Restoration: God’s Finished Work, Our Never Ending Quest (Jan-Feb 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Douglas A. Foster
January – February, 1993

9The Restoration. When we hear the term most of us think of the nineteenth-century American effort to reestablish New Testament Christianity begun by Barton Stone and the Campbells. But ask a group of modern Roman Catholics and they will explain that the Restoration is Rome’s attempt to return to the rigid dogmatic Catholicism of the era before the 1960s and Vatican Council II.1 Question a group of Latter Day Saints and they will tell you that Joseph Smith began the Restoration with his 1830 discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon.2 Query members of the Universalist Church of America (now part of the Unitarian-Universalitst Association), and they will inform you that it means the eventual restoration of all people to fellowship with God in heaven.3

The notion of restoration is not as easy to pigeonhole as some might expect. In its essence restorationism assumes a sharp break between the way things are now and the way things used to be and ought to be. The vision of exactly what to restore and how to do it varies with different times and cultures. All restoration movements, however, seek to make things “right again.”

True Christian restoration focuses on areas in which the church has departed from its intended ideal in belief and practice, weakening its relationship to God and his power. Spurred by prophetic voices that challenge the comfortable and self-satisfied, restoration movements often call for radical change. Barton Stone called for a fundamental restoring of the life of the Spirit evidence by the fruit described in Galatians 5. Alexander Campbell urged people to tear themselves away from their denominational connections to take a simple rational approach to the New Testament Scriptures. Like all restoration efforts, both experienced rigorous opposition.

Restoration, at its heart, is the work of God. Restoration is what he has done and what he will do to restore what he intended for us from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9). We tend to see restoration as primarily a human effort, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Humans did not devise a way to restore the relationship with God broken by our sin; God did. Centered on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, he is working out his plan in human history.

Scripture uses the term to speak of God’s restoration of Israel after Babylonian captivity (Deuteronomy 30:3; Jeremiah 16:15) and his restoration of all things at the end of time (Acts 3:21). It also urges the gentle restoration of individuals by godly, spiritually mature Christians (Galatians 6:1). Humans respond by accepting or rejecting God’s work. Even when we accept his will, our part of the process of restoration will never be final until we are made perfect in Christ after this life. As we grow in reliance on God’s unbounded grace, as e continue to “walk in the light,” Jesus’ blood must continually do its restoring work. As individual Christians and together as Christ’s church, we must be engaged in a never-ending quest to grow up into Christ.

James O. Baird makes a helpful distinction between “restoration,” “restoration principle,” “restoration ideal,” and “restoration movement.” Restoration is the continuing process by which God’s actions and human response bring people “back” into a proper relationship with God. This happens either through discovery of and action on previously unknown truth of returning to a proper relationship with God after having left it. The restoration principle is the idea that people, motivated by love and fear of the righteous God, seek to restore their relationship to him, willing to respond however God wants. The restoration ideal is the standard of God’s will that we aspire to, revealed in the Bible. The deep need to restore a right relationship with God (the restoration principle) points us toward his will (the restoration ideal). Finally, the restoration movement points to the corporate aspect of the discussion. The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement is one historic attempt to seek the restoration ideal.4

The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement was and is a collective attempt by godly women and men to submit their lives and thoughts to God’s will. As with all humans, their historical and cultural situations influenced their ideas and conclusions. They differed on many things, including the exact nature of the restoration itself. They were united, however, in the desire to restore a right relationship to the God of Scripture.

Accounts of restoration efforts fill the pages of church history. Alfed T. DeGroot, in The Restoration Principle, identified dozens of such efforts from the earliest days of the church to the modern era. Among those from ancient times he mentions the Montanists of the late second century. This group sought to restore the urgent expectation of Christ’s second coming, chaste and simple living, and the importance of the prophet in the work of the church. The believed they were restoring New Testament Christianity in its uncorrupted form against an increasingly institutionalized church. In the ninth century a book written by an unknown author titled The Key of Truth denounced the apostasy of the state church and described the simple faith, order, worship, and life of a true church patterned after the example of the apostles. The fourteenth-century leader John Ruysbroek sought to restore primitive Christianity in the spirit and tenor of the Christian’s life rather than merely in external forms.5

The Dukhobors of Russia were sometimes erratic, but broke with the Russian Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century in search of simple primitive Christianity.6 John Wesley’s eighteenth-century reform movement sought to return to the doctrines and practices of ancient Christianity. When the Revolution cut American Methodists off from the English Church, Wesley told them they were “simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church.” The Scottish restoration movements begun by John Glas, Robert Sandeman, the Haldanes, and others, though differing in important specifics, all pointed to Scripture alone as authority in religion and to the “restitution” of New Testament Christianity.8

England’s Puritans promoted the restitution of primitive Christianity, as did the Anabaptists of the Continental Reformation. Furthermore, the holiness and Pentecostal movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claimed to be restoring the spiritual gifts characteristic of the primitive church as opposed to mere doctrinal formulations or church structures.9

Historically, restoration movements have shared several problems. First, they are selective in their vision of what to restore, each tending to conclude that its restoration effort embraces all that is valid in true Christianity.10 Second, restorationists too often make peripheral issues central to their message. None had devised a simple program of “distinguishing majors from minors,” a fact contributing to restorationism’s reputation for divisiveness.11 In our own history, divisions have occurred over the use of Sunday Schools, multiple cups in the Lord’s Supper, located preachers, and support for para-church organizations like orphan’s homes and media ministries. Third, the initial impetus and fervor of restoration efforts generally wane and take a different shape after the first generation. Movements often move far from the intentions of their founders.

