The Church Reformed, Always Being Reformed

Pulpit in Winter Sunlight, Hebrews 4:12Some of you are sure to notice that my sermon is on the long side of average. Part of the length is due to the fact I haven’t preached in two weeks – a study leave break certainly benefits the preacher’s brain cells. But part of the length also has to do with the theme that the church calendar places before me.

Today is Reformation Sunday, a day set aside to remember and celebrate the Protestant Reformers through whom we trace our heritage to the early Church.  We remember Martin Luther, whose new idea sparked the Protestant Reformation.  We remember John Calvin, who systematized and spread the influence of the new idea.  We remember John Knox, who thought through the implications of the new idea for church relationships, and crafted a new system of church government based on mutual accountability through one another to God.

The new idea embodied in the Reformation was really the rediscovery of an old mindset:

  • that we are saved from sin by God’s grace through faith, not human works;
  • that we can approach God individually through the merits of Christ, and without the mediation of a priest;
  • that the Bible is the primary rule of faith by which we know these things to be true.

The fact that the new idea was a rediscovery of an old idea should caution us about making a clean break from the past. Luther and Calvin made a finer distinction. When the theology of salvation by good works was rejected, and the practice of selling indulgences condemned, the Reformers were judging recent history by a more ancient history, and moving into a future that was guided and shaped by a purer and nobler past. The Reformed Tradition cannot be so simply defined as a preference for a future unfettered by the past. Just as it’s not about preservation for the sake of preservation, neither is it about change for the sake of change.

Anna Case-Winters, one of Joy’s former professors, says that the Reformation idea is about remembering that God’s agency and initiative have priority. She tells us that the second half of the old Reformed motto “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” contains a passive verb, and is better translated “always being reformed,” just as I have rendered it in the sermon title. In other words, and theologically speaking, we humans are not the primary agents of reforming activity, but rather God is the author of true reformation. The Church is God’s Church, created by God’s Word, sustained by God’s Spirit.[1]

Today’s scripture readings bear witness to this theological truth.

The prophet Joel writes relatively late in what we call the Old Testament period. The Assyrians, who conquered the Northern Kingdom, have come and gone. The Babylonians, who conquered the Southern Kingdom and destroyed Jerusalem, have been replaced by the Persians, whose King Cyrus allowed the rebuilding of the Temple.  For a long time, Israel has been run by one foreign invader after another.  It’s a messy situation, full of compromises aimed at keeping alive what remains of the family and faith of Israel.  Joel looks forward to the coming day of the Lord. The only future possible, the only future worth living, he proclaims, is the one that God creates. When the Lord is present with us in that day, we dream the dreams that God’s Word inspires, and see the visions that God’s Spirit sustains.

The text from Ephesians is perhaps the most widely quoted summary of the theological truth the Reformers proclaimed. In it, Paul – or a disciple writing in the spirit of Paul, as some commentators argue – sets grace against the sinful depravity of human nature. While God created us good, the curse of sin meant that we humans were as good as dead. The spark of life has nothing to do with human effort, and everything to do with the creative power of God, who is rich in mercy, who loves us with great love, who raises us up, and who sustains us so that in the future, he might show us the immeasurable riches of his grace.

The Church Reformed, and Always Being Reformed (by God!) is a theme at the heart of a book I read during my week of study leave. It’s entitled “Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation,” by Carol Howard Merritt, a perceptive Presbyterian minister who was still 30-something when the book was published. Among the nuggets of truth I gleaned – or at least imagine I gleaned – is that many in the younger generations not well-represented in our mainline congregations are rejecting well-intentioned attempts to reach them. Merritt argues that many so-called Millenials and Gen X’ers crave a connection to other generations and to a rich spiritual tradition. In our mobile society in which they’ve left behind family in other places, they need the “family” a church can provide. In a culture of trendy fads and commercial exploitation, they need the grounding that comes through immersion in time-proven spiritual practices. Merritt writes, “If church leadership imagines that introducing an electronic keyboard and twenty minutes of praise choruses is enough to attract people in their twenties and thirties, then they might want to rethink their evangelistic efforts. Right now, there is a widespread generational rejection of contemporary worship that has to do with a young adult’s resistance to becoming a market sample or part of a target audience.”[2] The words of my younger colleague remind me that in times of rapid change, one of the Church’s challenges is to accurately discern the pull of God toward reformation from the push of culture toward innovation after innovation.

