with empty pews and an abandoned Gospel. It is the Danes who live day by day among these ruins and few of them can even remotely grasp the catastrophe before their eyes. Some professing believers draw some perverse comfort with the thought that their local “church” is not as heretical as the one down the road . . . as if that is something worth clinging to! The reformers all believed that any “church” that abandons the Gospel gets abandoned by God. That a “church” without the Gospel is not a church - as is clearly laid out in the Article 29 of the 1561 Belgic Confession:
We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church - for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of "the church."
We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves "the church."
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church - and no one ought to be separated from it.
As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.
Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.
As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.
These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.
The reformers spoke with authority on this subject because it was men like Luther, Tyndale, and Calvin who recovered the Gospel from the ruins of the perverse works righteous Roman Catholic religious system. Preaching of the Gospel is the means God has chosen by which to perform His miraculous act of salvation – of a sinner who is dead in sin being born again (John 3:3-5). This is why a church is wasting it's time with a myriad of programs while the Gospel is abandoned. Because without the Gospel, without genuine conversion, a pastor becomes a motivational speaker to a room full of skeletons:
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD." So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Ezekiel 37:1-10)
Ruins can make me despair. But it is those ruins of the Reformation that bring home the reality that the Gospel is all about faithfully proclaiming the message God delivered, to a civilization of dead corpses, in order that God may be glorified by raising them from the dead. It reminds me that I am incapable of prompting or persuading a valley of dry bones. That I need the God of the resurrection to bring these dry bones to life. And that true biblical churches are inhabited by prophets like Ezekiel who understand this reality.
This is my story of moving to Denmark from Australia. A story of despair at the ruins of a once great revival, and a story of awakening to what a local church really is – a prophetic voice, obedient to a resurrecting God, speaking to the ruins of evil men who are nothing more than a valley dry bones dead in sin. Can these bones live? Oh Lord God you know!
My story isn't finished . . . more to come
Go On To Part 2