These problems are rooted in the fact that we are human, our failure to focus on the primacy of God’s action in restoration. Human response is involved, but restoration is not our work, it is God’s. Only by constant reaffirmation of our submission to his will and through the guidance of his Word and Spirit can such tendencies be tempered.

Several new efforts openly claim restorationist intent. Christianity Today recently featured a charismatic restoration movement that uses house churches to evangelize. Its adherents believe that “the modern church has lost the power, patterns, and spiritual gifts of the New Testament Church, all of which can and should be recovered.”12 Their teachings include that the church is the kingdom of God today (as opposed to dispensational premillenialism), that elders who act as spiritual shepherds are to govern the church, and that there is a biblical pattern of worship.

“Open Church Ministries,” also known as “The Seedsowers,” led by James Rutz and Gene Edwards, sees itself as a restoration of early Christianity. The group’s letterhead proclaims: “Aiding the Restoration with pure worship, true sharing, free ministry.” The movement emphasizes truly restoring the “priesthood of the believer” so that all Christians are active participants rather than spectators in worship and ministry.13

Though every restoration effort has its idea of precisely what needs restoring, two emphases are apparent: 1) the restoration of one or more precise biblical doctrines, practices or structures, and 2) the restoration of a spiritual life manifested in daily ethical actions.

These are not mutually exclusive. Doctrine is intimately connected with and in some sense necessary to create a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yet doctrine must result in more than merely having right understandings and precise formulations in one’s head. The point of doctrine is Christ – it points us to Christ, our Savior and example. Restoration of correct doctrine is not the end. It must result in the life characterized by a proper relationship to Christ. Furthermore, any attempt to restore correct doctrinal knowledge that produces un-Christ-like attitudes and conduct is a perversion of true doctrine and a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

The biblical imperative to contend for the faith cannot mean to destroy fellow Christians. When ridicule and the attribution of vile motives become characteristic, we have entered Satan’s realm. Barton Stone perhaps said it best when he insisted that unity would be restored only on a spiritual foundation.

“But should all the professors of Christianity reject their various creeds and names, and agree to receive the Bible alone, and be called by not other name but Christian, will this unite them? No: we are fully convinced that unless they all possess the spirit of that book and name, they are far, very far, from Christian union.”14

Increasing numbers of people in churches of Christ are taking the idea of restoration seriously. They are not interested in maintaining a status quo, but in the never-ending pursuit of the restoration ideal. Only with God’s help can avoid the extremes of a harsh and rigid overemphasis on doctrinal precision and a sentimental relativism that refuses to take God’s ideal seriously. The unsettling prophetic voices among us will not go away. As Christians and as a church we must bow to the will of God. We must pray that he will indeed restore us to him and transform us into a new creation.

NOTE: Parts of this article are adapted from Douglas Foster’s forthcoming book, Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? Churches of Christ Enter the Twenty-First Century.


C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes. Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ. ACU Press, 1988.

Alfred T. DeGroot. The Restoration Principle> The Bethany Press, 1960.

Richard T. Hughes, editor. The American Quest for the Primitive Church. University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Lynn A. McMillon. Restoration Roots. Gospel Teacher Publications, Inc., 1983.

W. Ralph Wharton. Restoration Movements Around teh World. W. Ralph Wharton, 1980.


1 Penny Lemoux, People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism (New York: Viking Pengin, Inc. 1989).

2 See for example Steven L. Shields, Divergent Paths of the Restoration: A History of the Latter Day Saint Movement (Bountiful, UT: Restoration Research, 1982), and Milton Vaughn Backman, Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1986).

3 See for example Elhanan Winchester, The Unviersal Restoration (Phaldelphia: Gihon, Fairchild & Co., 1843); Kenneth M. Johnson, The Doctrine of Universal Salvation and the Restorationist Controversy (Bangor, ME: Kenneth M. Johnson, 1978).

4 James O. Baird, “Denial of the Validity of the Restoration Principle,” Gospel Advocate (February 1992); 20-21.

5 Alfred T. DeGroot, The Restoration Principle (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1960), pp. 93, 94, 108.

6 DeGroot, The Restoration Principle, p. 130.

7 Cited in Ted Campbell, John Wesley and Christian Antiquity (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1991), p. 51.

8 Lynn A. McMillon, Restoration Roots (Dallas: Gospel Teacher Publications, Inc., 1983).

9 See C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1988), pp. 35, 125, 137.

10 DeGroot, The Restoration Principle, pp. 45, 133.

11 Thomas Olbricht, “Biblical Theology and the Restoration Movement,” Mission Journal (April 1980): 4.

12 Garry D. Nation, “The Restoration Movement,” Christianity Today 36 (May 18, 1992): 27.

13 James H. Rutz, The Rebirth of the Church (Auburn, ME: The Seedsowers, 1992), p. 10.

14 Barton W. Stone, “Christian Union,” Christian Messenger 3 (December 1828): 37-38.Wineskins Magazine

Douglas A. Foster

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Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of


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