The Reformation We Need
Change and decay in all around I see
0, Thou Who changest not, abide with me.
These words taken from the 18th century Scottish minister Henry Lyte’s dying hymn are a fitting observation and prayer for the present hour. No matter where one looks today the signs of degeneration seem prevalent. What right thinking person is encouraged with the directions which the major institutions of government, state-run education, or the family are taking? Despite isolated exceptions in each, all of these institutions are in moral disarray.
What about the church? Are we any better off? It is far easier to identity the shortcomings of our neighbor’s province than it is to examine honestly our own domain. Once allowances have been made for isolated exceptions, however, it is not too much to claim that the church of Jesus Christ seems to be making very little difference in the contemporary American scene.
Perhaps the greatest indictment is found in the fact that public morality has declined at the same time that participation in church has increased. Research indicates that 9 out of 10 American adults consider themselves “Christian” while a full 40% claim to be “born again.” What kind of Christianity is it that leaves a man’s character unchanged? It is certainly not the Bible’s kind.
Newly elected Southern Seminary President Al Mohler has astutely observed, “Many churches have made their own compromises with modernity and have built large congregations, not on the foundation of the gospel, but on its expense.” The biblical gospel is a life-changing message. When that which churches are preaching leaves its adherents unchanged it is time to admit that the true gospel has been lost.
What is needed, then, is a rediscovery, reclamation, and reassertion of that old, unchanged gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. In other words, what is needed is reformation-a genuine re-forming of the church and her message according to biblical revelation.
More than political reform, more than educational reform, more than social reform, what this generation desperately needs is the church of Jesus Christ to become biblically re-formed in faith and practice. This is notably true in our own Southern Baptist corner of Zion.
The Reformation principle ecclesia semper reformanda presents a healthy concept which we would do well to recapture in our day. What the Reformers understood is this: since the church will never he perfect in this age, it is therefore in need of continual reformation by God’s Word.
As a denomination our beloved SBC is in dire need of such reformation. It will not do simply to promote new and improved programs or better organization. Neither will it suffice to recommend the latest methodologies in ministry. What we do is directed by what we believe. At the center of any ecclesial renewal, then, there must be a reformation of theology.
Ken Hemphill, Director of the Southern Baptist Center for Church Growth, recognizes this when he acknowledges, “Our theology is best suited for church growth, but we desperately need a theological renewal.” Mr. Hemphill is not overstating the case. The need is desperate.
Three years ago Beeson Divinty School Dean Timothy George rightly observed, the central challenge facing Baptist life today is at heart theological.” Until we see a renewal in theology we will not see an appreciable change for the better in our churches.
Like revival, genuine reformation is a work of the sovereign Spirit. We cannot command its appearance. But that does not mean that we are free from obligation to seek it and labor for it. Concerning “theological revival,” Timothy George has written, “We cannot work it up: only God can send it down. But we can pray for it and prepare ourselves for it through the study and reclamation of the theological legacy we have received and are charged as a sacred duty to pass on.”
Reclaiming our theological legacy in the pursuit of genuine reformation is the rationale behind the enormous Mission 150 project (see page 32). Why expend thousands of man-hours at a cost of $50,000 to produce and send out, free of charge, 40,000 special issues of the Founders Journal to Southern Baptist pastors? Because the need for renewal is “desperate.” Pray that our Lord will bless this effort to the furtherance of reformation in our denomination.