It is more important, if that is possible, that reformation by means of a break with the church has the conviction of sin and guilt as its point of departure, than in reformation through spiritual revival and gradual church renewal.
He who risks a break with the existing church without this consciousness of sin and guilt denounces faith in God’s providential order.
For such a one it is as if the reformation of the church arises only because of the opposition and ambition of some so that God the Lord would indeed give to us a good church if only the stubbornness of a few did not stand in His way. And the chief desire of their heart is then that they, as the better ones, should try to make these evil people harmless, so that in this way they can bring into being a good church for the Lord. Three kinds of sins arise out of this one sin. First, there is no awareness of one’s own corporate guilt. Secondly, there is an exaltation of one’s self over others. And thirdly, there is the delusion that a good church is not a gift of God to us, but is a gift from us to the Lord.
If one confesses on the other hand, that a good church is an excellent and gracious gift of God which He freely grants us and which we receive without any merit on our part, then one sees at once that if the Lord withholds this good from us, this must lie in the sin of the church. In this way a bad church is always a chastisement and a judgment because of our unrighteousness. He who recognizes this judgment of God in the sad state of the church can no longer think that the piety of one’s own people should be as a sacrifice for the evil of others. But on the contrary, he will confess that all guilt and sin is communal, and that exactly his own people, according as they know more truth and have received more abundant grace, have transgressed more abominably. Not the wild animals which mangle you, but the children of the house are the ones who violate that love which is most precious.
He who works for the reformation of the church in the name of the Lord neither can nor will do this in pride, much less with a contemptuous scorn for others. Rather, he will lack in himself the courage to lift his hand for such a task and he will anxiously ask himself if it be the Lord’s will that his guilt before the Lord is to be punished more and more severely by this plague of desolation in the church. The true minister of repentance who is capable of this work will thus concede that he hopes for nothing else than an increase in the burden of his own sin. Nevertheless he conducts himself out of pure obedience and compels others to treat all things according to the Word of God.
God Himself is the only Author of reformation which takes place by means of a break with the existing church. This does not give us an excuse to neglect devotion to duty and a license for spiritual laziness. He who takes this position has the whole Word of God against him. This becomes in fact Antinomianism. But it is nevertheless true that reformation cannot proceed in a proper way unless the Holy Spirit performs the merciful work of arousing in hard hearts the conviction of sin, and of making one see a judgment of God in the decay of the church. This kind of conviction cannot be cultivated artificially. If the one person parrots the other that all church renewal must proceed from confession of guilt, this is useless and never brings anyone further than a mere empty show. Confession of guilt can arouse truth, reality, spiritual stamina, when the Holy Spirit Himself speaks as the Convictor in the guilty heart. And having done this the same Holy Spirit then comforts, oh so tenderly, that same guilty heart.
There must still be added something else. Church reformation is not something which happens through the work of one person. When Luther began his work, he did take the lead; but his work would have disappeared in oblivion and death if a number of other persons, already matured and prepared, and only waiting for his signal, had not added their strength to his. So it is, if conviction of ecclesiastical guilt is aroused in only one heart, this is not enough. Such a conviction must simultaneously arise in many and cause an awakening of the Spirit among the Lord’s people. Only in this way does that warm fervor arise which melts everything, that scintillating life which awakens everything, that power which conquers all opposition. Then one sees how only God the Lord can be Author of such a reformation. One immediately realizes that a man can arouse an enthusiasm for his ideas in a small circle of friends, but to produce a similar spiritual movement in a broader circle, this no man can do; this is only of the Lord.
This is not to say that a person in whom that conviction is aroused must and may sit still until the time in which he notices that that same conviction is in the hearts of others. This would hold in contempt and reject the demand of God. A man may imagine that this is true. He may even tell others that those who have insight into conviction of ecclesiastical guilt and see the sin of the church as sin against God nevertheless must passively wait until the Lord either performs an extraordinary sign by which the situation changes without our effort, or that all hearts are so aroused to church renewal that they become as a voice of the rushing of many waters. But he obviously does not understand even the first principle of obedience.