Reformed, But Ever Reforming
It is rather audacious to claim that we are reformed. It can also be misleading when we call ourselves Reformed Churches. For this might imply that we believe that our denominations are truly reformed; or, even worse, that at some point in the past we were or became reformed and that the task of reform is basically finished. Whenever we imagine that the word “reformed” refers to an accomplishment rather than a perpetual obligation, we are presumptuous and deluded.
Although the church is the body of Christ, it exists only by grace. She can never take this relationship for granted. The church receives her life and power from her Lord. Hence she must constantly be renewed in him. This is why an occasional change, revival, or reform will not suffice. The church must be constantly renewed and reformed by the Word and the Spirit of Jesus Christ, her head. Only in this way will the church be conformed to her Lord rather than to the spirit and idols of the age. That is said of individuals by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:2 and Ephesians 4:23, and also applies to the church. The church must be “transformed” continually and “renewed every day” lest she conform to this world.
I – CONTINUALLY REFORMING
This is why we must ever recall that famous slogan which originated in the seventeenth century: “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est” – “A reformed church must always be reforming itself.” We are unfaithful to the spirit of the Reformation – as well as to all that is implied in the word “reformed” – if we ever imagine that the task of reform was finished with Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others in the sixteenth century. Ours is a glorious heritage, but if we only look back and revel in great moments in the past we negate our calling to be continually reforming.
The reform or renewal of the church has several dimensions. Reformation means first of all restoration. There never was a pure church, not even in the New Testament period. But in the New Testament we have a clear picture of what the church is supposed to be. Just as specialists try to restore an old painting to its original beauty or craftsmen try to peel off layers of paint from a fine old piece of furniture in order to restore the original finish, so the church must ever be clearing away those accretions and traditions which mar the beauty of the church and hinder its effectiveness. This is often difficult and painful but only in this way will the body conform more closely to her head, Jesus Christ.
Secondly, reformation means renewal. In the last analysis, this is God’s work, not ours. Note that the biblical injunctions to “be renewed” are in the passive tense. Hence the first step in renewal is not to get busy, change the structures, appoint a new committee or devise some new scheme. It means rather, “Expose yourself to the life-giving Word of God. Pray that he may make the dry bones come to life. Expect great things from him; and get ready to do what he commands” (WA. Visser ‘t Hooft).
Thirdly, reformation means repentance. The first of Luther’s 95 theses runs: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This also applies to the church. The restoration or purification of the church in biblical history was always conditioned upon true repentance. This may mean a turning away from congregational-centeredness to the larger causes of God’s Kingdom. It may mean breaking away from our secularized self-concern to the needs of a hurting, bleeding world that looks for healing and hope.
Fourth, reformation can mean resurrection. For ultimately renewal is nothing less than God’s miraculous work, a veritable resurrection. This note needs to be sounded in our own denomination in many areas where there is little or no growth and especially in difficult places where the future of certain congregations is bleak. Calvin has some helpful, comforting words in this connection. “The preservation of the church is accompanied by many miracles. So we ought to keep in mind that the life of the church does not exist apart from a resurrection, yea, apart from many resurrections.”
Resurrection, unlike restoration, renewal, and repentance, is not so much a requirement as a promise. It should therefore be a source of great encouragement to us to recall that the history of the church is a story of many resurrections.
II- ACCORDING TO THE WORD
In the phrase, “the church must continually be reforming itself,” nothing is said explicitly about the criterion for this reform; but the assumption is that it is the Word of God. It was stressed above that the church, as the body of Christ, has no life apart from her Lord. But Jesus Christ is only mediated to us by his word and his Spirit. This is expressed simply and beautifully in one of the earliest Swiss Reformed Confessions: The church, “whose only head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger” (Article I, The Ten Theses of Bern, 1528).
This may appear to be so self-evident that it need not be reiterated. But it cannot be denied that our churches stand in need of reform and renewal in various aspects of their corporate life. It should also be recalled that every reformation of the church has meant a recovery of the Word. “The power of renewal in the church has been felt again and again where the Bible has spoken to groups of Christians gathered together in openness and expectation”.
Accordingly, if the churches which are ineffectual and unfruitful wish to find new life and recover a sense of purpose and mission, they must begin here. The first thing that is required in any genuine reformation is the willingness to submit to the judgment of God’s Word. From this follows restoration, renewal, repentance, and resurrection.
However, according to James Smart, we are experiencing “a strange silence of the Bible in the church.” In the preface to his book with this title he warns: “I am convinced that this phenomenon constitutes the crisis beneath all other crises that endanger the church’s future. The church that no longer hears the essential message of the Scriptures soon ceases to understand what it is for and is open to be captured by the dominant religious philosophy of the moment, which is usually some blend of cultural nationalism with Christianity.”
It could be argued that within the Reformed Church preaching is generally more exegetical and that we have more adult Bible classes than in most mainline Protestant churches in the United States. Even if this is true to some degree, the signs of the secularization and culturalization of our churches is often far too manifest. From this capitulation to the spirit and fashions of the age we can only be freed by hearing again the Lord of the church as he speaks to us through the Scriptures and renews us by his Spirit.
We, like most Reformation churches, have tended to fossilize the traditions and forms of the past, forgetting that the Spirit moves on and that the church is only true to its Lord when it allows itself to be broken on the anvil of the Word and be reformed again and again. Too often, we must confess, the Word of God is fettered (II Tim. 2:9), despite our protestations that we recognize no other norm or authority. “It is high time we asked again,” writes T. F. Torrance, “whether the Word of God really does have free course among us and whether it is not after all bound and fettered by the traditions of men…. There is scarcely a church that claims to be ‘ecclesia reformata’ (a reformed church) that can truthfully claim to be ‘semper reformanda’ (always reforming).”
This is the challenge that faces us, the Reformed Church, as we once again celebrate the Reformation. We are only truly reformed to the extent that we maintain the spirit and the goals of the Reformation. That means that we keep on reforming so that the glory of Christ may be seen and experienced in his church.
Dr. I. J. Hesselink served as President of the Reformed Church in America’s Western Theological Seminary, Holland, MI.
He wrote this article for The Church Herald in 1974.
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