Is reformation still needed in our churches? Is the Reformation started in the sixteenth century continuing, or is it complete? Is a study of the sixteenth century Reformation relevant for the Church today? These are important questions and I hope that I can provide at least some insight on the subject.
First for a definition. The word reformation comes from the Latin verb reformo, which means “to form again, mold anew, or revive.” The idea is to change or improve something in order to make it better, restore to original intent or to remove faults and abuses. The early Reformers of the sixteenth century desired to restore the true and full meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, something that had been lost over the years to superstition, false teachings, ignorance, corruption, sacerdotalism, ritualism, and power struggles. Having rediscovered the heart of the gospel by going back to the original sources, i.e., the New Testament Scriptures in the original languages and the early church Fathers, the Magisterial Reformers wanted to see the truth of this gospel reshape the Church in its doctrine, worship and morality. They were not interested in starting the Church all over again or forming denominations, they simply wanted to revive something that had died. They looked back to the apostolic era and to some of the church Fathers such as Saint Augustine for wisdom in how to re-form the Church. They believed that it was the responsibility of the Church to be always reforming. The Reformers had a saying, “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” meaning “the church reformed, always reforming.”
What was at stake in the sixteenth century Reformation was the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was all about the supremacy of the gospel in everything the church does. What matters most to all believers must center on the gospel. Martin Luther said that the “church’s true treasure is the gospel.” The Church of Christ must see its calling in the defense and preservation of the gospel. All doctrine, worship and church practice needs to keep the gospel front and center. This is what “reformation” is all about. This is what the sixteenth century Reformation was all about.
In his book Reformation Sketches, W. Robert Godfrey emphasizes the importance of the Reformation Confessions. He says the following:
“Americans are forward-looking. Their interests are in the future and in progress. They tend to agree with Henry Ford’s statement, “History is bunk.” Futurologists are fashionable serving as scientific prophets for the contemporary world. Technology fascinates us as it makes vast amounts of information available in a matter of seconds. The great danger that this American tendency poses is that we will lose a proper working relationship with the wisdom of the past. We run the risk of being overwhelmed with the new and losing the venerable. This character of American life affects Christian churches. Churches can get so excited about the latest fads derived from expert sociologists that they can fail to analyze those fads carefully. They can become so involved in preparing vision statements that they forget their confessions. We may fail to evaluate strategies and methodologies in a thoughtful theological and pastoral way. The great danger of many American churches is that they will lose the center of faith. They risk getting caught up in something peripheral and missing the essential. …The great Reformed confessions contain for us the center that we need. They are the summary of biblical religion prepared by some of the church’s best minds and most pious hearts” (pp. 133 – 134; P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey).
I hope that we can all learn something from these Reformers and confessions that will help us to remember the supremacy of the gospel in all things. Let us be ready to reform and be reformed – all for the gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria