The year 2017 was the Martin Luther year. We remembered the Reformation and we celebrated it. But we must also continue the Reformation. The Reformation is not a museum to be visited occasionally on a tour bus. It was and is a vital movement for truth and life in the church of Jesus. How should we maintain and advance the cause of reform? Some believe that the answer to that question can be found in the slogan reformed and always reforming. We continue the Reformation by always reforming. That slogan is indeed useful if we understand it correctly. The problem is that sometimes the slogan is used to justify the opposite of what it originally intended.
Those who misuse the slogan end up saying something like this: The Reformation had to change things that were wrong in the church, and we have to continue changing things that are wrong with the church. We have to make Christianity more understandable and relevant today. We have to strip away formalism and legalism so that we can get on with the great work of evangelism. We must be always reforming.
At first glance, this use of the slogan may seem good. All of us want Christianity to be vital, understandable, and evangelistic. But too often, those who are always reforming are in fact moving away from the Reformation and its great concerns about the Bible and justification, about worship, preaching, and the sacraments. They are simplifying or minimizing Christianity in ways that leave out many of the great concerns of biblical truth. Always reforming comes to mean increasingly conforming to the demands and standards of the world.
Such an approach to the slogan is not at all what it originally meant—or what it should mean for us today. The exact origins of the slogan are obscure, but its meaning is not. It was designed to make two critical points about who we are as Reformed Christians.
The first point is that we are Reformed. We must remember that calling ourselves Reformed is in fact an abbreviation. The full statement is: We are Christians who have been reformed by the Word of God. Reformed means that the Word of God has changed and purified us. We still are small-c catholic Christians, which means that we accept the canon of the New Testament as did the ancient church and accept the ancient definitions of the Trinity and Christology. We are Augustinian in our soteriology. But we also agree with the Reformers that various traditions of the church, from ancient and medieval times, drifted away from the Word of God and therefore had to be reformed or corrected by the Bible.
When we say we are Reformed, then, we mean that the Reformation, and particularly the Calvinistic wing of the Reformation, rightly understood and applied the Bible to help purify Christian doctrine, the church, and individual Christians. The great insights of the Reformers into the Word of God were summarized and preserved in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches. Those teachings were true and are still true. They are a great, settled accomplishment of the Reformation. We still hold to them and in that sense we are Reformed. Reformed is something defined by the confessions of the Reformed churches, which are still rightly subscribed to by Reformed Christians.
We recognize, however, that every generation not only needs to learn again what it means to be Reformed, but every generation also needs to be about the business of always reforming. We need to be always reforming because we are sinners. We fail to understand and follow God’s truth as we ought. We recognize that the Reformers were sinners, too, and did not understand everything perfectly. So we want always to reform ourselves and the lives of our churches by turning again and again to the Word of God to allow it to reform us. Always reforming does not mean allowing our clever insights into the needs of our present world to change the biblical inheritance we have received from the Reformation. It means turning as the Reformers did to the Word of God to allow it to change us.
One way in which we can see the need to reform ourselves is in the arena of Christianity and culture. John Calvin was convinced that the church should influence culture by being legally established by the state and by having the state outlaw false religion. Today, most Reformed Christians believe that the Bible teaches something very different about church and state, about Christ and culture. Many American Christians are understandably concerned about the great moral and intellectual changes taking place in our culture. Decades of secular education, liberal media, and immoral entertainment have combined with other forces to lead many Americans into a post-Christian way of thinking and living. As citizens, American Christians are right to recognize the dangers in these developments and to seek cultural alternatives.
We must be careful, however, not to confuse these cultural concerns with the gospel. The gospel is itself not a cultural program. The gospel certainly has cultural significance and implications. But the Christian gospel can flourish in any culture, from pagan Rome to Islamic theocracy to Communist tyranny. The gospel is the good news that Jesus has fulfilled all righteousness, has conquered sin and death for His people, and is building a new humanity of those who repent and believe.
We learn about that gospel and the life of that new humanity produced by that gospel in the Bible. Always reforming means always returning to the Scriptures to be changed and improved. It is a passion to know, love, and live out the Word of God.
A careful examination of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16–20 illustrates this point for us. This important passage has often been claimed by those who misuse the slogan always reforming to justify their innovative and reductionistic approaches to modern church life. But when we really look at the words of Jesus there, we see clearly that He did not say, “Do whatever will advance the cause of evangelism.” What, then, did He say?
- First, we see that Jesus in the Great Commission is instructing those who were His disciples and His Apostles, those who worshiped Him even if they had some doubts. He intends to prepare them for the work to which He is calling them. He truly is giving them the program for the church that He wants them to pursue.
- Second, He makes a clear statement about Himself. The disciples will serve Jesus correctly and faithfully only when they know who He is. He is not just their teacher who died and rose again from the dead. He is supremely the Lord. His resurrection does not just mean that He is alive again but that He is glorified as “ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5). All authority is given to Him so that He can indeed build His church, and no forces, temporal or spiritual, can stand against Him (Matt. 16:18). His authority guarantees the success He intends for His church.
- Third, the disciples are charged to make disciples. Their commission to make disciples is for all nations. They are not limited to Israel or the Jews but are commissioned to take the good news to the nations. But what does it mean to make disciples, which is another way of asking, what does it mean to preach the gospel correctly? Jesus’ commission has two parts, namely, teaching and baptizing. The Apostles must teach the truth about Jesus to make disciples. The preaching and teaching work of the church and especially its official leaders is necessary for making disciples, according to Jesus. The commissioned disciples must also baptize. The Great Commission requires the sacramental ministry of the church as well as its teaching ministry. Baptism is the sign and seal of the disciple’s new life and new identity in Christ.
- Fourth, Jesus specifies what the disciples are to teach. This point is particularly important. Jesus authorizes no minimal summary of His ministry. New disciples are not made by selected parts of His teaching. Real disciples want, deserve, and must have all of His teaching. Real disciples are eager for the fullness of the revelation of Jesus.
- Fifth, Jesus assures His disciples that as they carry out His commission, He will always be with them. His authority and lordship will not forsake them. Success does not need to be manipulated because it is assured by the presence and blessing of Jesus.
The Great Commission is indeed the program by which the church must operate. But we must not use the Great Commission as a slogan to justify any approach to evangelism. Jesus did not commission His church to evangelize according to its wisdom, but according to His teaching. The Great Commission is part of His Word, and it must always reform us.
Sometimes in history, the church goes into very serious decline in doctrine or life and must be reformed thoroughly. At other times, Christians may be frustrated with the rate of growth of the church and assume that some drastic reform is needed. Only a close examination of the Word can help us determine which is true. Where reform according to the Word of God—the whole Word—is needed, we must pursue it vigorously. On the other hand, where the church is faithful, she must persevere patiently and wait for seasons of richer grace from the Lord. Luther said of his reform, “The Word did it.” So, of all good continuing reformation we must say, “The Word must do it.”