Is the Reformation over?

I’ve never liked describing myself as ‘reformed’. In fact, although I have many good friends who disagree, I think it’s a big mistake for anyone to do so. (You’ll be glad to know that we remain friends, despite the disagreement!)

Done, or doing?

The problem is not necessarily one of theology but of grammar. To describe yourself as reformed is to put the Reformation in the past, not in the present. It suggests that you think the church was in a bad way, but during the 16th-century Reformation, it reformed itself fully. For the reformed Christian, the Reformation is therefore over, at least for him or her. What needed to be reformed has been reformed, and our job is to maintain that until Jesus returns.

But it’s worth remembering that almost no-one would say that Martin Luther or John Calvin were reformed. They certainly never claimed that for themselves. No, they were more than reformed — they were reformers, and therefore those who want to follow them should be reformers too. The vital question is this: Did Luther, Calvin and the other reformers finish a work, or begin a work that God intends us to continue?

In practice, most evangelicals believe the latter, even if our vocabulary points in a different direction. Most evangelical Presbyterians would suggest that Martin Luther’s reforms didn’t go far enough, and it was vital that Calvin continued them and took them further. Most evangelical Baptists would suggest that Calvin’s reforms didn’t go far enough, at least in relation to the link between baptism and faith. Most evangelical charismatics would say that the Baptists’ reforms didn’t go far enough, at least regarding spiritual gifts.

But that doesn’t mean we should call ourselves Reformed Baptists, Reformed Charismatics, or even Reformed Presbyterians. That terminology still suggests we believe the Reformation belongs to the past, whether that’s the 16th century, 17th century, or the late 20th century.

Indeed, regardless of our terminology, we all believe that the visible church needs reforming today. But do reformed churches require further reforming? Many reformed Christians give the impression that it doesn’t. But isn’t the biblical teaching that every church should be growing, maturing, becoming more godly, more in conformity with God’s will, more zealous, and more loving? If so, that would seem to suggest that all our churches need to be constantly reforming.

Personal reformation

This is true personally, just as it is true of the church. The church I am part of needs reforming, but so do I personally. I am not yet the Christian that I ought to be. I am thankful for the work that God has done in my life, but there remain gaps and errors in my theological understanding and church practice, even if I can’t always see them. Sin no longer reigns in my life, but immaturity, coldness and even rebellion haven’t been completely rooted out. I am a work in progress. I am not yet reformed, I am still being reformed. In that sense God the Holy Spirit is the ultimate reformer of his people.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that everyone who describes themselves as reformed is guilty of arrogantly thinking that they and their church are all they should be. But I am saying that it’s important that the words we use to describe ourselves accurately reflect biblical teaching and our own theological positions.

The dangers of reformation

Of course, there is a danger to this talk of ‘always reforming’. The danger is that we throw the baby out with the bathwater, and reform some things that don’t need reforming — that we go too far. That’s what many of the Anabaptists did in the 16th century, and (I would argue) what some charismatics and Pentecostals did in the 20th century. We must guard against that danger by insisting that every reform is clearly demonstrable from Scripture, and not on any new light or revelation that God apparently gives today. Josiah’s reforms in 2 Chronicles 34 came after Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law. The rediscovery (or at least the re-emphasis) of the Greek text of the New Testament was a major impetus in Luther and Calvin’s reforms in the 16th century. In an imperfect world, Christians won’t always agree on the exact teaching of the Bible, but we can certainly guard against extremes by continuing to trust in the Scriptures and not in additional revelation.

There’s also the danger that striving to be ‘always reforming’ creates a culture that disdains the past, and places too much value on what is new, simply because it is new. We must guard against the heresy that says new is better than old. ‘Newness’ is not what the reformers were arguing for. They did not value new over old, but mature over immature, and truth over error. We can be reformers like them by insisting that church or personal reformation is never about what is new in our eyes, but always about what is best in God’s eyes.

Why this matters

This discussion matters because reformed churches and reformed Christians sometimes have a reputation for being stuck in the past and resistant to change. We have a reputation for not being willing to consider reforming the language used in our Bibles, or the instruments used in our corporate worship, or the methods used in our evangelism, or the traditions we adhere to in our churches. Often that reputation has been earned.

There are undoubtedly advantages to our resistance to change. Reformed churches have often remained more faithful to the biblical message than other churches, and less prone to succumbing to pressure to conform to the values of this world.

But there are disadvantages, too, and sometimes those have gospel significance. A whole generation seems to have grown up with the view that Christianity is not for them — it’s a dead religion, not a living faith, even a religion of hate rather than a religion of love. There are many reasons for this view, but surely at least one of them is the church’s frequent unwillingness to continue to reform, and a belief that the methods of the past will remain right for the future.

Despite this, I am optimistic about our future. The Lord will build his church. Regardless of whether we call ourselves reformed, or reforming or something else, so long as we remember our dependence on God’s Spirit to purify the church and sanctify our hearts, we will continue to discover that God is able to change us far more profoundly than we could ever change ourselves.