Always Being Reformed: Theology Coming to Life in the Life of the Church

To begin examining the Reformed church and its theology, we begin where many great Reformed confessions begin—the Word of God. Michael Allen notes that “[t]he Word of God has been a consistent concern for Reformed confessions… In fact, Reformed confessions and dogmatics led the way in formalizing the Reformational principle of sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) by tending to the doctrine of God’s Word at their outset.”[1] What we believe about God flows out of what we read in Scripture, as he graciously and authoritatively reveals himself to us in the text. Therefore how we think about God—our theology—is informed by what we find in his Word. When we examine this revelatory text we find a God who has begun a marvelous work in his people, and who will guard that work, seeing it through to completion; a sovereign, trustworthy God, who works on and with his people to bring about his glory. It is this concept of sola Scriptura that has become, through the aid of confessions, a central tenet of Reformed churches.

That this understanding of Scripture and God is foundational to Reformed theology is evident in two of the great confessions to which Reformed churches have turned for centuries. The Westminster Confession, written in 1646, opens with a beautiful and sweeping statement on Scripture, followed by several chapters on the doctrine of God. Likewise, the Belgic Confession opens with three articles dedicated to who God is and how we are to understand his self-revelation. For both the Belgic and Westminster documents the entirety of their confessions are built on their doctrines of Scripture and God. Allen also points to the Ten Theses of Berne as another example of a foundational confession which begins “by attesting the singular authority of the speech of God.”[2]

The doctrine of God which unfolds in these confessions recognizes a God who decrees “all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory” (Westminster Confession of Faith, II.1) In these words God’s sovereignty and providence are displayed, and the seeds of the Reformational tenet soli Deo gloria—to God alone be the glory—are planted. The Belgic Confession confirms this idea of sovereignty in Article XIII when it states that God “rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment” (Belgic Confession [BC], in Historic Creeds and Confessions, XIII) It further confirms soli Deo gloria in Article XIV: “[M]an is but a slave to sin, and can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven. For who may presume to boast that he of himself can do any good, since Christ says: No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him?” (BC, in Historic Creeds and Confessions, XIV). If man is slave to sin and cannot even approach God lest he bid him “come,” then certainly all glory is due to him who initiates that salvific work. Thus it is that Reformed churches fervently claim along with King Nebuchadnezzar[3] that all glory belongs to God alone. From the whole of Scripture and such texts as Philippians 2:13 we see that whatever good comes to and through the church is God working in us, “both to will and work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13, ESV).

It is from this point, recognizing that God alone deserves the glory for all things, which Reformed theology arrives at ecclesia semper reformanda—the always being reformed church. C. K. Barrett explains this phrase in the context of 2 Corinthians 11:13: “[B]ecause the church is always exposed to corruption it must always give heed to the apostolic admonition.”[4] Barrett earlier employs the word “reformed” in its denotative meaning. The church is being torn down, and must be built back up. But who is to do the building? This reconstruction is not merely human inertia back to the Bible, nor toward morality. Neither is it theological innovation or “self-correcting.”[5] Barrett shows that, in this context, it is “reformed” through authoritative admonition from the appointed church leaders. Perhaps we might view Martin Luther as one such leader, who, in the spirit of semper reformanda, nailed 95 theses to a door. God, in his care for the church, had led Luther to see the sinfulness of indulgences and speak out, which was one of the small stones at the beginning of an avalanche. Praise be to God that he has cared to draw his church out of the deep darkness that then overwhelmed it! Post tenebras lux.

It should be noted that to translate semper reformanda as “always reforming,” as so often happens, would be a mistranslation. Michael Allen is helpful here: “Note the passivity there: it is always ‘being reformed’ by the life giving, sanctifying work of the triune God.”[6] The difference has massive implications. If the church is always reforming, then we are merely embarking on a journey of self-improvement. But if the church is always being reformed, then the church is the object upon which the Divine Agent acts. In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul encourages him with these words: “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” (2 Ti 1:12b, ESV) This deposit of sound doctrine, though entrusted to man, will be kept and guarded by God. It is the triune God who sustains and feeds the faith of his church, and that is to be a comfort for us. In his apologetic volume For Calvinism, Michael Horton notes about that passage: “Of course, he [Paul] must remain faithful to his calling. Nevertheless, this sacred trust (God’s grace to save and keep sinners) was the basis for this sacred mission (God’s grace to save and keep the ministry of this gospel). It was not his confidence in his own powers of holding on to Christ and the gospel, but of the efficacy of God and his testimony to see the covenant through to the end.”[7] So as we cry ecclesia semper reformanda, it is a cry of thankfulness to God for the mighty and gracious work which he has done and will continue to do in his church, forming and reforming her as corruption eats away at her walls.

