A Reformer's Tough Assignment
Then the LORD reached out His hand and touched my mouth and said to me, Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.Jeremiah 1:9, 10
Among men who were called to the service of God's Word, Jeremiah was assigned an unusually difficult role. A very sensitive man, he was ordered to bring an especially urgent call to reform to people who had long shown hostility to any such course. (The burdensomeness of bringing such a message in such surroundings is evident throughout his book and it "spills over" into its appendix, his Lamentations). This character of Jeremiah's assignment makes its message especially applicable also in other times when there is urgent need of reform. The sixteenth century was such a time in Europe. Our own time is not less so, as the traces of the Reformation of four centuries ago are vanishing even among people who still keep the old "Reformed" name. We ought to take a fresh look at the introductory account of Jeremiah's call to the role of Reformer prophet.
God's Call and Word
The first fact that catches our attention as we open the book is that the prophet's role and message were not in any way his own choice: "The word of the LORD came to me, saying, ... before you were born ... I appointed you as a prophet..." That divine appointment overrode all of his objections and excuses, determining what he would say and to whom he would say it: "You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you." In our time it has become the fad of theologians to announce as a new discovery that everything in the Bible is much more "time-conditioned" and "time-determined" than we used to realize, we especially need the Bible's often reiterated reminder that "time-conditioning" and "time-determination" really characterize only false prophets. The true prophet's harshest condemnations had to fall on the "time-serving" politicians who had the effrontery to announce "The LORD says..." when the LORD had said the opposite: "The prophets are prophesying lies in my name ... the delusions of their own minds ... those same prophets will perish" (14:14, 15; cf. 23:25-40).
It is significant that John Calvin in commenting on verse 9, quoted above, observes that the true teacher in the Church is to be recognized "when he brings nothing of his own, according to what Peter says ... 'Let him who speaks, speak as the oracles of God'" (1 Peter 4:11).
Let us ... know, that whatever proceeds from the wit of man, ought to be disregarded ... none ought to be acknowledged as God's servants ... no prophets or teachers ought to be counted true and faithful, except those through whom God speaks, who invent nothing themselves, who teach not according to their own fancies, but faithfully deliver what God has committed to them ... A rule is prescribed to all God's servants, that they bring not their own inventions, but simply deliver, as from hand to hand, what they have received from God ... so that they may not mix any of their own fictions with his pure doctrine.
As Jeremiah must know that the message he brings is not his own opinion but God's word, he must speak with authority — not his own but God's. In that role as speaking God's word, God said to the prophet, "I appoint you over nations and kingdoms." At this point again, Calvin's comment is illuminating. Alluding to the pressures on the preacher or teacher to defer to the power, dignity or wealth of the people to whom he must speak, and modify his message accordingly, Calvin remarks that,
In such cases there is no remedy, except teachers set God before their eyes, and regard him to be himself the speaker. They may thus with courageous and elevated minds look down on whatever height and pre-eminence there may be among mortals. God here, shows that there is so much authority in his word, that whatever is high and exalted on earth is made subject to it; even kings are not excepted.
At this point Calvin adds an important and necessary caution:
God had said, 'Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth; so that whosoever claims such a power, must necessarily bring forth the word of God and really prove that he is a prophet, and that he introduces no fictions of his own.'
The need of this warning was especially apparent in the false assertion of the pope and Roman clergy who claimed, 'We are above both kings and nations.' 'Now let the Pope show that he is furnished with the word of God ... that he introduces nothing of his own devices, and we shall willingly allow that he is pre-eminent ... men are not here so much extolled, though they be true ministers of celestial truth, as the truth itself; for God here ascribes the highest authority to his own word, though its ministers were men of no repute...'
When many abuses have been long entrenched and become deep-seated, the role of the one who must bring God's word may become especially difficult because it has to begin with a negative emphasis. That was true for Jeremiah. It was a problem to Luther and Calvin. It is also a special problem to anyone concerned about Reformation in our time when it has become an axiom of society that one must "never be negative."
Jeremiah was commissioned "to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow." The unpopularity of having to do that often threatened his safety and even life.
Again Calvin's comment is intriguing — '...impiety, perverseness, and hardened iniquity had for so long a time prevailed, that it was necessary to begin with ruin and eradication; for Jeremiah could not have planted or have built the temple of God, except he had first destroyed, pulled down ... Because the devil had erected there his palace... How, then, could he have built there a temple for God, in which he might be purely worshipped, except ruin and destruction had preceded?'
