We have now entered Reformation month, the climax of the 500th anniversary. In the midst of the commemoration it is possible to take such a long look back that we then forget to look forward. In other words, we may be inclined to think of Reformation as an event in the past rather than a present imperative. This milestone is a point to reflect on where we are in relation to Reformation and what still remains to be achieved as individuals, Churches and communities. How do our lives, families and congregations match up to God’s requirements in His Word? Reformation is a difficult and unsettling activity. It challenges our complacency and expectations. Would we have the appetite for it we think we would?
The Word of God is the only rule for reformation. Yet what do we mean by that? Anthony Burgess (1600-1663) explains how the Word of God has a supreme role in the work of reformation. Burgess lived during a time of reformation and was a member of the Westminster Assembly. He ministered in Sutton Coldfield and wrote many valuable books. Sadly, these have been comparatively neglected. The following is an updated extract from one of his sermons preached before Parliament. He shows that reformation is difficult perhaps even discouraging work but it is also an absolute priority that God blesses.
1. The Standard of Reformation
(a) Reformation in Doctrine
A sound faith is the soul of religion; it’s like the sun in the sky or like the eye in the body. Wrong believing and wrong living go together. Hymenaeus and Philetus made shipwreck of both their faith and of a good conscience (1 Timothy 2:17). We cannot build any confession of faith without quarrying the materials from this mountain. Error and heresy have no enemy like Scripture. We may be as orthodox as possible in our doctrine but if we do not believe these things because of Scripture, it’s a merely man made faith. A merely human faith is based on education and human tradition and comes far short of divine faith.
(b) Reformation in Worship and Church Discipline
An orthodox Church without good discipline and pure worship is like a field of corn without hedges. What a beautiful Church we would have, if the commands of Scripture were respected. Everything done in worship without God’s Word is doing we “know not what” (John 4:22). The basis on which we allow one aspect of worship which is merely from our own will will be the same grounds for more. In Church discipline and order, a profane man should be as rare in the Church as a blazing star (2 Thessalonians 3:6; 1 Corinthians 5:11).
(c) Reformation in Christian Living
We are warned by the Scriptures as to our outward life (Psalm 19:11). The Scriptures are the antidote against sin. A young man may cleanse his ways by them (Psalm 1119:9). Many do not consider this use of Scripture, they dare not have any other doctrine than Scripture teaches, yet they dare to live another life. In the same way that you believe as it is written you must live, fear and joy as it is written.
(d) Reformation in our Heart and Conscience
Scripture differs from all other rules and laws. They only bind us outwardly but the Scriptures reach to the heart and conscience; “the law is spiritual” (Romans 7:14). The law can even doth convict even a self-admiring Pharisee. When this sunlight shines, it uncovers all the hidden thoughts of the heart all those motes, that otherwise would not be seen.
It is a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). Human eloquence does not terrify the conscience, but the Word of God does. It makes the heart cry out, “I am overcome, overcome”. It’s true that God makes use of human eloquence, but all must be subordinate to the Word. As God is the Father of spirits, so the Word is a word of spirits. Although the whole world may threaten, the heart bears itself up if the Word comforts; if it threatens, the heart is discouraged.
(e) The Benefit of Honouring Scripture
The rule of Scripture is opposed by tradition and the reasoning and opinions of men. Most often it is opposed by appeal to majority opinion. Many never consider what the Scriptures direct but believe, worship and live as most others do. God has explicitly forbidden us to “follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2).
If we honour Scripture as supreme we will be:
(a) secure and steadfast in our way; (b) holy and spiritual in our life; (c) at peace (Galatians 6:16); (d) derided as strict; (e) thought strange; and (f) hated.
In order to benefit from Scripture in this way, we need to:
(a) be in it frequently; (b) pray for spiritual understanding; (c) be humble and meek in submitting to it; (d) love God’s truth.
2. Things that Hinder Reformation
There is complacency in thinking that there is no need for reformation. This was the case with the Laodiceans; they thought they were full and rich (Revelation 3:18). Many Churches would have been more pure and reformed if they had not thought themselves reformed enough. It may be so with individuals as Paul says, I had not known sin, had not the Law said, Thou shalt not lust. A Church may say, I had not known this to be an abuse, this to be error, had not the Scripture manifested it.
This makes men vary their views and conscience according to changing considerations. What is good theology for them today is error tomorrow; today’s reformation is to them tomorrow’s disorder.
(c) Sinful Moderation
How hard it is not to accept a lame and half Reformation? People think we must pass over many things and proceed gently. The rigour of God’s Word is an altogether different thing to this. There is a lawful moderation but this is different from sinful moderation.
