I recall one time, back in the day, when I was having a discussion with my dear wife about what I was going to wear for preaching attire. This was back in the Jesus people period. At issue was whether or not I was going to wear jeans with or without the patches. Not surprisingly, Nancy was urging the latter and I was inclined to the former. One of the reasons I advanced for my choice was that I did not want to get “on the road to Rome.”
Seems ludicrous now, but this is how arguments from “trajectory” work. Given the penchant for organization displayed by the human mind, which is in its turn a reflection of how God made the world, it is impossible to leave one error without heading toward another one. It is not possible to leave an error forcefully without creating a situation in which you are forcefully headed toward another error. This situation arises whenever there is any motion at all.
If we are called to walk on the old paths, and we are, then this scriptural illustration makes it clear that there are two ways to disobey. We can veer off to the right or to the left, and we are commanded to do neither. “Ye shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Dt. 5:32).
So if you grew up in the left ditch, there is no way to urge repentance, asking your companions to come with you back to the road, without looking to them as though you are arguing for life in the right ditch. To further complicate matters, and because the devil is a clever fellow, some of those that you do persuade to come with you back to the road will take the first opportunity that presents itself to tumble into the right ditch, all while giving you a bunch of the credit. Then you have deal with them, and their arguments, along with taunts from the left ditch behind you. “See? See?”
There is no road to Rome. Rome is across the road, in the other ditch. But we should worry less about the ditch they are in, and more about the ditch we are in, and our responsibility to stay on the road once we have regained it. Our basic responsibility to the right ditch is to stay out of it — and not to taunt those in it. I’m still covered with mud from the left ditch, and to accuse others of right-ditch-muddery doesn’t seem fitting somehow. At the same time, it is crucial to recognize what is going on with the right ditch, and to recognize the temptations presented to us by any movement away from the left ditch.
At the time of the Reformation, the encrustations of medievalism were the left ditch, and the anabaptists were the right ditch. Anabaptism and other forms of radicalism are where you went when you overshot. This is why the Reformers had to fight the anabaptists as they did, and this is why Rome blamed the Reformers for the anabaptists. But today, after centuries of individualism and enculturated anabaptism here in the left ditch, Rome (and EO) have now become the right ditch. This means the work of true Reformation will deal with left-ditch conservatives and right-ditch this-is-so-much-better-than-where-we-were-ism.
One of the things the Reformers did, and did very well, is that they “assumed the center.” But there is no way to do this without incurring the dual charges that you are facilitating the way to right ditchism, and also that you are still, at the end of the day, tragically attached to the left ditch. But enough of the history lesson.
One of the ways we can tell a real work of reformation is occurring today is by the reactions to it. Sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, and reformation does not occur without immediate noise and clamor from both ditches. When you talk about the Spirit’s work today, in your home Bible study group there in the left ditch, be prepared for someone to say, “Beware, beware . . . the Spirit, as you call it, could land us all in the right ditch. We are quite comfortable here. Sola fide.”
“But,” you say, “I am not urging us to go there at all. Scripture forbids . . .”
Just then another member of your group pipes up to say, “Yay! Let’s go kiss us some icons!”
Lest all this seem a little oblique, let me spell it out. When men slander us as being on the road to Rome, that is what it is — slander. When others praise us for being on that same road, and thank us for having pointed out the road signs to them, the disapproval is gone but the slander remains. If one man falsely accuses me of being a thief, and I deny it, should I take comfort from someone else who praises me for having the quickest fingers he ever saw? When a hidebound TR hears Tridentine echos when I am quoting the Westminster Confession, and a budding young papist hears the same thing, then they are both exhibiting the same degree of theological sharpness, which is to say, the sharpness of a pound and a half of wet liver. The sharpness of a bowling ball. The sharpness of a small pile of our living room couch cushions. You get the drift.
So the Lord has shown us the way, and we should walk in it. Distractions will make their appeals from both right and left. That’s what distractions do. Let us ignore them, shall we? The work of reformation lies before us.