How to revive a dead church (Thomas Schreiner)
As Christians we should be responsible citizens and vote. It is especially important to vote on the great moral issues of our day, like abortion. Historians look back on what the Nazis did to the Jews with horror, and we can easily be dulled to the relentless murder of babies in our culture. Abortion is the great moral issue of our time. And those who fail to see this reveal their own moral blindness.
But we must never put our faith in politics or any political party. The City of Man will never become the City of God. We should do our civic duty, and if you are called to politics, or to serving as a judge, that is a wonderful calling. But we do not put our hopes in the political process. We do not believe our nation will be transformed by passing laws which enshrine moral principles, even though the passing of such laws is a good thing. No, the key to our nation’s transformation is spiritual revival. The fundamental problem in our country is spiritual and not political (even if it is a good thing to be involved in political life). What we need most is revival in our churches.
We believe the local church can play a significant role in this process, for we hope and pray that many in our congregations will go out and pastor churches. Many churches out there are like the church of Sardis: near spiritual death. Though you will never read this in the newspapers, as our churches go, so goes our nation. If our nation is moving away from the things of God, it is because our churches have been compromising for a long time. But we never give up hope. Christians should never despair. We have a God who brings life out of death. We believe in a God who can turn things around. So, we get involved in the political process, and we pray for godly leaders and rulers. And some of us pursue the political life as a calling. But we realize that nothing is more important than our churches. Our fundamental goal is never to change the culture. It is to bring glory and praise to our God. We want our churches to be his beautiful bride for his name’s sake. Let’s look at a church that needed reviving—the church in Sardis. Let’s ask this question as we consider this text. How can dead churches come to life?
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ Revelation 3:1-6
Church, Know You Are Dead!
So, how can dead churches be revived? First, they need to know they are dead (3:1). Notice the second half of v. 1. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Many churches don’t even know they are dead. They think they are doing well. The church of Sardis thought it was just fine. What is the sign that a church is alive? A church isn’t alive simply because it is large. We all know a church can attract a lot of people and not preach the gospel. A church isn’t alive simply because it buzzes with programs and activities. Don’t misunderstand me. It can be a great blessing to have a large church and lots of activity, but we should not equate numbers and programs with spiritual life. A church that is alive is pleasing to God. Jesus says to the church at Sardis. I know your works and you are dead! A dead church may be a very friendly church. Some churches think they are alive because the people are very nice. Now I am not advocating that churches be mean! But we should not equate life with being nice either! A church is alive if it has a passion for the glory, honor, and praise of Jesus Christ.
Dead Churches, Wake Up!
Second, dead churches need to wake up (3:2). The church of Sardis had fallen into spiritual lethargy. Jesus says to them, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (v 2). As the ESV study Bible says, “Twice in its history Sardis had been sacked (in 547 B.C. by Cyrus II, and in 214 B.C. by Antiochus III) when the watchmen on the walls failed to detect an enemy army sneaking up its supposedly impregnable cliffs and walls.” When Jesus says to Sardis: wake up, he reminds them of their history. They had fallen asleep before, and it turned out to be a disaster.
Many churches in the U.S. are in this situation right now. They are slumbering spiritually. They are about to die as the church of Sardis was, and they don’t even know they are on the brink of death. Many churches have already died. Some are closing their doors. I hear in England that many churches are becoming mosques. What a challenge it is for us to pray for godly pastors to be raised up to go to such churches, and to plant new churches for the sake of the gospel.
And perhaps you personally today have become spiritually dull. Maybe you need to wake up. Maybe your heart has become cold toward God, and you have been in a long spiritual nap. Jesus says: wake up. Strengthen the little life that is left in you. Certainly our nation needs to wake up before it is too late. We need a fresh infusion of spiritual life. We need to pray earnestly for our churches and our country.
Church, Get Back to Your Spiritual Roots
Third, we need to go back to our spiritual roots (v 3). “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” We need to remember the gospel. Isn’t it amazing how quickly churches forget the gospel? I have seen the same truth in my own life. One thing I have been astonished about in my life is how easily I forget the gospel. I know the gospel in my head, but I start living by works in my life. All of us are prone to start trusting in ourselves and what we accomplish in our own strength. And one reason we forget the gospel is everything we do in life is judged by performance. Am I a good husband, father, preacher, teacher, writer, etc.? How am I doing, doing, doing? We are evaluated constantly. How good is the class you teach? How good is the sermon? How are your kids turning out? So, it is very easy for us to forget the gospel.
