Recapturing the Reformation
As I reflected on the anniversary of the Reformation this year, I realized that the reason it took place was because of sin. I do not mean the Reformation was sinful nor started by evil actions, but that it had to happen because of sin. Sin mars that which is truly good and beautiful, and in the 16th Century, the Church was marred by traditionalism almost beyond recognition. What the Reformation sought to accomplish, and did to a great extent, was retrieve the early church Christ established. Now, in the 21st Century, Western Christianity needs the same retrieval of reformation.
Over the last decade, attempts have been made to "reform" the church to the early church standard. They have been misguided, however, because they only focused on modern and culturally relevant aspects of the early church. "Community," for example, has been a buzzword for this movement, but its frame has looked more like a friendly and open social club. Its motto, "Just follow Jesus," has led to everything but what it intended, and the entire movement has either espoused some other church tradition or completely collapsed into worldliness.
Reformation is always necessary because of sin, especially personal reformation (Romans 12:1-2). But, churches need reforming too. After all, they are made of the same people in need of personal reformation. When we carefully examine our churches, we find they display many of the same problems plaguing the Catholic Church of the 16th Century. We might not have a pope or priests, indulgences, or High-Church fanfare, but we have some of the same doctrinal and ecclesiastical problems. In this article, I want to highlight a few of those problems and then list some helpful corrections offered by the Reformation.
1. How do we get saved?
In the mid-1800s, something changed with the way western Christians understood conversion. The act of coming forward to the altar, praying a little prayer, and asking Jesus into your heart replaced simple repentance and belief. And over time, our understanding of the Christian life has changed from a solemn life change to a frivolous addition to our already busy lives. That is not to say there are no lives truly changed or no solemnity about the Christian life anymore, but the general drift is away from solemnity towards frivolity. As a result, it is convenient to become a Christian today.
The Catholic Church had a different quick-and-easy misguided approach to conversion. All you had to do was be baptized, and you were saved. The act of baptism brought the outsider into the Church, where they taught salvation was (physically being) in (or a member of) the Church. In that sense, it was also a convenient initial salvation.
Both the modern and medieval churches share less of an emphasis on conversion than on growing as a Christian and the Christian life. Thus, salvation is less of a heart-changing event and more of an outward display of conformity and agreement to join Christianity.
2. Who is Jesus Christ?
Because Jesus is the central figure of Christianity, and the church fathers confirmed a biblical understanding of Him early on in the life of the church, one would think the church would change little throughout history. But that is not the case. Instead, by the 16th Century, the Catholic Church had exalted Christ to a place unreachable by most. Jesus was too far away to approach.
In our modern churches, many see Jesus as almost too human. Our emphasis is on walking in the footsteps of Jesus, which has inadvertently caused us to see Jesus as someone similar to us. We have mistakenly thought that since Jesus is close to us, cares for us, and hears us when we pray, He is nothing more than a better version of ourselves.
The Church’s response to the distant Jesus was to produce as many good works as possible in their attempt to catch His attention. The modern church has its own legalism. As the ultimate example of what it means to be human, Jesus must be emulated to the point of mirror perfection. The focus remains on our works, not on His.
3. Entertainment or Worship?
Our modern church services are surprisingly similar to the medieval church in worship style, even though they look entirely different. Where the modern church is cool, trendy, and somewhat unusual, the medieval church was traditional, orderly, and constrained. Yet, despite these differences, their philosophy of worship is the same: those in the pew are passive observers.
The key indicator of how a church views the congregation is what they have in the front and center of their church. The medieval church valued Mass (the Lord's Supper) above all else, so their table for Mass was front and center. By the 16th Century, Mass was something the congregation did not participate in but only watched. In much the same way, our modern churches value entertainment, thus a stage is front and center. It seems many Christians today are passive observers in the church, attending Sunday morning to hear uplifting music and a motivational speech. They do not attend to serve one another and worship God, regardless of the many times they tell themselves they are, in fact, worshipping God and serving others. The whole service is tailored to the media and entertainment age, not grounded in the Bible.
4. Practice over Doctrine
The previous three points lead directly to, and, in some cases, are caused by this fourth point: our churches value practice over doctrine. We make up all kinds of excuses why we don't need doctrine. Maybe it divides, maybe it is too intellectual, maybe it is boring and dry, but whatever our excuse, it has subtly disappeared from our churches. Self-help and motivational books line the bookshelves, and pastors are more apt to talk about culturally popular topics than simply preach the Word. Everything is geared toward reaching our potential, and in the end, we are more concerned with how we must live than how we must think.
The medieval church had much the same problem. For them, the entire Christian life was about sanctification, and not just the spiritual growth kind of sanctification, but a pleasing-God-for-justification kind. Everything was geared toward getting more grace.
How we can recapture the Reformation
a) Preach the Word
The first and primary way reformation happed in the 16th Century was through a simple preaching of God's Word. It was in the language of the people, and all it did was let the text talk. Now, most of you are not pastors, so how you can help this happen in our day is to encourage your pastor, suggest that he preach through a book of the Bible, or go through a portion of Scripture verse by verse. Personally, study the Bible for yourself in the same way, carefully reading through a verse and letting it speak for itself.
One of the main causes of deformation is laying our opinions onto the text of Scripture. The trouble with this is that we don't need to do this intentionally; it comes naturally. When we don't consider the context, we lay our opinions onto the Bible. We must always ask the Bible what it is talking about before imposing our own thoughts on the matter.
b) What are the ordinary means of grace?
Perhaps one of the most overlooked yet essential parts of church life for Christians is the ordinary means of grace. In the Reformation, this idea was revolutionary, for it replaced the Church's sacerdotalism (in short, salvation through the sacraments). The Catholic Church had come to see grace as a thing or an object—in essence, something to be gained and lost. The sacraments were their means of grace in the sense that, by participating in them, the people filled their reserves with the grace they had lost through sinning.
Reformation understanding of the ordinary means of grace taught that the preaching of God's Word, prayer, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and church discipline and the care of souls were not channels for grace to flow into our lives but for divine sustenance and nourishment for spiritual growth. They are ordinary because they are easily overlooked and, honestly, quite boring to itching ears. They are means of grace because God has appointed them to carry out His divine work in our hearts. So when we overlook the importance of preaching, prayer, the two sacraments, or church discipline and the care of souls, we miss out on God's method for our growth in holiness.
c) True, Inward Holiness
When justification by faith alone is the prominent driving force of your gospel, true holiness from the heart is an automatic response. That is what the Reformation teaches us, for when they insisted justification was by faith alone, they immediately ceased their attempts to please God by their works. They became truly gospel-centred Christians.
How important is the doctrine of justification by faith alone to you? The holiness God requires of us does not come about through a change of actions or circumstances but through the gospel changing our hearts.