Today, the Protestant Reformation turns 501.
Last year we held conferences, preached sermons, wrote books, and looked back over the 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, praising God for his faithfulness to his people during that time.
But now the calendar turns.
And rather than look back to where we have been and marvel at how far we have come, we need to consider what continued Reformation is needed in the Protestant Church.
It’s time to look forward.
I need to say this before I continue: I can only speak of the American Church.
I can’t speak to what is happening in the Global Church. Yes, I’ve met with church leaders from other areas of the world. I’ve prayed with them and worshipped with them. I’ve heard their stories. But I can’t speak to what year 501 and beyond should look like for the Global Church.
I live in the American Church. I wake up to her every day. I see her in the local church context and I see her through the lens of national movements and church-wide debates (or at least Reformed-corner-wide debates).
As I study Scripture and as I consider our current moment, I’m led to three statements (theses?) that I think we, the American Church, need to take seriously as we move into the next 500 years of the Protestant Reformation.
Of course, these three statements are subjective. I’m sure as many of you will disagree as agree. Nonetheless.
Here I stand. I can’t do anything else.
Or something like that.
1. In year 501 and beyond, the American Church must focus on the renewal of the Church’s walk through consistent application of the truth of God to all areas of life.
Critics of our Reformed corner of the Christian world often say that we are overly focused on the life of the mind. Our doctrines are about intellectual pursuit and academic dispute, they claim.
There’s probably something we can learn from that criticism .
However, I’m not sure that the critique is completely fair.
There are some who elevate the life of the mind over the life of the heart and the life of the hands and feet. There are some who treat Christianity as a philosophical system to be defended rather than a Savior who is to be followed and a King who is to be worshiped.
But that wasn’t the goal of the Reformation. And it’s not the goal of Reformed Theology. Not if we treat it rightl
The goal of the Reformation was always to reform the mind of the Church in order to reform the heart of the Church.
The Reformers understood that heat and mind go together. Luther’s initial concerns about indulgences were not only based out of an intellectual disagreement with the concept, but also stemmed from a heart concern for poor citizenship who were being exploited by the Roman system. Head and heart.
This was John Calvin’s concern as well. When commenting on 1 Timothy, Calvin said, “God has prescribed for us a way in which he will be glorified by us, namely, piety, which consists in the obedience of his Word. He that exceeds these bounds does not go about to honor God, but rather to dishonor him.”
Piety. Godliness. The consistent application of God’s truth not only to the mind but also to the heart and the life of the Christian.
Yet, we have consistently failed at this.
The inability to consistently apply the truth of the Word of God to every area of life is what allowed Martin Luther to become rabidly anti-Semitic before he died. It is what led John Calvin to murder Servetus and it is the reason that Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield not only owned slaves but promoted that wicked institution.
These were some of our greatest minds. I don’t know if they were some of our greatest hearts. That’s the Lord’s business.
But I do know that if these men failed, then the rest of us will probably fail to. Does this mean we give up and not try? Of course not. We put our heads down and keep going, knowing that God has called us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called” (Eph 4:1). What would the Church look like if we really gave it a shot?
Right doctrine is essential to Christianity. But if right doctrine does not lead to right loving and right living, it is worthless. Conversely, if right loving and living is attempted without right doctrine, we will always fall short.
Paul understood this. We need the truth of right doctrine (the content of our “calling”). But we are called to walk in a worthy manner. Because the Gospel is true, because we believe in the authority of Scripture alone which teaches that salvation is offered by grace alone, claimed by faith alone in Christ alone and is to the glory of God alone, our lives should rightly be transformed by that doctrine which is renewing our minds (Rom 12:2).
Because the goal of the church’s Reformation is not only right doctrine, it’s godliness (1 Tim 4:7-8).
2. In year 501 and beyond, the American Church must display the unity found in Jesus Christ by resisting the polarization of our surrounding culture.
I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Ron Chernow’s thorough biography of Ulysses S. Grant. As Chernow described the lead-up to the Civil War, he remarked how polarized the nation had become.
We use this word to describe our own times in the United States.
And, brothers and sisters, I am concerned that we in the Church are choosing sides. We are declaring our allegiance to one political ideology over another, one political party over another, one political label over another.
This must not happen.
Polarization within the church is a direct repudiation of an objective, unalterable fact: we are one in Christ. We, women and men from every tribe and tongue and nation and ethnic group and country of origin and citizenship status, are one in Christ. Whether we like it or not. Nothing we do can add to this oneness and nothing we do can take away from it.
The oneness of the Church is not something that we need to accomplish but something that God has accomplished. This is what Paul means when he tells the Ephesian church that “there is one body” (Eph 4:4).
He doesn’t say that there could be one body or that we can create one body if we work really hard at “being one”; Paul states the immutable fact, “There is one body.”
We can kick against it and try to tear ourselves apart or we can embrace our oneness, enjoy it, and give glory to God for it.
God commands us to do the latter. Paul told the Ephesians to “eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit.” While oneness is established by God, unity must be lived out and maintained.
Are we eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit, or are we eager to be right?
Are we eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit, or are we eager to seize power?
Are we eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit, or are we eager to do things our own way?
We are one in Christ. Let us eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Because, in a polarized “us versus them” culture, what the world doesn’t need is a church that dives into the fray! They need a church that boldly declares that there is another way, a way of unity, a way of peace.
Jesus Christ will build his church. May he build it here.
3. In year 501 and beyond, the American Church must demonstrate the transformative power of humility which will often lead to suffering.
The American Church has, time and again, tried to seize power and influence. But what the Bible tells us, time and again, is to be willing to suffer for the sake of Christ. We are to “count others more significant than (ourselves). Let each of (us) look not only to (our) own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3b-4).
God calls us not to cling to power but to embrace humility.
“I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:1-2).
Could you imagine if we committed ourselves to living this out? To humbly count others more significant than ourselves? To humbly look out for the interests of others? Why do we limit these commands to life of individual believers? Why should this not be the orientation of the Church’s heart?
Brother and sister Christians, Reformed family, are we known for humility? Are we known as gentle people? Or are we quick to issue harsh words that stir up anger (Prov 15:1)? Are we a patient people, assuming the best in one another, or do we suspect the worst and attack?
What is driving this lack of humility and desire to engage in public battles, spectacles that look as vicious and tribe-building as anything the world has to offer?
I think it might be fear.
Fear drive us to do terrible things. And fear that we will lose our own protection, power, and influence has led us and will lead us down a dark path.
We must practice humility, serving others, seeking the welfare of others more than ourselves, knowing at every step that this will lead to the suffering of the Church.
But what is it that Paul tells us? “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29).
Let us choose the path of humility. Yes, it may lead to suffering. But humble suffering has the power to transform us into godly women and men that look more and more like the image of Christ.
After all, hasn’t that been the goal all along?
Today marks the beginning of year 501 of the Protestant Reformation. May we be a Church that is always reforming, not only looking to refine our doctrine, but to be transformed into a Bride prepared for her Husband, clothed in the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev. 19:7-8).