And churches can forget the gospel as well. Fundamentalist churches forget the gospel because they focus on rules. They teach their children: we don’t do this, and we don’t do that, and on and one. And liberal churches quit talking about sin and repentance. In liberal churches there is no need for the gospel because we are good already. And actually the same problem is present in fundamentalist churches, because though they know the gospel in their heads, they begin to focus on their piety in observing rules.
Repentance means that we turn back to the gospel. We recognize that our strength comes from the Lord and not from ourselves. When we were new Christians, we knew that we were weak, we knew that we were babies, we knew that we could only be saved by the grace of God, but it is easy to forget that the longer we are Christians. So, churches that are spiritually dead must remember and repent and turn back to the gospel.
Church, Resist Compromise
Fourth, we must resist compromise. We read in v. 4, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” To not soil one’s garments is to resist being defiled by worldliness. Jesus says that faithful believers walk in white. In other words, they do what is pleasing to God. Our churches need spiritual revival because they have often become worldly. I am not talking about observing legalistic rules here: like don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t go to movies, etc. True worldliness is much more subtle than this. Worldliness shows up when we join a church for business reasons instead of spiritual reasons.
Churches might promote someone to leadership because of their worldly success instead of their spiritual walk with God. Abortions may be quietly practiced in the church to spare families the embarrassment of admitting that their daughter is pregnant. Or, members of the church may divorce their spouse without any biblical cause, and yet no one says anything to them about their sin. Or, the church is marked by gossip instead of by prayer. If our churches are going to be revived, they need to seek the Lord, and the members need to be accountable to one another. We need to keep short accounts with the Lord and confess our sins to one another. We must not hold grudges against one another, but forgive one another. In the U.S. there are tons of seminars on how churches can grow if they use the right strategy and use the right technique. But our churches will not truly be revived if we are not godly. Our churches will be revived when we walk humbly with the Lord.
Church, Be Filled With the Power of the Holy Spirit
Fifth, and most important, churches need to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. We read about this in v. 1. “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God.” Jesus has the Holy Spirit, and he is saying to the church of Sardis, what you need to be revived is to have the work of the Spirit renewed among you. Jesus is the one who has the Spirit and pours it out on his people. At the end of the day the revival of churches is due to the Spirit’s work. It is a supernatural and divine work. We acknowledge that we have no ability to revive a church. We can and must work for it, pray for it, and hope for it. But it is finally a work of God, a work of the Holy Spirit.
Martin Lloyd Jones constantly stressed in his ministry that we cannot plan a revival. We don’t have one by just putting a sign up beforehand. Often people confuse revival with a preacher getting excited and yelling, or with an outpouring of emotion. Now a revival may be accompanied by a preacher getting excited in such a way and with a great outpouring of emotion. But we must beware of superficiality. It is easy to have a cheap and tawdry imitation of the real thing. We may so want revival that we pretend we are having it when it isn’t happening. No, revival finally depends upon the Holy Spirit. We can’t manufacture it. We can’t produce it, but we can pray for it, and ask for the Spirit to be given to us. We are weak and needy people. How we need the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of our churches. Let us conclude by considering the future.
First, if a church doesn’t come alive, it will be judged. We read in Revelation 3:3, “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” This coming could be the second coming or it could be a coming in history, and it is difficult to decide which is intended here. Since Jesus uses the same imagery to describe the second coming and Paul picks up the same language in 1 Thessalonians 5, it seems that the second coming is probably in view here. In either case, the church will be judged if they don’t wake up.
Jesus alludes here to the two occasions when Sardis was conquered in surprise attacks, and he says that he will come in a surprising way like a thief. Don’t think you will finally get away with being spiritually dead. A day of reckoning is coming. Spiritual deadness is like an infected appendix, which suddenly bursts inside and releases poison everywhere. It is like what happened to Saddam Hussein’s army in both 1991 and 2003. Iraqi troops could not withstand the onslaught of U.S. power. The day of judgment will be like that. One moment there will be peace and safety, and then suddenly the judgment will be at hand.
But second there is another side. Those who are ready for the Lord’s return will be rewarded. Revelation 3:5 states, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” I think all three pictures of the reward here promise eternal life. The one who conquers will be in white garments: that means that they will be right before God. How do we get these white robes? We read in Revelation 7:14, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Are your garments white because you have been washed in the blood of the lamb? Have you found the forgiveness of sins, not in your own works, but in what Jesus has done for you on the cross? If you know him and have white garments and are really spiritually alive, then he will never blot you out of the book of life. Your name will be in his book, and you will live with him forever. Jesus will confess your name before the Father. He will say: this is my child. This is my son. Or, this is my daughter. This person belongs in the book of life, because they are alive, because I have granted them life.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.