There is a pernicious lie afoot. It has been told since the beginning of time. It goes like this: “Nothing ever really changes.” You have heard it, too. The lie unwittingly supports those who cop out on God and say that their “anger” or their “lust” or their “peculiar personality quirks” are just “parts of my DNA. I can’t change who I am!” Boy, do I know that line well (I have used it in days past)! Well, of course, they can’t change. I couldn’t change. But can God change me? Now, we are getting to the heart of the Reformation.
Give attention to the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God in one of the Psalms of Ascent.
A Song of Ascents.
(1-3) When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.
(4-6) Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him (ESV).
Logic on Fire
The people we met in Wales, while we were there for my postgraduate studies and I preached in a Welsh Reformed congregation, would tell you that you are crazy. “Of course, things can change. People can change.” They would say that because so many of them had been totally transformed. Indeed, many of them had changed because of one man. One Welshman caught fire—Luther-like—and began to burn with the flames of the Gospel. As he came to preach in their churches, many experienced the doctrine on fire in that man and they, too, began to burn. Who was the man who preached with doctrine on fire?
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a Calvinistic Methodist preacher. Born in the reign of Victoria (1899), he left this world in the reign of Elizabeth II (1981). The combination of those two words — Calvinistic and Methodist — may sound confusing in your ears. However, because of the influence of the preaching of George Whitfield (1714-1770), perhaps, the greatest evangelical preacher in the history of the Church, during the English evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century, the Presbyterian Church in Wales became known as the Calvinistic Methodist Church. Born in 1735-36 out of the strong Gospel preaching of evangelists Howell Harris (1714-1773) and Daniel Rowlands (1711-1790).
The Presbyterian Church of Wales is doctrinally Calvinistic, because of Whitefield. Her expressions are Methodist (in the original sense, “Enthusiasts,” or what we would say today, “evangelical.” Rev. George Whitefield led the denomination for six years, from 1742-1748). The work was financed by the Countess of Huntington, Mrs. Selina Shirley (1707-1791), who did so much good in the work of spreading the Gospel of God’s grace in those thrilling days. The Presbyterian Church of Wales still is still referred to as the Calvinistic Methodist Church. For many years there were such churches in America.
The Calvinistic Methodist Church parishes were established as the Welsh came to the New World. Now all that is left is some of the names of the towns that they brought with them like Swansea, Lampeter, and Bangor. The Calvinistic Methodist Church in the United States has been amalgamated into other Presbyterian churches across the centuries. The church was born out of a revival. Now, I’m not here to give you a history lesson on the Calvinistic Methodist Church. Rather, I want to show you the life of this one man, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Dr. Lloyd-Jones was not a doctor of theology or philosophy, he was rather a doctor of medicine. A graduate of the famous St. Bartholomew’s Medical College in London, now part of the University of London, Dr. Lloyd-Jones was a surgeon to the Queen. But God came into his life and brought about a radical Reformation. Not only was Dr. Lloyd-Jones converted, but he was called to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. He accepted a call in south Wales at the Bethlehem Forward Movement Church (“Sandfields” in Aberavon). At the time, it was a mining town marked, sadly, by alcoholism and abject poverty that often resulted from the hard living of the distressed coal miners.
The story of this man, Dr. Lloyd-Jones, changing as he did—from surgeon to the preacher—caught the attention of the Times of London. They sent a reporter to interview Dr. Lloyd-Jones. They asked Dr. Lloyd-Jones (words to the effect): “Do you have any regrets for what you have given up?” He had, after all, given up fame and fortune in the British capital city. The doctor answered, “I gave up nothing. I received everything.” What happened? This man was transformed totally by the gospel of Jesus Christ. And everything after that changed Lloyd-Jones changed. His wife changed. A small town in South Wales, Aberavon, changed over the 11 years that he served there. During World War II the voice of Dr. Lloyd-Jones comforted the people of Britain as they were enduring the invasion of Nazi Germany. For something else changed: Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones became the pastor of the historic Westminster Chapel on Buckingham Gate, just outside of Buckingham Palace. If you go there today, you can still see the marks from the bomb that was aimed for Buckingham Palace which took the roof off of Westminster Chapel. But even that explosion was not as extraordinary as the explosion that went off in the life of this one man in a subsequent way, like a domino effect, that so many other things — so many other people — changed; were totally transformed.
So, whenever you hear that nothing really changes, don’t believe it.
The Psalm of Ascents and Psalm 126
The Bible teaches, in fact, that total transformation is to be expected when we are dealing with Almighty God.
