Why The Reformed Church?


Imagine walking into a church where the service is held in a language which no one understands. Imagine a pastor who taught that you could go to heaven if you just gave him more money. Imagine being asked to kneel before an object and worship it.

You do not have to be a Christian to know that something is not right here. This church is corrupt. This church needs to change.

If you agree with that, then you are on the side of the Reformers who found themselves in that exact situation five hundred years ago, and who sought to reform the church and bring it closer to what it ought to be. Tragically, each of the situations described above could still as easily be said about churches today. I doubt that anyone who is aware of the state of the church does not think that it needs a lot of reformation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb reform as “to make changes in (something, especially an institution or practice) in order to improve it.” Change has been a big buzzword of our generation and is a particular favourite of politicians. Of course, we all recognize that change can go in two directions, for better or worse, but you would agree that change for the better is something we could all use. I’ve not met anyone who thinks that there is absolutely nothing about his church that could be improved.

The real problem, however, is that we tend to focus on the things that others need to change. We often console ourselves by saying, ”See, we are not as bad as these other people!” This is true whether in a marriage or in politics, and this is certainly true about churches as well. It is easy to look at another church or person and say, “This is what is wrong with you,” and come up with a long list of problems. It is much harder to listen to someone else say that to us.

Realizing that such a tendency applies similarly to myself, it is with much reluctance that I write these words. I pray that you too would agree that such a call to reformation is necessitated by the seriousness of our situation, and that you would forgive any presumption on my part to sound it. If you are not a Christian, I pray that you would read on anyway.

Why Reform?

In the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle writes that Christ ascended into heaven to give gifts (apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, etc.) to build up the church. The end point and goal of these gifts is given in verse 13, “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

This verse is both challenging and comforting. It is challenging because of the dire state of the church today; fragmented into thousands of parts, plagued with error and ungodliness, and far from the unity, maturity or fullness of Christ that we are called to be. But it is also comforting because this task of uniting and maturing us is something that the Lord Jesus has not left us to figure out on our own, but has taken upon himself to accomplish. It is the reason he could not stay on the earth after the resurrection. It is what he went to heaven to do, and what he has, in fact, been doing the last two thousand years, and that he will not stop doing until we all — all of his church — arrive at that unity and maturity. This is God’s entire purpose for our age until Christ comes again in glory. But until then, even the purest and best formed of churches must keep re-forming.

How to Reform?

Among Christians, the word “edify” (which simply means “to build”) is often used without considering the edifice that is to be “edified.”  Earlier in chapter two of the same epistle to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul describes the church as a temple fitted together and built up as a house for God’s Spirit. This building is to be “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (verse 20). This foundation is none other than the Scriptures of Christ, and the Christ of Scripture. This foundation, Paul insists, may not be replaced. No other foundation is to be laid (1 Cor 3:11).

It is by God’s design that this question of authority is the most basic one behind any and every decision for change. How do we decide whether to change, what to change, and what to change into? How do we know? Who gets the final say? To each of these questions, Scripture claims its own place as the only infallible rule of faith and life. It alone is foundational, and it is irreplaceably so.

Not all change is good. Reformation which departs from this principle of Scripture alone is no longer reformation, but deformation. Paul gives a stern warning that everyone is to “take heed how he builds” lest he defile the temple of God which is the church.

In order to build up, we must keep looking down to the foundation to make sure that what we build is aligned to it. Nevertheless, the assumption is that we will not simply sit on and stare at this foundation, but that we will build upon it. Both conservatism for the sake of conservatism or progressivism for the sake of progressivism are betrayals of the principle of Scripture alone. To properly reform, we must give no place for either nostalgia (it’s always been done this way!) or novelty (it’s never been done this way!). If God is maturing the church into the fullness of Christ’s stature, then to either refuse to reform according to God’s revealed will or to deform the church in a way contrary to God’s word, is to reject God’s purpose and thus to exclude oneself from it.

In the face of the death penalty, Martin Luther made the bold statement, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” His concern was not pragmatism – neither what would be most popular nor what would save his neck – but obedience to God. He was willing to stake his life on and to go wherever God led him through his written word. Are you?

What to Reform?

Worship

The most lasting and prominent contribution of the Reformation which began five hundred years ago has been its doctrine of salvation: the teaching that one is saved by grace through faith alone and not by works (Eph 2:8-9). In the classic defense of The Necessity of Reforming the Church, the French Reformer John Calvin began, however, not with the doctrine of salvation, but with worship.