(d) The Love of Earthly Things
In Haggai 1:2-10 we find that the people’s concern to build their own houses made them neglect building the temple of God. In order to satisfy their covetousness the Pharisees interpreted Scripture in a false way. If people would rather lose their God than their wealth or part with their religion than their riches; how can they promote God’s cause or make way for Christ’s coming? When men can delight more in the glory of their own houses than in the spiritual beauty of ordinances or have more joy in their hearts by increased wine and oil than in God and His ways – it is no wonder so few make way for Christ. Gregory Nazianzen thanked God he had any thing to lose for Christ’s sake.
(e) Sinful Desires
People are greatly troubled if they cannot indulge themselves so much in their lusts and their sins. But you should take comfort that Christ endured the contradiction of sinners.
(f) General Opposition
There may be only a few for reformation against many great and learned who oppose it. Luther confessed this was no small trial to him, “are you the only wise person, are all others in error?” But if this had been regarded, then the prophets, Christ, Luther, Calvin, would never have begun any reformation, because the world was against them. Reformations have always been judged impossible things. Luther was told “go and pray in your cell, you are not likely to do anything by commotion”. The people rage and take counsel together that Christ may not be exalted on His throne (Psalm 2:1). But this will not excuse us, it is better to endure the rage of people then the anger of God. Better to have the world’s frown than God’s.
(g) Apparent Novelty
Truth is before error; it is only sin that makes truth new. It shows how much we have apostatised that Christ’s ways are considered new. This is now how it was from the beginning. Novelty lies in error and superstition, Sabbath-breaking, neglecting godliness.
(h) Apparent Division
Divisions may seem to arise by it and errors multiply at such times. Many complain about various sects that have arisen but they never blamed those that caused them. This has always been the slander levelled at reformation: so many men, so many gospels. Luther was often told by opponents not to divide the seamless robe of Christ. Do not blame reformation for this (it is the only thing that can remove these things) blame those who caused the divisions.
(i) Outward Trouble and Commotion
This often accompanies reformation. Christ foretold fire and a sword, father against son and son against father. This would happen wherever His pure and powerful preaching was established. He is not the cause of this but rather men’s stubborn and rebellious hearts. It is not the doctor or medicine that cause the pain the sick man feels, but rather the disease that has been in him for so long.
People often do not esteem or prize those whom God sends to deliver them. They were unthankful to Moses and Aaron. This unthankfulness is a gross sin but it ought not to be any discouragement for those who are employed for the public good. Luther tells us how great a trial this was to him. “When I see this (ingratitude) I am sometimes broken with impatience, and seriously resolve unless this doctrine had been already dispersed, I would rather have done any thing than declared it to this unthankful world; but these are the thoughts of the flesh”.
3. Reasons to Continue in Reformation
But there are many urgent reasons why reformers should go on.
(a) God Punishes Neglect
Because God has punished severely the neglect of any order that He has given to His Church They may have done much, yet if they have not done completely, he has been angry. This is why you read so often concerning the kings “Nevertheless the high places were not taken away”. The judgment on Nadab and Abihu for offering strange fire; the breach made on Uzzah should warn reformers against indulging breaking the least of God’s commands. Do not think not that you are free to decide how much or how little is to be done for God, you are accountable to God for jots and tittles.
(b) God Hates False Worship
There is nothing more odious to Him than corruption in His Church. What detestable names Scripture gives to idols! Jesus says in John 4 that the Father seeks those that worship Him in spirit and truth. This shows how precious and delightful to God those are that worship Him in his own way. Our Saviour tells the Pharisees that that, which was highly esteemed amongst them as great piety and devotion, was an abomination before God. Let us not do any abominable things!
(c) It is the only way of blessing
It is only in doing the will of the Lord that we are sure of blessing. Blessing came when Jehoshaphat set up those that taught the good knowledge of God. It is true that we may be in the wilderness for a long time and God may permit enemies to prevail because of the sins of His own people. We are always to remember the end of the Lord, observe the ends of all reformation, and you will find them to be peace. It is not the godliness of a godly man that causes many of his sorrows but because he does not have enough godliness. It is not reformation that creates unhappiness in a Church or State, but because we are not reformed enough, we are not willing for this to happen.
God will reform His Church by other means if we do not promote it. It is the greatest honour that God ever put on you. In these matters of God do not consult with flesh and blood. Remember that He is engaged for His truth more than you; you have your lives and wealth to lose, but God has His honour and truth to lose, which is worth more than the whole world.
How will you ever answer God at the Day of Judgement if He puts an opportunity into your hands and you have not made best use of it? Take your example from David in Psalm 132 when he had vowed to bring the ark back into a suitable place. “Remember David and all his troubles” (literally “in his whole affliction” in all his trouble, fear and concern when God smote Uzzah, and so hindered him in his intended reformation). He would not sleep or eat (hyperbole for the unrelenting efforts he would take for settling the ark).
Reformation is required in our own day, it is an act not just an event. But it is by no means an easy work. There are many challenges but for the glory of God, our own good and the good of the Church we must not only want to see it happen but engage actively in it in our own day.