How is reform brought about?
In the first place, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that all reform in the church of Jesus Christ is the work of God, through Christ, by the Spirit of Christ, in the hearts of God’s people. When we confess our faith in one holy Catholic church, according to Lord’s Day XXI, Q. & A. 54, we confess, among other things, that it is the Son of God Who preserves His church from the beginning to the end of time. God reforms the church. You do not reform it. I do not reform it. Nor can any consistory or classis or synod reform the church. God reforms His church because God has promised to preserve His church to the very end, and He will. Whatever happens to the church here in the city of Grand Rapids, or whatever happens to any particular denomination in the future, there is one thing of which we may be certain: God will preserve His church! If He does not do this through us, He will do it without us. But He will preserve it unto the very end. And because the work of reformation is God’s work, he who is concerned with the reformation of the church is the one who, with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, looks to God for reformation!
Luther, shortly before he died, looking back over his life, made the startling remark that from that first moment when he pounded the nails in the paper which held his theses to the chapel door of the church at Wittenburg, was carried along by forces greater than himself and against which he was helpless. He rode the crest of a wave over which he had no control. All the events of his life were a mighty force that carried him along. He in no sense determined the directions in which it went. That was his own confession concerning his life and work as a reformer.
Reformation always has two sides to it, a negative side and a positive side. To re-form the church one must get out of the church all that is bad, and put into it all that is good. Both are important. There are those who have tried to reform the church only by getting out of it that which is bad. What happens then is that after the room is swept and garnished, the devil, who was cast out, goes out and finds seven more devils, who take up their abode in that church, and the latter end of that church is worse than the former. You cannot just simply put the devils out of the church; you have to put God into it.
All reformation which is satisfied only with the negative aspect is not reformation.
Reformation begins in the heart of the child of God. That is the way it was with Luther. The Reformation did not really begin on October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed his theses to the chapel door of the church of Wittenburg. That is the date we commemorate. But the Reformation began when God came into Luther’s heart and would not give Luther one moment of peace. God did that. Luther lived in mortal terror of the judgment, wrath, and fury of God against his sin. God led Luther to try every prescription which the Roman Catholic Church offered as the solution to this problem. God made Luther go on his knees on the Sancta Scala in Rome. God made Luther enter a monastery and obey all the rules of a monk. God wanted Luther to understand, in the depths of his soul, that all that the Roman Catholic Church prescribed as the antidote for such fear of wrath was useless and a perversion of Scripture. But it had to be thrown out. Only then could Luther see the cross, and the power of the blood of Jesus Christ once again, and understand that it was in the cross of Christ, and in that cross alone, that he had forgiveness and peace with God. When he learned that, the Reformation was genuinely begun in principle form. Everything that happened after that in Luther’s work, in Calvin’s work, and in the work of all the Reformers was a development of what had already fundamentally and principally taken place in the soul of Luther. God tore Luther out of the clutches of Rome and placed him firmly at the foot of Calvary. That is where Reformation began.
The relationship is this. It is impossible to rid the church of that which is wrong and bring back that which is according to the Scriptures until this very thing takes place in our own hearts. There must be the crucifixion of the old man and the putting on of the new man. In short, there must be conversion, which is really reformation, in the hearts of God’s people. And this must take place through the cross of Jesus Christ.
This is what makes reformation so difficult. As much as we like to see reformation in the church, it is a big price to pay to reform our own wicked life. We do not particularly care to do this. Nevertheless, that is where it begins, because that is where the work of God begins: in conversion and repentance in the hearts of God’s people. And it begins by repentance, which ruthlessly, but by the power of grace, roots out of our lives those idols before which we have chosen to bow; it means to put again into our lives the Word of God, in the position where it belongs, as the authority of all our life. Until that happens there will never be reformation.