The Psalm of the Ascents, 120-134, each begins with those words as the title to this section of fifteen Psalms. The Hebrew is most often translated Songs of Ascent. For Augustine, they were “songs for ascending the fifteen steps of the Temple.” The early Jewish literature suggests that the ascent was from Babylon. There is still some debate among Hebrew scholars about the meaning. But wherever you come out on your study, the original Hebrew certainly means that this collection of Psalms in the Psalter has to do with taking steps, traveling, going upward. The common meaning over the centuries of the Church has been that these are Pilgrim Psalms sung by Israelites on their way up to Jerusalem for the three major festivals—Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles. David wrote four Psalms (122, 124, 131, 133), his son, Solomon, wrote one (127), and the other ten Psalms are without attribution.
The Message for Today
Psalm 126 is one of those. Although the great Welsh pastor and commentator, Rev. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), opined that the author of this Psalm was no doubt, Ezra. The Psalms is about Restoration and Revival. Around this time every year, the Church remembers an outbreak of Psalm 126 in the life of a man, Martyn Luther. We recall that on May 31, 1517, he nailed his famous 95 theses on the church door at the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And God lit a Gospel fire that is still burning. And that is part of our message today: the Reformation is more than a political or ecclesiastical realignment. The Reformation is more than a movement of religious sentiment on one continent. What is the Reformation? The Reformation is nothing short of the total transformation of the world—of one man, then a million; one People, the world.
This article is about how Reformation is a divine spark that leads to a new world. And the fire from that one spark is still burning. This message of reformation and renewal, of restoration and reanimation from death, is a message from God’s Word for you today. How many here really would like to believe that? How many of you want that? For you? Your family? Our nation?
Against the backdrop of an unbelieving world, Psalm 126 holds the pattern and the power of total transformation.
Let’s pilgrim together in this Psalm. Let’s climb the steps to see what God has for us to see.
We will observe at least three features of this total transformation in Psalm 126.
The first feature of total transformation is this:
- Total Transformation Begins with God (1-3)
Restoration of the human soul does not begin with self. Transformation of all things always begins with God working in us. In verses one through three of Psalm 126 we see that it is the Lord who restored the fortunes of Zion whenever he brought the people out of the Babylonian exile. In verse two, the psalmist attributes laughter and shouts of joy to the covenant God of Israel. In verse three he says in summary, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”
In our own nation, we see extraordinary division. We observe disturbing displays of violence. Our People have seen division and violence before. Our nation has suffered from spiritual depression that leads to self-inflicted wounds. Prior to the founding of the United States of America, the grandchildren of the pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers begin to recognize this spiritual depression had set in upon them. These concerned Christians held, what they called, concerts of prayer, principally, throughout the Connecticut River Valley.
Jonathan Edwards became the leading spokesman and the preeminent minister preaching the sovereignty of God and the sinfulness of man. George Whitfield, from England and Wales, went up and down the Colonial coast, preaching “you must be born again.” The great revival broke out in America. Many people were saved during this time. The doctrine of the word of God which had started to slip, which was giving way to heresies, was exalted as the very Word of God. By the founding of our nation, certainly, the Enlightenment and its presupposition that humanism — the exultation of self — can bring restoration of all things. But it was the Reformation during the days of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield that controlled so much of the minds of our founders. Undoubtedly, it influenced all of the colonies in young states. The records from those days, which I have held in my hand, certainly tell us that the Reformation ideas were much more prominent in America than, say, in France, which was propelled by Enlightenment ideas that God and the Church were irrelevant and that humankind was the center of all possible progress. America was, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it in his Democracy in America (1835 and 1840), a land of churches. As Dr. D.P. Define put it:
“For all practical purposes, America’s first schools were churches. America’s first teachers were clergymen. And America’s first textbook was the Bible.”
The tragedy of yesterday at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh reminds us of the sorrow of sin. The despicable act by an individual brimming over with hatred and malice has left families ripped apart by gunfire in the community in shock. I wrote a letter to the Rabbi, Jeffrey Meyers, yesterday. I wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Police Department. I assured them of my prayers, and I asked how I could help them in the relationship of Christians and Jews. I told him that we would stand with them. God hates violence. God calls for us to lead peaceable lives. But this is not possible in a transformative way unless we are changed. But the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that he always takes the first step. The Lord Jesus is doing that this morning. As you hear his Word proclaimed in song, in prayer, in the reading and preaching of the Word, the Spirit of the living God is wooing you. He is calling you into his family. And to be part of his family is to begin to experience total transformation.
