One of my interests in history—it’s not exactly my specialty, but it’s related—is the history of revival, and particularly in the Anglo-American context from the Reformation forward. The core of my interest is my desire to see revival on a grand scale happen here in America as we know it, and to be one of the people through whom the Holy Spirit works to bring it about, but I do have more purely historical interest in the subject as well. In particular, as one who has tended to focus on the history of ideas, and in particular how theology drives history and is affected by it in turn, it’s fascinating to study the interplay of revivals with the politics of their time.
The Reformation, of course, is an example of a revival that was thoroughly snarled in power politics right from the beginning, with considerable negative consequences; but even beyond the Reformation, the great periods of revival we see in the history of this country and of England have not been merely religious events—they have had significant effects on our political history.
If you look at the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s, you can see that it had a lot to do with creating and shaping the democratic, egalitarian ideas that would drive the American Revolution; it also did much to weave connections between the 13 colonies and inspire a sense of an American national identity. The Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s revitalized the new nation and immensely strengthened society on the frontier, which I think was critical in bringing the US through the war of 1812, as well as playing a significant role in the rise of the abolitionist movement. The “prayer meeting revival” that began in New York City in 1857 (in a time of financial crisis much like our own, actually) transformed America’s cities, especially in the North—just before the greatest political crisis in this nation’s history, the secession of the South.
Now, there are a lot of wrong ways to take this. I’m not saying that revivals are about political situations or exist for political purposes, and still less that the church should desire revival as a means to achieving a political agenda. But in our time when we’re debating nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing governments all across the Muslim world challenged and even toppled by popular protests, as well as ongoing struggles in pseudo-democracies like Zimbabwe and Honduras, I believe there’s a political lesson illustrated here that we need to bear firmly in mind: political renewal will not happen without spiritual revival. It just won’t—it never has. Except for the rise of Greek democracy and the Roman Republic, I honestly cannot think of a revolutionary political change for the better that has taken place apart from a Judeo-Christian revival; and given the importance of Greece and Rome for the growth of the early church, I think we may well see the work of the Holy Spirit there, too, preparing the ground.
You see, the critical reality is that politics won’t save us, because our problems cannot be controlled by human laws; they are too deep, too subtle, and too devious. Good works won’t save us, because our problems cannot be solved by human effort; I realize we talk about people picking themselves up by their own bootstraps, but have you ever tried it? Problems do not solve themselves, and we are the problem; as Walt Kelly had Pogo say, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We cannot fix ourselves, and in fact, we can’t be fixed at all. We need something more: we need to be transformed.
This is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. We are in Christ, we have been made new; now he is at work in us making us new from the inside out, making us what we already are. We have been removed from the authority of this realm of sin and death and transferred into the realm of righteousness and life, the kingdom of God, under the lordship of Jesus Christ—if you were here a couple years ago when we explored Colossians, you remember Paul saying that there; but we are still in this world, and it still influences us, as do the habits and patterns we’ve learned from it. And so Paul says, “Don’t conform to this world”—J. B. Phillips famously rendered this, “Don’t let this world squeeze you into its mold,” but that doesn’t go far enough; the world pressures us, but we often go along with it. Don’t squeeze yourself into its mold, don’t let it file you down to fit, don’t give away those things for which it has no use. Don’t try to fit in with the world around you, and don’t let anyone else convince you that you should.
Instead, Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Not “transform yourself,” which would make easy sense even if a hard command; he commands us, “Be transformed.” This is obviously not something we can do; it is the Holy Spirit who renews our minds, who changes our perceptions and our understanding and our desires. It is the Spirit of God who teaches us to see the will of God, and to understand that his will is good and well-pleasing and perfect. In our sinful human minds, we don’t see his will as any of those things, much of the time; the Spirit shows us better, helping us to see that in truth it is God’s will that is good, God’s plans that are well-pleasing, God’s desires that are perfect, not our own. He teaches us to see the world and ourselves in the way that God sees things, and to want what God wants rather than what we naturally want; and this change in our understanding and desires changes our behavior, moving us to live our lives as an offering to God, to live as his worshipers in everything we do by seeking to honor him in everything we do.
So what does Paul mean in commanding us to be transformed? Well, it’s what we talked about a couple weeks ago, from another angle: we cannot and do not do the work of saving ourselves, nor of transforming ourselves, but we do have the work to do of letting go and letting the Holy Spirit renew our minds and transform our lives. Pride resists being told that we don’t know what’s best for us, it resists learning to want different things; we need to kill our pride, to accept that death. Letting go and letting God, letting the Spirit work, means letting ourselves be God’s, whatever he may do with us, wherever he may take us, whatever he may cause us to be and to do. It is the work of active surrender, of deliberately and intentionally giving ourselves over to God and his will.