Three months ago, Presbyterians Today published a special issue entitled “Welcome to the Presbyterian Church.” In it, several people gave testimonies about what attracted them to this Reformed-and-always-being-Reformed tradition. None of them mentioned innovative techniques. All of them spoke in terms of core values and practices.

  • A college student in Kentucky said, “I am Presbyterian because I was raised in a … church filled with open hearts, frequent potlucks, and the conviction that the world outside our old brick walls was in desperate need of all the love we could offer. Thanks to that conviction borne out of love, I have chosen to remain Presbyterian. More often than not, I fail miserably at living out that calling, but it is my faith that gives me hope – hope that, with God’s help, I will do better next time; and hope that, with God’s help, the church I love will continue to grow and change as it answers the call of the Spirit.”
  • A graduate student in Chicago writes, “I am still Presbyterian because of the community I have experienced … faith-based passion for social justice issues … mentorship …. My experience at the 219th General Assembly showed me how the church is wrestling with disagreements and discerning the will of the Spirit in a (hopefully) just process. Among disappointment and joy, I fell in love with my Presbyterian heritage and sensed a call to stay in the church. It’s my home, and I don’t always like it, but it’s where I’m call to follow the radically loving and embracing gospel of Jesus Christ.”[3]

The personal testimonies of these 20-something Presbyterians prompt personal examination. Why are YOU a Presbyterian? What brought you to this particular denominational family and congregation? Why are you STILL Presbyterian? Why this denominational family and tradition rather than another?

As some of you know, my personal testimony includes more than one story of conversion. First, there was the decision to trust Christ rather than trust popular culture or my flawed personal plan for life’s direction, all made within the context of a different denominational tradition. Then followed a slow conversion to Reformed theology beginning at age 20, then a conversion to Reformed polity that was completed by my early 30s.

In my formative years, there was no shortage of voices making claims to exclusive theological truth:

  • Pietists – with whom I had grown up – felt that their hearts were purer.
  • Fundamentalists – with whom I rubbed elbows on campus – thought that their theology was truer.
  • Pentecostals had the miraculous gift of tongues to show they were closer to the Spirit.
  • Roman Catholics showed me a pedigree to prove they were connected to Christ through Peter.

But the Presbyterians calmly told me all claims to exclusive truth are subject to error because of human frailty and sinful pride, and that all such claims grow dim in the light of the sovereign Creator whom we worship.

When I ventured off into the world of Congregational church polity – independent and plagued by Darwinian power struggles – God kept sending Presbyterians into my life:

  • the seminary colleague who regularly reminded me that I behaved more Presbyterian than many lifelong Presbyterians he knew;
  • the administrative assistant co-worker who introduced me to her husband, the Executive Presbyter of Southern Kansas;
  • the minister with whom I co-officiated a wedding, who turned out to be chair of the Committee on Ministry.

God providentially surrounded me with Presbyterians, and despite meetings, forms, and ordination exams, my journey into the Presbyterian Church was, in many ways, one of the truest and best paths I’ve ever walked.

None of my efforts to find the right path ever turned out to be as important or effective as the path that was presented to me as a gift. In my vocational life, the proclamation of the Reformed Tradition has proven true: God is the sovereign Creator, I am a humble creature. God is God, and I am not.

Trust in God’s sovereignty provides a graceful comfort during tumultuous times. Joel experienced it back in the fourth-century B.C. Paul knew it during the days of the early Church. John Calvin expressed it beautifully in one of my favorite hymns, with which we opened worship today: “Our hope is in no other save in Thee; Our faith is built upon Thy promise free; Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure, That in Thy strength we evermore endure.”

[1] Anna Case-Winters, “What do Presbyterians believe about ‘Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda?’” Presbyterians Today, May 2004.

[2] Carol Howard Merritt, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2007, p. 137.

[3] “Why I am Presbyterian,” Presbyterians Today, July 2013, pp. 9-10.


~ by JohnH1962 on October 27, 2013.

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