This leads us to the next section of the Psalm and the next great feature of total transformation:
Total Transformation Belongs to God (4-6)
Look at the passage in verses four through six. You will see that the psalmist has a transition from the total transformation that begins with God to a total transformation that belongs to God. This is gospel paradox at work in the Old Testament, preparing us to receive Jesus Christ in the New Testament; through the Virgin Birth, Christ’s miraculous life, his crucifixion, and his resurrection from the dead. Glory is fueled by paradox. The syllogisms of man explode beneath the wonder of the mind of God. Notice the gospel paradoxes here: streams in the desert in verse four; sowing in tears, but reaping joy. And then in verse six weeping but bringing back bundles or “sheaves” of joy and new life. In each of these examples, we must note the paradox. The desert producing Rivers of life? Weeping producing shouts of joy? Sowing in sorrow but “bringing in the sheaves,” filled with a blessing? Yes. Water flowing from the wasteland into your life and mine through the glorious Person of Jesus. This is the Gospel of God.
So often we go about life as believers in the wrong way. We go about life from the perspective of the flesh. We don’t expect streams to come from the desert. We don’t expect that seeds of sorrow will produce a harvest of joy. Yet, whenever our lives or totally transformed by Jesus Christ a remarkable thing happens: the power of the gospel begins to work throughout our person, our families, and then our communities. The world can be, is, and will be totally transformed by what God does in one person’s heart.
You think it impossible that God could do something with your life? It is as easy for God to take the tears that you have sown and turn them into bundles of joy as it is for him to raise Jesus Christ from the dead or create the universe in six days. There is nothing off-limits to what God can do.
Psalm 126 is part of the Psalms of Ascent. It is the Psalm for all of us to see that we can look forward to total transformation when such glorious change begins with God and its fuel for transformation belongs to God. And it brings unimaginable blessings. But the total transformation transcends everything: even death.
I have often told my wife that I enjoy preaching weddings and funerals. Don’t get me wrong. Everything about death is appalling. Death caused our Lord Jesus Christ to be bent over with the grief that struck him at the tomb of Lazarus. No, I do not glory in the act of the burial of the dead. However, the gospel of Jesus Christ never shines so brilliantly as when that gospel is placed in front of the black backdrop of death and sorrow. It is here that I feel the message that God has given me is more readily received.
I shall never forget one particular funeral. The family requested that I conduct the service inside a crypt. The crypt was a large mausoleum located at the center of the public cemetery. It held many remains memorialized with much Scripture. While it might sound strange to some, I actually looked forward to that service. We gathered inside of the limestone cave-like mausoleum. I went in early to see the surroundings. The acoustics were so alive that every word that I spoke bounced off of the hard surfaces of the stone walls, the stone floor, and the limestone ceiling. In fact, the acoustics were so organically bright, that I had to pause after each sentence to allow the reverberation of words so that I could be understood.
During that service I sought to do what I always do at those times: firstly, to comfort those who were bereaved, and secondly, to announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that case, I did so, literally, in the presence of the dead. I used the mausoleum in which we were encased for our service to demonstrate the truth of the gospel. I told the crowd seated in folding chairs, a congregation of about fifty or seventy-five, that there would come a day where many if not most of these interments would crumble under the voice of the archangel and the coming of Jesus Christ. All would rise, some to acquittal and everlasting life with Jesus and some to the judgment of God and banishment from his presence. I reminded them that everyone here would be gone in a matter of years. Our own eternal destinies would be sealed as tightly as the stone drawers holding the remains of loved ones. “Today is the day of salvation,” I reminded them. I called for us all to turn to Jesus the Lord of life. I called for those not bowing to Jesus to repent and trust in Him, in his merits, and what he could do. And we prayed that day. I am happy to say the Spirit of the Lord moved inside of that mausoleum and He awakened dead souls unto eternal life. No, not all believed. But some were gloriously transformed who had walked into the tomb spiritually dead. I had the widow of the deceased come up to me to tell me, “I have never been to anything like this it was wonderful. Thank you.”
You see, my beloved, everything does not stay the same. Things change. In fact, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, everything has changed. And that is the message that turned the world upside down in the life of Dr. Martin Luther. That is the message that transformed Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Jesus Christ is the One who changed my life from death to life. O my dearest ones, He is the total transformation that we proclaim. Jesus the Lord is the total transformation that God the Father offers you today as a free gift when you receive his Son, Jesus of Nazareth, as the living Lord and the resurrected Savior of the world. For he and he alone brings what this Psalm promises and anticipates: total transformation.
On this Reformation Day, we do proclaim, not just a historical event, but a deeply personal and total transformation: The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.
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Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”