Counsel of Chalcedon, Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
Reformed or Reforming Which Way are We Looking?
As Reformed Christians we are often asked by those outside the Reformed Faith, “What does ‘Reformed’ mean?” A variety of short answers are available, most of which emphasize some relation to the sixteenth century European Protestant movement and its theology. But what do we think of ourselves when we think of the word “Reformed”? There is a temptation for some of us to romanticize the Reformation period of history and to think of it as our ideal. It can be a problem for us to think of the term “Reformed” as old and past tense. This can lead twentieth century Reformed Christians to a somewhat distorted view of the current goals of the church.
We must not think of reformation as simply a snap shot of some golden era of Christianity to be replicated by twentieth century Christians and churches. Rather, reformation must be thought of as being more like a motion picture still in the process of being filmed. While we may honor, admire and agree with many Reformed Christians who lived in the last five centuries, our goal as Reformed Christians today is not a mere duplication of the past. Growth means change, and twentieth century America has changed considerably from sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. The principles and theology of the Protestant Reformation have remained fairly constant. However, the issues of the day and the application of these principles and theology have changed in many respects.
Scripture alone remains as the cornerstone of reformation then and now. It is “the only rule of faith and life” for all men in all times and in all places. Yet the Scriptures are amazingly adaptive when it comes to their application to ourselves, our households, our churches and our culture. The Bible is never out of date. For example, Ephesians 5:25 instructs us, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” It is likely that every Christian husband has some unique ways in which he demonstrates his love for his wife that differs from other Christian husbands. Yet, each Christian husband, applying and adapting God’s word to meet the needs of his wife, may fulfill the biblical requirement of loving his wife. Moreover, the same is true when it comes to other areas of life and ministry. There are a multitude of ways that we can honor and apply the unchanging Scriptures to a changing world.
The very nature of reformation is that it is a never-ending process. There are two obvious reasons for this. First, as sinful men we are often wrong in our understanding of Scripture and how it is to be applied. Indeed, there is only one objective meaning of the word of God, having been infallibly transmitted to men. However, while the transmission of the Bible is clear, its reception by fallen, and even redeemed men, is not always so clear. As Christians we grow in our understanding of the objective truth of Scripture and we come to see areas of wrong practice or sinful conduct. As a result, we must continually reform (i.e., conform to Scriptural standards). Unless we are perfect in our understanding and conduct, the process of reformation must never cease either personally or corporately.
Second, Reformation is a never-ending process because the world around us is in a constant state of change—only God is changeless. Principally there is “nothing new under the sun,” yet in application there are new ideas, practices, technologies, issues and challenges that continually confront us as Christians. We may be fighting the same old battles but the enemy is using new tactics and weapons in his attack. If we are not perceptive to these changes in our culture we cannot possibly expect to see victory in our day. Within the bounds of Scripture, individual Christians and churches must continually reform their tactics and practices as needed to meet the challenges of our day. We cannot go back to the “good old days”—God has put them in the past.
Nevertheless, God has placed us in the twentieth (and soon the twenty first) century as soldiers of Jesus Christ to fight the present battles with state-of-the-art weapons. The Reformers of previous centuries used the weapons of their day to reach their generation with the gospel. Lectures, preaching, public debates, the universities and personal witness were all means of verbally communicating with their world. The use of the printing press and massive distribution of tracts, books and Bibles were also effective means of spreading the word. Great works of art came forth, and even congregational singing was an innovation of the Reformation (Martin Luther wrote hymns using the popular folk music of his time). Christians were often on the cutting edge of the use of new ideas and technologies.
We must likewise make use of all these methods of communicating the gospel which our brothers have bequeathed to us. Moreover, we must also make use of the new ones that are available to us. We have audio and video cassettes, radio, television, computers, telephones, faxes, mail and rapid transportation. We should encourage the use of these along with the development of new ideas and technologies. As Reformed Christians we should be leading the way in the development of biblical art and music which will permeate our culture with the salt and light of the gospel.
The danger of a halting reformation is real. Even in Reformed churches we may be tempted to say, “This far and no further.” The Church of England provides a vivid example of this unbiblical and stifling conservatism. When we stop reforming we stop living and start dying. Life is a process of constant change called growth or maturity, and reformation is life because it never ceases to apply the living word to all the world around us.
Certainly we must be cautious as we advance. We don’t want change just to be changing. It is possible to change from good to bad or bad to worse. Every idea must be tested by Scripture alone. However, neither personal preference nor tradition should stand in the way of biblical reformation. The fear of “what this might lead to” (the “slippery slope fallacy”), or the fact that others might have abused a good idea often prevents us from moving forward with reformation and meeting the needs and challenges of our day. Yet, if Scripture stands securely as our perimeter, then we may safely move out, knowing the limitations of our change. We must evaluate the risks, take proper precautions to insure adherence to God’s word, and then move out with confident expectation of God’s blessings. Otherwise, we shall remain home-bound in fear of the future.
If reformation is to continue (i.e., life) in our day, then we must stand on the shoulders of the generations of reformers that have gone before us and reach higher. Our generation is to be more than occupational troops. We should be that, but we should be much more—there are still beaches to be stormed—the war is not over. The generations that follow us will face new challenges to their faith and new battles to be fought. We should lift them up and support them, providing a firm foundation for them to build upon. Our task is not to subdue them but to direct them and encourage them. The implications of the Reformed Faith for the world of tomorrow may not be seen by us. Our world changes at blinding speed. The next generation of reformers is not a threat to us, but it should be a threat to the world of tomorrow.
Luther said, “If I declare with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of God’s truth except that one little bit which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ no matter how boldly I may be professing Christ. For the soldier to be steady on the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that single point.” The reformation has not ended. It will continue until the end of the world. Reformation is about the future, not just the past, and we must look forward with the expectation of seeing God work in our day as He has in the past. We must not simply be Reformed, but Reforming Christians in a changing world.