In the early to mid-1900s many theologians wrestled with the revolutionary spirits of the age. Especially in a society that has some lingering influence of Christianity, it seems explicable that those who have been jaded and hurt by the disobedience/unbelief of Christians, and above all those who hate what God wants for their lives, would want to throw off that influence.
I recently wrote an article on the revolutions of 2020. I wrote this drawing on ideas from the Bible, but also the wording of mid-century theologians: “We are not revolutionaries. We are living in a time where ungodly revolutionaries are overthrowing all semblance of order and godliness. The Church does not grow by revolution but by regeneration.”
Revolution is a forcible overthrow of a social order or government in favor of a new system. If we definite revolution in this worldly or naturalistic sense, it is something then that is of this world and not of God, as we find the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men in the Gospels. Defined in this sense, it is very much of this world.
And yet, some have argued that Christianity is indeed in a sense revolutionary. The Swiss theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote this: “One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative. Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary.” I don’t believe that he meant this in the “of this world” sense of the word.
I would describe Christianity as anti-revolutionary in the fullest sense of the word. The Psalmist describes the revolution in Psalm 2 as a vain conspiracy/plot and a wild rage against the Lord and against His Anointed. This revolution seeks to burst the bonds of the Lord apart and cast away His cords. It seeks to break the yoke of Jesus Christ which is easy and light in comparison with the empires of this world.
We should remember that there are two types of revolution. The first is men who rebel against God’s gracious rule and authority (a deep rage that permeates the peoples of the earth). The second is men who rebel against the kingdoms of this world. As the church brings the gospel to the ends of the earth, we should remember that the two are distinct but not divided.
So what about my distinction between revolution and regeneration?
Revolution seeks to re-make the externals of a society. Government shifts from elected officials to health officers. It burns buildings and builds new ones. It puts new graffiti over old paint. But like a graveyard, no matter how much you water the grass and polish the tombstones, you cannot change the fact that it is a graveyard. There are dead bones underneath.
Regeneration seeks to re-make the internal life of men and women. No man can do this. Only God can do this. God uses the courage of His people to speak the truth, to preach the gospel, to live out the change that He has worked in them to spread this regeneration. First and foremost, He does this through His Son Jesus Christ who took the anti-revolutionary route of dying on a cross, before He ascended into heaven over all principalities and powers. This is what it means to be born of God. The world changes not by revolution, but by rebirth.
This is not to deny that this internal change will reveal itself in external action. The two are inseparable. A world leader who has been regenerated by the power of God will also seek to live and act by the power of God. And this really is revolutionary in the sense it it goes against the grain of the sinfulness of this world. What is of God is sent on mission in this world with the confession that Jesus is Lord.
So what? The church will always have to wrestle with the revolutionary spirits of the age and test those spirits under the light of the Word of God. The church must lift the cross above the smoke and flames of every new revolution and point to the kingdom that is from God and of God. Those who have been made new by the power of God, must continue to take responsibility under the Lordship of Christ to live in a way that does not perpetuate wicked revolutions, but the renewing and redeeming power of the Word of God, which drives us to the reality of the cross and resurrection. This includes calling the wicked to repent. Not based on the latest social theory. Not based on their status or academic training. But based on the Word of God.
The Apostle Peter captured the thrilling nature of this struggle for freedom that comes through the gospel and the Word of God. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” (I Peter 2:15-16)