The importance of this order should not be overlooked, as it tragically has been in many churches. God’s worship is more important than man’s salvation simply because God is more important than man. God saves us so that we can worship him. Over and over in the Bible we learn that God deals kindly with us for his own sake, not ours (Ps 106:8; Isa 48:9, 11; Ezk 36:22; Rom 9:22-23). God commanded Pharaoh over and over again, “Let my people go,” not so that they could be freed from being Pharaoh’s slaves to live their own lives, but so that they may worship God and serve him as his slaves (Ex 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). God has claimed us as his own, for his own sake, because he is worthy of our worship.

Sometimes, the way salvation is preached today, it almost seems as though God saves us because he worships us; because we are worthy, because we deserve better. This is nothing less than blasphemy (insulting God), but how often do we see churches willing to compromise on the worship service in order to attract more people? How often do we hear sermons that are about how man can have a better life with less guilt and less problems, instead of how man ought to be obeying and glorifying God even if it means more pain and more problems (Ps  119:143)?

It is easy to say that God is bigger than man, but our worship reflects what we truly believe about God and about ourselves. The god we are not afraid to worship according to our own inventions is a god of our own imaginations. And if the Bible and history has proved anything about us, it is undoubtedly that our minds are idol-factories, churning out gods after our own image.

Still today, the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches continue to venerate idols and images. Sadly, even the Lutheran and other Protestant churches still include a large crucifix in their worship places. Have we forgotten how severely Israel and Judah were punished for their idolatry? Have we too become as blind as our idols, unable to see such blatant idolatry for what it is but instead finding all sorts of excuses for it (Ps 115:5-8; Isa 44:9-20)? Do we despise the Lord’s many and patient warnings throughout the Bible, and think that we are somehow immune from this pervasive sin?

We need to be careful, however, to not restrict the sin of idolatry simply to physical idols and images. All methods of worship not commanded by God are equally forbidden. Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron the priest, were consumed by fire because they offered incense that the Lord “had not commanded them” (Lev 10:1-2; cf. Ex 30:9), and which they presumed to do upon their own understanding.

This principle of “what is not commanded in worship is forbidden,” or what has been called the Regulative Principle of Worship, led the Reformed church historically to the practice of the singing of the Psalms exclusively without accompaniment by instruments. A more detailed explanation of this position on worship which can be accessed freely on the internet is John McNaugher’s The Psalms in Worship (1907).

What is regrettable, at least in this author’s experience, is that the vast majority of churches not only do not sing the Psalms at all, but have never even heard of Psalm-singing. Others prefer the compositions of men to the word of God simply for sentimental, man-centred reasons.

If we believe that God is infinitely greater, wiser, and more holy than we are, we will let him tell us how he wants to be worshipped, rather than thinking that we know better. Let us worship God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29; Dt 4:24).

Doctrine

If our worship should reflect the holiness and transcendence of God as well as the humility and dependence of men, then our understanding of salvation should be no different. God does not need our worship, and neither does he need to save us. He does not owe us anything. We owe him everything. We depend on him to tell us how to worship him, and we depend on him to tell us how we are to be saved.

The Reformation began with the struggle against an elaborate and imaginative tradition of what needs to be done for one to be saved. Part of it included paying for the Pope’s renovation of his Roman church/palace to get yourself or your relatives out of purgatory (basically a temporary hell for Christians).

This abuse of the conscience was what first led the Reformers to the principle of Scripture alone, and there they found the freedom of the Gospel that the Lord Jesus Christ had promised (Jn 8:32). This freedom was found in the principle of faith alone.

If one had to keep the law in order to be made right with God, then none could be saved, for all have broken God’s law and are thus under his penalty of death. If you actually understand the law, you will know that it makes nobody righteous before God. Instead, the law only makes one more conscious of his sin (Rom 3:20)! The more you realize what kind of perfection God requires, the more you understand how irreparably deep in trouble you are. There will be no balancing the scales of justice with your good works. It has an offended and infinitely holy God on one side, and your pathetic, sinful self on the other. You have been weighed and found wanting.

The only way out is for God to satisfy the demands of his own justice for us, and he has! God will provide his own righteousness apart from the deeds of the law to all who believe in Christ (Rom 3:22). The perfect righteousness of the Son of God, which alone can balance the scales of God’s perfect justice, will be counted to those who simply accept it by faith.

And because it is by faith alone, it is also by grace alone. Grace means an unearned kindness. It is provided gratis, free of charge. There will be no payment accepted. There will be no boasting in one’s own efforts or worthiness (Rom 3:27). There will be no talk of merit whatsoever. Our salvation is a gift from beginning to end, and never a wage or debt owed to us. The only thing we did to qualify for salvation is that we have sinned and continue sinning.