In the Reformation, it soon became apparent that seeking real church reform and renewal by a return to God's word brought inevitable conflict with the false doctrines and practices of the papacy.
The present troubled history of our own churches, as those of others, are multiplying examples of this same inevitable conflict. When unbiblical doctrines are taught, or, perhaps more commonly, our Biblical and confessional doctrines are not being taught, when our educational institutions and publications are undercutting them, when the Biblical and confessional organization of our churches is being in principle denied, and in practice contradicted, when there is no longer the required responsible accounting to the churches for even what is being done with their gifts, it becomes increasingly obvious that if there is to be any responsible building, the abuses God hates will have to be uprooted and torn out. In such demolition God's word is "like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces" (Jeremiah 23:29) — think of today's jack-hammers!
The Constructive Goal
Although this inevitable tearing down of abuses may have to take place before there is substantial building, we, like God's prophet, must be aware that our aim and end must not be to destroy, but to "build and to plant."
In the New Testament both the Second letter of Peter and that of Jude alert the churches to the need for drastic action when godless men are destroying the faith and life of the gospel among them. They must then "contend for the faith which was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). In these pleas for militant action against error, it is also significant that both the first chapter of 2 Peter and the concluding verses of Jude are positive and constructive:
If you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
A Word for Today
Some questions may be raised about whether we may and should take Jeremiah's calling and message as our guide to church reformation in our time. There are some important differences between his surroundings and role and ours. Look at some of the differences.
- Jeremiah was dealing with government as well as church. There is a difference between our responsibilities to a government and to a church. For example, God's word requires us to pay taxes to government (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17); it nowhere assigns church leaders any such authority to tax. Its instructions for Christian giving (2 Corinthians 8, 9) are quite the opposite of taxation. We must, as a rule, submit to government even when we may not agree with its use of authority; we are not obliged to submit to church bureaucrats who usurp the authority which the Lord entrusted to church elders (3 John 9ff.).
- A greater difference between Jeremiah's situation and ours is that Jeremiah's role as a prophet speaking for God was an extraordinary one. Since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was given to all believers so that, as Peter explained, all of them, young and old, men and women (Acts 2:17ff.) were now called to prophesy in the sense of speaking for God to the world. This does not, of course, deny the unique roles and qualifications which the New Testament even after Pentecost requires for special offices in the church. It does mean that the New Testament Christian has a responsible and active role very different from the passive one to which the Roman Catholic and later Protestant hierarchies might try to limit him. In that respect the New Testament believer's assignment is actually more like that of the prophet than was that of the ordinary Old Testament believer.
We may recall that when Luther found that church officials stubbornly resisted any efforts toward reform, he wrote his "address to the German nobility" urging them on the authority of their office as Christians to initiate steps to reform the church. That appeal began to be abused in the Peasant Revolt to justify anarchy, much as the appeal to the believers' office is being misused among us to deny authority to all special offices. Such misinterpretations must not be permitted to tear down the Biblical order of the church, but they should drive us the more to return to the Word of God for direction in seeking the reform of Christ's church. God alone can revive and restore His church. That fact appears throughout the prophecy of Jeremiah. But He calls men by His Word and Spirit to experience and to become His servants in such restoration. The Reformed Fellowship has for a third of a century envisioned such a Reformation. May we faithfully pray, work — and fight for it, as uncompromisingly as Jeremiah had to do so.
A visitor watching a substantial part of our last synod's activity often received the impression of being present at two different meetings. In one of them the appeals of elder and minister delegates clearly tried to follow the direction of the Bible and the creeds. In the other the speakers were so preoccupied with trying to adjust themselves to our times that they seemed impervious to any consideration of the Bible or creeds. The synod went through the frustrating annual performance of trying to combine these incompatibles and followed it with an inane "pastoral letter" to the churches admonishing all to trust and peace.
When the ineffectiveness of their Biblical and confessional appeals to our synods has been so plainly demonstrated, the time seems to have come for the many consistories and members who have been trying to maintain a Biblical and confessional course to consult with one another about what they must do next to achieve it.
It becomes steadily more obvious that there is today more real unity of mind and heart between many in a variety of church fellowships who want to be faithful to the Bible and our Reformed creeds than there is within our own increasingly diverse denomination. Perhaps the time has come when we should be working for a genuine ecumenical union with those who share the common biblical faith at the same time as we seek to separate from those who don't.