We are fast approaching the five hundredth anniversary of the glorious Reformation. In just a few months we will find ourselves marking that momentous year, and our Grace Agenda conference in the spring is dedicated to a celebration of it. Now the history of the Church is always tangled, and we can never approach it in a simplistic fashion, as though great reformations could be tidy. But with all such allowances made, the Reformation nevertheless was a great work of the Holy Spirit, and we are right to remember and celebrate it. But let us always take care to remember it rightly.
“Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein” (Jer. 6:9-16).
Summary of the Text:
There are two elements in our text that we must consider. The first is the word of the Lord to stand fast, to seek out the old paths. He commands His people to find the good way, and to walk in it. In that way, they shall find rest for their souls (v. 16). The other element is the rebellion of God’s people when they hear this word. They said that they would not walk in the old paths (v. 16). And why would they not? The text tells us earlier—their ear is uncircumcised, and so they cannot hearken. The word of the Lord is a reproach to them, and so they have no delight in it (v. 10).
Now the context that Jeremiah was assuming when he gave this word matters. We cannot use this verse out of context in order to justify any form of hidebound conservatism whatever. Whatever the problem, go back to the “old paths!” Judah was on the threshold of terrifying judgment, and Jeremiah called them back to a heritage that they were rejecting and refusing. The thing that prevented them from repenting was the uncircumcised heart—the presenting problem in any age.
The dividing line is between the uncircumcised heart, which does not know Christ, and the circumcised heart, which does. This means that this passage could always be used by the unconverted to justify return to some traditionalist foolery, and that this passage can also be always used by the godly to urge us to return to the gospel of Christ.
The Doctrines of Grace:
At the center, the Reformation was a recovery of the gospel in its purity, and consequently it resulted in a recovery of gospel preaching in its power. That gospel addresses first the condition of man—through Adam’s rebellion and our complicity in it, we are utterly unable to save ourselves, or even to prepare ourselves to be saved (1 Cor. 2:14). In the next place, we note the work of God the Father—the one who elected His people, apart from any fulfillment of any condition by them (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 8:29). The work of God the Son is next—He died on the cross to secure the salvation of all His elect (Jn. 10:14-15). Because the persons of the Trinity always work in harmony, the work of the Holy Spirit applies the decision of the Father and the blood of the Son—the Holy Spirit quickens the elect at the point of each individual’s conversion (Eph. 2:4-5). These things being so, it is not possible for any of the elect to fall away from their calling—and so we hold to the perseverance and preservation of all elect saints (Jn. 10: 27-28). In our presentation of the gospel, we must never presume any kind of turbulence within the Godhead—as though Jesus would ever try to redeem more people than the Father had elected, or the Spirit would try to regenerate more people than the Son had purchased.
Sola et Tota:
But these glorious principles found in the gospel are not suspended in mid-air. The Reformed soon discovered that the gospel is necessarily connected to all of life, and cannot be detached from an all-encompassing worldview. There were (and are) five principles that summarize this reformational worldview. The first is tota et sola Scriptura—all of Scripture and only Scripture (Matt. 4:4). This means that the Bible is our only ultimate and infallible rule of faith and conduct. The second is tota et sola gratia—salvation is all grace and only grace. Grace and works mix like oil and water, whiskey and mustard, sin and righteousness (Rom. 11:5-6). The accuser and the Comforter do not walk together. The next is tota et sola fide—salvation is by the instrument of all faith and only faith, faith all the way down (Eph. 2:8-9). Believe God! The next is totus et solus Christus—we have only one Savior, the Lord Jesus, and we are one with Him, Head and body together (Eph. 4:15-16). The last is toti et soli Deo gloria—the glory goes to God alone for all things, and all the glory goes to Him (Eph. 3:21).
Rightly understood, these things taken together constitute a worldview. And when the world is enveloped this way, there are no pieces left over.
So we believe all of this stuff, and we believe it with all our hearts. I am so full of Calvinism, the doctors are worried about my heart exploding. I am such a Calvinist that state troopers want to give me breathalyzer tests. I am so Calvinistic that it makes my back teeth ache. This being the case, then why the steady drumbeat critique of certain kinds of “Calvinism” from this pulpit?
The answer is two-fold. First, it is very easy to preach “powerful” sermons (the kind that require no courage), and this is done by taking on the condition of others. But such are just a fireworks display, and not the artillery fire of the Word. All the explosions are in the sky. When the Word comes in power, the explosions are on the ground, by our feet. And second, that which is being critiqued is not Calvinism, but rather a pathetic residue of Calvinism. To paraphrase something from Pirates of Penzance, there are the remains of a fine theology about her. It is never an attack on the prophets to attack the tidy-minded curators of their memorials (Matt. 23:29).
Faith or Management?
There is a stark difference between polishing the marble in the mausoleum and doing the works of the one whose memorial it is. These days you can get an MDiv in manhandling the buffer for the hallways. They teach us to shine everything up at 2 in the morning so that you never wake anybody up. That would be bad.
But if you were sons of Abraham, you would do the works of Abraham. Do we really think that Luther walked around with a parsimonious expression? Do we think that Martin Bucer was a fussy little man?
The Word of God draws forth two responses and two responses only, and they are the responses of faith (Rom. 10:17) and of unbelief (Jn. 10:25-26). But whenever unbelief masquerades as faith, it takes on the role of managing the Word, tidying up the loose ends. “What this powerful new teaching needs, obviously, is a PR consultant.” We think we need to figure out a way to thunder the word without alienating the cool kids.
It is either this way—believe God, or that way—believe the word of man. That is the constant choice. That is the antithesis. The wise man’s heart inclines to the right, the fool’s heart to the left. Snakes despise the manchild, and the manchild crushes the snakes. Faith or unbelief. And the verb requires a direct object. Believe Jesus, or refuse to believe Jesus.
Sorry for All the Latin:
Just one more—ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda, which means “the church reformed and always reforming.” We do not say this because we want to be like those silly women in Scripture who are always learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth. We are always reforming in the same way that we are to be always repenting.
A reformation left to itself rapidly becomes an unreformation. Are we entering into a new reformation? I actually believe so. Is this megalomania? “Who do you think you are?” We are nothing but small believers in a great God. And the great Jehovah has sent His only begotten Son so that we—all of us—might be delivered from our sins, especially the sins that we have somehow christened as virtues.
So what is reformation about? It is all about Jesus.