This is why Protestants do not make “saints” even of the best Christians. In Christ, we are all already saints (we are, in fact, as righteous as Christ himself!), but so are we also all sinners until the day we die.

This way of salvation is not by accident. God designed it such for a purpose, and that purpose, you might have guessed by now, is not for the glory of man, but for the glory of God through Christ (Eph 1:6, 12, 14). This is the centre of all of God’s work, and all of Scripture, and thus of all the Christian faith: in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. These are non-negotiable. The other principles of Scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone are there because it is inevitable that, when we start coming up with our own ideas of how salvation should work, we will mess with the alones, and take away glory from God alone and give some of it to ourselves. We start praying to saints (and to idols of saints!) instead of to God alone through Christ alone. We start making much of our own decisions and deeds instead of God’s free choice to love and be gracious to us.

Life

But just because salvation is not by keeping the law, it does not mean therefore that one should not keep the law. The Reformation strongly rejected that kind of faulty and dangerous thinking. The law was meant to show us our sin so that we may turn away from our sin, not from the law. We do not keep the law so that we might be saved, but we were saved so that we might keep the law (Eph 2:10; Tit 2:14)! Again, the focus is not on us but on God. We don’t keep the law primarily for our own good, even though it is certainly good for us. It is important that God’s people keep God’s law, because it brings glory to God (Mt 5:16).

As such, much attention must be given to the law, especially to the Ten Commandments, which are God’s own summary of his law. They reflect the holiness of God. They show us the beauty of Christ. And those who love him and hope to see him must purify themselves according to the law (Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:3; 3:2-3).

Let us just pick one of the Ten. Without turning the page, do you know which is the Third Commandment?

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain (Ex 20:7).

We are told that we will have to account for every careless word that we speak (Mt 12:36), and yet so many Christians use God’s name and Jesus’ name like an exclamation mark. Do you see how little we make of God when we do that, or when we allow someone else to do that in front of us and we say nothing about it because we are afraid to offend that little person, but we are not afraid that he has offended the great God?

What about the Fourth Commandment?

Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God, in it you shall not do any work.

Keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday) holy unto the Lord also includes not doing and talking as we please on that day (Isa 58:13). It is how we recognize that it is his day, not just our own day that we may or may not set aside some time to go to church as we like or as we don’t. And yet how many Christians do just the “bare minimum” of attending one worship service in the morning, if at all, and then spending the rest of that day on themselves? All our time is given to us by God and so he has the right to require us to do what he wants with it. In fact, we ought to worship God all seven days of the week, and we should desire it to be so (it will in heaven!), but God has allowed us six days to use for other activities, work and play. How we rob God of his glory when we do not think him worthy of even one day in seven for his worship!

Do you habitually break the Seventh Commandment? The Ninth? Do you even know what they are? It is easy to say that God is big and we are small. It is right and good to have a worship service that reflects that and a theological system that is built upon that. But it is all a show if we are not interested to live it out in our lives.

Ultimately, Reformation depends simply on whether we love God enough to deny ourselves and to change the things we like to the things he likes. Do you choose to attend a church (if you do at all) based on whether it worships, believes, and lives according to God’s Word, or how it serves you and makes you feel? Do you plan your week around God's worship, or do you fit him in where it is most convenient for you? Do you fix your prayer times and then plan the rest of the day (including sleep!) so that it will not interfere with those most precious meetings with God? Do you live as one who exists to serve him, or do you live as though God exists to serve you? Is God more important or are you more important? I pray the Lord will lead you not only to confess, but to live the truth.

Conclusion:
Where to Reform?

Reformation involves individuals, families, churches, and even nations. However, as we read in the fourth chapter of Ephesians, Christ gives the gifts necessary for reformation to the church, and so that is where it must begin. The task of reforming our individual, family, and national lives begins with the task of learning and living the Scriptures as the church.

The reformation of the church comes first also because it is more important. It is the body of Christ, the only institution for which Christ died, and the only one which will endure forever, because the church is where God has chosen to be glorified for all eternity (Eph 3:21)!

If you are looking for a church that seeks to keep getting better at loving God, worshipping God, learning of God, and living for God according to his Word and for his glory, then we invite you to join us at Pilgrim Covenant Church. If you would like to know more about how to reform your church, you will find many helpful articles as well as information on how to contact us at our web address:

www.pilgrim-covenant.com.