By Pastor Stephen Hess –
As we started the new year at Highview we have been focusing on our theological roots in the Protestant Reformation. 2017 marks the 500th year anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, and consequently we have been using this anniversary as an occasion to study some of our most foundational doctrines. On Sunday mornings, we have been looking at the “Five Solas” of the Reformation—doctrines which are pillars of our faith. On Wednesday evenings we have been taking a deeper look at some of the same topics as we have embarked on the “What is Reformed Theology?” course.
The events and doctrines that emerged from the Reformation are not just pieces of ancient history; they continue to be relevant today. The Reformation is a reminder that there is a continual need for reform in our lives and in our churches. This was true in 1517, and it is just as true in 2017.
In the centuries following the Reformation, a principle developed among some of the Protestants who had followed in the footsteps of the first reformers. The phrase was: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei. Translated into English this Latin phrase means, “The church is reformed and always in need of being reformed according to the Word of God.” This principle offers some important lessons for us as Reformed Christians today.
First, this phrase tells us that “the church is reformed.” This is a reminder that we don’t exist in a vacuum but we have roots. Our roots go back to those first Reformers during the 16th century who took a firm stand for the gospel and started a movement of “Protestant” churches. In this way, we stand on the shoulders of many who have come before us, and we confess many of the same theological beliefs (like the “Five Solas”).
Second, this phrase tells us that the church is “always in need of being reformed.” Reform is not a one-time thing of the past; it is a continual need in our churches today. This is because in every generation there are forces that threaten to corrupt or obscure the true gospel. Just as in Luther’s day the gospel had become corrupted through false teachings and traditions, so too in our day the American church has its own sources of corruption. One doesn’t have to look too far to find examples: American Christianity has too often embraced materialism and wealth and turned these idols into false gospels. American Christianity has too often surrendered to our entertainment culture and given people what they want rather than what they need. American Christianity has too often accepted watered down theology in an effort to attract people and in the process has lost the Biblical gospel. These are just a few examples of the reality that the church today, in 2017, is still in need of reform.
Third, this phrase reminds us that reform is always “according to the word of God.” Reform does not simply mean “change” or “novelty.” Some people have interpreted the phrase “always in need of being reformed” to mean that the church should constantly change and experiment just for the sake of change. But this misunderstands the principle. True reform means to bring something back into alignment with its proper standard. The standard for the church is the word of God. Therefore when we talk about reforming the church we are speaking about continually bringing the church back into alignment with the Bible. It is the task of each generation to ask: Is our church faithfully following the Scriptures? When we discover areas where we are out of alignment, then it is our duty to correct those in obedience to God.
Reform is crucial for our churches today, but it begins with our own hearts. The Apostle Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). We must continually search our hearts to see where we have conformed to this world, and bring ourselves back into conformity with God’s word. When believers embrace this, then our churches will be well on their way to true, Biblical reform.