That is what it means to be sons and daughters of the Reformation. It means to understand that thefundamental principle of the Reformation is this: to be Reformed is to be always reforming. When the Word of God has been restored to its proper place in our life, then it can be restored to its proper place in the life of our families, so that it becomes, once again, the focal point of the life in our households. Then it can also become the Word of God which has its proper place in the church, in the life of the church, in the preaching, in the rule of the office bearers, in the distributions of the mercies of Christ, and the communion of the saints. Then the old fervor, the old excitement is restored in the church. Then the preaching comes alive and is once again filled with warmth and zeal. And doctrine is not cold, abstract doctrine, but the life of the child of God which he experiences in the depths of his own soul. It is not the preaching, then, of Jesus Christ Who died for the elect, but it is the preaching of Jesus Christ Who died for me! I am washed in the blood of Christ from all my sins now and forever. Every truth of the gospel has its echo and its response in the depths of our souls. Then doctrine becomes real and alive, and the Word of God becomes once again the focal point of all our life and of all the life of the church of Jesus Christ.
But all this means, just as it does in our life, that, in the church, discipline must be exercised, and those who will not bow before the Word of God must be put out. For the sake of the cause of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the truth of the gospel, for the sake of reformation, evil, wherever it appears, must be rooted out. Reformation will not result in a return to the Word of God until evil is taken out of the midst of the church.
But if the church has reached the point where it is impossible for the faithful remnant to restore the church, there is only one course of action that is left: reformation must come about through secession. The Reformers did this when the Roman Catholic Church proved herself beyond reform. There is only one course of action to pursue. It can happen in any. church, even ours. But if we are not reformed and therefore always reforming, it will come to that, beyond doubt. As difficult as that may be, the cause of Christ and His Church is more important than anything else.
The Reformers were accused of the sin of schism, especially by Cardinal Sadolet, when he addressed the citizens of Geneva where Calvin had been, to try to win them back to the Romish fold. He accused Calvin and the other Reformers of leaving the church and rending the body of Christ, and of thus becoming guilty of schism. Calvin’s answer, in what was a masterpiece in the defense of the Reformation, was in effect this: not those who leave the church are guilty of schism, but those who depart from the doctrines of Christ, they tear the church to pieces, because the unity of the church is the unity of her doctrine of Jesus Christ her Head. And to destroy and to deny her doctrine is to create schism. Not we, Calvin says, but you, Cardinals and Bishops and Popes, you have created schism in the body of Christ. Our hands are clean of that sin.
J.C. Ryle, a nineteenth century theologian, faced the same question in his own England. He wrote, “He who deliberately settles down under any ministry which is positively unsound is a very unwise man. I do believe when this false doctrine is unmistakably preached in a parish church, a parishioner who loves his soul is quite right in not going to that parish church. Divisions and separations are most objectionable in religion. They weaken the cause of true Christianity, they give occasion to the enemies of all godliness to blaspheme. But before we blame people for them we must be careful that we lay the blame where it is deserved. False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. In such cases separation is a virtue and not a sin. Controversy in religion is a hateful thing. It is hard enough to fight the devil, the world, and the flesh, without private differences in our own camp, but there is one thing which is even worse than controversy, and that is false doctrine tolerated, allowed, and permitted without protest or molestation. It was controversy that won the battle of the Protestant Reformation. Three things there are which men never ought to trifle with: a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin.”
It takes courage to say to mother, “You are no longer my mother, you have become unfaithful; you no longer feed me, I must leave you.” But it is the courage of grace. It is the courage which begins in our own life when before God we cry out for forgiveness for all our sins and plead for grace to root them out that we may serve God in all our life ac- cording to the Scriptures. And if that courage of faith is there to restore the Word of God to its focal point in my life, then the courage will be there to do what has to be done, even to the point of separation, to restore the Word of God to its focal point in the life of the church.
Are we children of the Reformation? Do we have the right to call ourselves Reformed? Are we a people who are always reforming? This is the only true way to commemorate the Reformation.