(This is the substance of a brief Reformation talk delivered at a Reformation Celebration, 2015)
We are not Re-formed Christians. We don’t want to be like the guy who was always causing confusion because he put all the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LY-ble. We are not Re-formed, we are Reformed. And there is a world of difference between the two.
To say that the Church was Re-formed in 1517 suggests that the truth was absolutely lost and we had to start all over again from scratch. This would be a terrible overstatement at best. The ship of the church was covered with the barnacles of error but she was still there, floating toward Zion. Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and all the rest weren’t trying to start something over again. They were trying to Reform a mess. They were seeking to provoke the Church to jealousy so that she might repent and put off her popish garbs for the clean white linen of the gospel.
People often ask, “Where was the Church before the Reformation?” To which we should reply, “Where was your face before you washed it?” It was right there, still attached to your skull, under a bunch of dirt. So it was with the Church.
There has never been a pure Church. Abraham had Hagar and Ishmael. Moses had his murmuring multitude. Jesus had His Judas. John had his gnostics. Timothy had his scandalous men. Corinth had its carnal confusion. Galatia had its Judaizers. Ephesus had its dead orthodoxy. Peter had Simon Magus and those whom he called “brute beasts.” Paul had Hymanaeus, Alexander, Demas, and a whole host of misguided misfits. There wasn’t a pure Church but there was always the true Church under all of those barnacles. And thus it has ever been throughout her history. The Church will not be perfectly pure until her wedding day, when she is presented to Christ having neither spot nor blemish.
But the presence of imperfection does not require that we give up the quest for purification and unification. Each generation is responsible to do their part toward the task of ecclesial sanctification. And just as sanctification is progressive and imperfect in the individual even so it is with the Church. It is a long and arduous process. But it is a necessary ask nonetheless. And ultimately it will result in full and final glory.
Those of us who conscientiously identify as Reformed profess to believe this. Our perennial profession is semper reformanda—always reforming. This doesn’t mean that we are constantly going back and trying to reinvent the wheel or hammer out the doctrine of the Trinity. It means that we seek to do our best to clear away part of the rubble in our own generation that has been piled on top of the one, holy, apostolic Church, while never neglecting those upon whose shoulders we stand to do so.
We are gathered here 498years after the the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Someone might well ask, “Is the Reformation dead?”
This may seem like a silly question to us, especially since we’re commemorating Reformation Day. But it’s a question worth asking.
Is the Reformation dead?
We don’t believe so. We believe that the achievements of the Reformation are still worth defending, that the work of the Reformation is still worth preserving. The Reformation recovered biblical truths that had either been rejected or buried in late medieval Catholicism. In themselves, the Reformation slogans are just slogans, but they get point us to the very heart and soul of true, biblical theology.
But there is another side to that question that is equally important. If defending the Reformation means nothing more than repeating the Reformation slogans or assenting to the Reformation confessions; if defending the Reformation means we carry on with business as usual, if being Protestant means we stay still and do nothing– then the Reformation has become a kind of tribalism. It’s just one more version of “Me and son John, us four and no more.”
If that is what being Protestant means, then the Reformation has been turned upside down and inside out. It began as a protest against fossilized and distorted tradition, and it will cease to be genuinely Protestant if it becomes another kind of fossilized traditionalism.
If being Protestant simply means trying to preserve or recapture the sixteenth century, then the Reformation is already dead and deserved to die. If that is what Protestantism means, then for all its past glories, may it rest in peace.
God is the Creator, and as Creator He does new things. He didn’t create a world and then release it to carry on mechanically. He comes to the world again and again, tears old things down and makes something new. And the new things are often disruptive, highly disruptive.
When the world was full of violence, He sent a flood, wiped the world clean, and started over with a new Adam. When the nations fell at Babel, God called Abram and began a new race in him. When Israel was in Egypt, God reached in and plucked Israel from the house of bondage. Never before had any God taken one nation from within another nation by trials, signs, and wonders, by war, or by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. When Eli’s sons committed abominations at the tabernacle, God desolated the tabernacle, and it was never rebuilt. When the temple became a den of thieves, God tore it down and sent Judah off into exile. That was just preparation for another great new thing, the eventual return from exile. Then Isaiah told Israel to forget about the exodus, forget about Egypt, forget about the defining moment of her national life. It would be like telling Americans to forget the Revolutionary war. Why? Because God is going to do something so new, so spectacular, that it will make the exodus look like a non-event. God would send His Servant to finally and fully random captive Israel.
But every time God does something new, there are people who want to stay with the old ways. At the exodus, there were people who wanted to go back to Egypt. When God sent Nebuchadnezzar to capture Judah, there were people who wanted to fight to protect the temple, even though the Lord said it was doomed. Through this we learn that simply preserving the past is high rebellion against God who is tearing down the old to make room for the new.
We are in such an age today. The Lord is tearing down the old, and is building something new upon the old foundations. Does this mean that we just abandon the past? No. But it means that if we simply, stubbornly hold on to the past, we are resisting the God who makes all things new. We have to do both. We mustn’t abandon the gains and insights of the past. But we also have to pursue reform in the church in the twenty-first century, and the reform in our day may have very different emphases and contours than did the reform of the sixteenth century. We have to pursue reform even in those churches that were born from the Reformation – especially there.
We do this by clinging to whatever is true and good and lovely in the Reformation, but not just clinging to it like an old heirloom. We cling to it in order to grasp it more and more deeply. Meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century doesn’t mean we abandon the key Reformation emphases found in the great solas. Rather, it means that we take them in our hands and press them into all the corners of life. It may be that we learn that the solas were just the beginning. Perhaps the next reformation will revolve around the Totas. Totus Scriptura—the Scriptures alone but all of the Scriptures. Totus Christus—Christ alone and all of Christ for all of life. And so forth.
One final note. The Reformation didn’t arise in a vacuum. It flowed naturally and necessarily out of the Renaissance. The cry of semper reformanda was preceded by the cry, ad fontes—back to the sources. Luther, Calvin, and the rest were not just interested in recovering the gospel; they were interested in recovering the world. They took back the humanities—the arts, sciences, literature, language—so that they could reclaim humanity. And I would argue that we will never be good Reformation men until we learn to be Renaissance men. This simply means that we must learn to see the true connection between soli Deo Gloria and eating barbecue, and watching football, and laughing together.
This is what it means to be Reformed. This is how we keep the Reformation alive and healthy until the next generation arises and takes it off of our hands.
“For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.”