When looking down on church history from a birds-eye view, it can be easy to recognize God’s reforming work on his church. But in day-to-day practice, in the small parishes struggling and the mega-churches flourishing, how are we to recognize this? In my own church, I and the other Elders must continually ask ourselves and each other “what are the influences which shape our church?” This question plays out practically as we prepare sermons and ask “why this text for this church?” as well as when we plan out the coming months of ministry, deciding which endeavors to embark upon and which to table for another day. Local church ministry must be both reactive and proactive, and the aforementioned question of influence lends color to both our reactions and our plans. We ask this question out of a recognition that we are always being shaped—or formed—by something. Will it be the spiritual, passive aggressive Pacific Northwest culture which reforms our church into its likeness, or will it be the Word of God?

In his classic song Bird on a Wire, Leonard Cohen writes about the allure of our culture away from the ideal when he pens, “I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch / he said to me, ‘you must not ask for so much.’ / I saw a woman leaning in her darkened door / she said to me ‘hey, why not ask for more?’”[8] This woman calls to our church members with a tongue of honey, and yet we call out to them as the beggar in the song “you must not ask for so much!” How are we to win? Thanks be to God that he has promised to guard the deposit, to sustain his people to the end, sanctifying them and reshaping them! Just as he formed his church by his Word, so by his Word his people will be continually reformed. This truly is a comfort to me and my fellow pastors, who are charged with shepherding Christ’s flock, following our Lord’s example, leading them to green pastures. This is where theology comes to life in the life of the church.[9] We rely on Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith, thus learning of God’s sovereignty, providence, and ongoing care for his people. Through this we are encouraged to do the work before us, even as we recognize that it is God who works in us, both the willing and the working.

Do we say then that the always being reformed church is the Reformed church? Certainly not, for to say that would be to suggest that Reformed theology is the one true theology, and Reformed churches the one true church which is the recipient of God’s reforming work. However, the Reformed church is inextricably linked to the idea of the always being reformed church. If the foundation of the Reformed church is God’s character and work as revealed in his authoritative word, then one of the chief supporting pillars which holds up the structure is semper reformanda. This pillar is not the foundation itself, but is anchored to it, lending much-needed support to the church. Or, to flip the metaphor, the people of the church are the building blocks; belief in the always being reformed church recognizes God as the one placing and rearranging the blocks, to build a sound structure to survive the ages.

The fact that the church is always being reformed by God’s gracious care, through his Spirit, by his Word, is at the very heart of the Reformed church. We lean on the sovereignty of God over his creation, especially over his church, and we throw all our weight with reckless abandon on the promise of Scripture, that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6, ESV)

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Allen, R. Michael. Reformed Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Barrett, C. K. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Black’s New Testament Commentary.           London: Continuum, 1973.

Brannon, Rick. Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. Oak Harbor, WA: Lexham Press, 1997.

Cohen, Leonard. “Bird on a Wire,” in Songs from a Room. Nashville, TN: Columbia, 1968.

Horton, Michael Scott. For Calvinism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.


[1] R. Michael Allen, Reformed Theology. (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 7.

[2] Allen, Reformed Theology, 7.

[3] Formational in my understanding of soli Deo gloria has been Nebuchadnezzar’s story in Daniel 4, Herod’s death in Acts 12, and the following juxtaposition of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, in Acts 14.

[4] C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1973), 273.

[5] Allen’s last paragraph on page 179 of Reformed Theology shed much light for me on the topic at hand, particularly as he states that God “continually kills and makes alive the reason of those who are in Christ Jesus.” This corresponds to Romans 12:2, where the church is transformed by the renewal of their minds—acted on the church by God. They are the recipients of God’s action, and are not transforming themselves.

[6] Allen, Reformed Theology, 179.

[7] Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 184.

[8] Leonard Cohen, “Bird on a Wire,” in Songs from a Room (Nashville: Columbia, 1968).

[9] Dr. Allen was helpful in Lecture 3 in “Intro to Reformed Theology” in understanding this concept. He says that the attributes and character of the triune God needs to have their full effect on all areas of Christian faith and practice. He reminds us that the Reformation was not a time when we thought new thoughts about God, but a time when we allowed thoughts about who God is to reshape the way we think about life and religion.

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