Twenty three years ago, Reformed Theology made landfall on the shores of my life with the force of a Category 5 hurricane.
I had been in ministry only a few months, had preached a few times, when God, in his kind mercy, put a few good men in my path who gently and patiently guided me toward sound doctrine. They introduced me to Augustine and his Confessions, Luther and his Commentary on Galatians, Calvin and his Institutes, the five solas, the TULIP, Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress, Spurgeon and his steel backbone in the Downgrade Controversy, Lloyd Jones and his Romans series.
Consistent with the Reformed way, I hadn’t been looking for a big God theology—it found me.
Soon, through a relatively new invention called the internet, I began to order and read books by Tom Nettles, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, J. I. Packer, Timothy George, and John Piper. I found sermons by these men and others of like doctrine. God’s grace was claiming new ground in my life it seemed every hour. I must have read 200 books and pamphlets those first couple of years as I weighed the biblical veracity of these sublime propositions.
And like the landscape after such a massive hurricane, my mind, my heart, and my ministry have never been the same.
I’ve been a pastor for the past several years and my ministry has been deeply shaped by the Reformation, it’s key figures, its theology, and those who have followed in its tradition such as the Puritans and our Particular Baptist fathers. Space and perhaps reader patience would fail me were I to list all the ways the Reformation has shaped my life and ministry, but here are eight:
1. The five solas have built a strong gospel foundation beneath my feet and if I preach them faithfully, I will always be relevant.
At its most fundamental level, the Reformation was a recovery of relevance because it was a recovery of the gospel. The gospel, purely preached in terms of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as found in Scripture alone, done to the glory of God alone is relevant in every single age. And God’s Word is powerful “out of the box.” I don’t need to revise it, improve it, mold it, or update it. Scripture comes equipped with its own affirming power and if I proclaim it faithfully both to the lost and the found, it will do its work through the Holy Spirit’s power.
A recovery of the gospel was the heart of the Reformation and keeping the gospel front and center will always be the heart of faithful gospel ministry. Michael Reeves said it well in a an article, “The Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel.” In my exegesis, my exhortation, my application, in my own life and leadership in both the home and the church, I must always be moving toward the gospel.
2. I don’t have to search for a silver bullet for growth in godliness, God has already given it to me in his Word.
The formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura, is all we need. Indeed, Luther summed up his massive contribution as the unwitting founder of Protestantism in this fashion: “I did nothing, the Word did everything.” As a faithful minister of God’s Word, it is enough for faith and life in the church. God’s Word provides us with the inspired framework for the pure worship of God, for discipleship, for evangelism, for counseling.
God has a people and he is sovereign, which is to say, he will certainly save and sanctify sinners when we preach His Word. Yes, we must do evangelism and missions if we would obey Scripture. Yes, we must take the gospel to our neighborhood and the nations with compassion and zeal. But we must trust the Word, that it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. We press for repentance and faith, but the Word does everything in converting a sinner, we do nothing.
3. God has told me how to interpret his Word and how he expects to be worshiped.
Jesus makes clear in Luke 24 that we are to interpret the Old Testament as finding its fulfillment in him. Thus, the New Testament writers tell us how to interpret the Old Testament in terms of the person and work of Jesus. In the Institutes, Calvin helped set this in stone as the Reformed tradition’s bedrock method of interpreting and exegeting the sacred text:
“…it follows that the Old Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and was confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it is summed up in Christ. Who, then dares separate Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ? Who dares to estrange from the gift of free salvation those to whom we hear the doctrine of the righteousness of faith was imparted? Not to dispute too long about something obvious—we have a notable saying of the Lord: ‘Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad (John 8:56). And what Christ there testified concerning Abraham, the apostle shows to have been universal among the believing folk when he says, ‘Christ remains, yesterday and today and forever’ (Heb. 13:8). . . . If the Lord, in manifesting his Christ, discharged his ancient oath, one cannot but say the Old Testament always had its end in eternal life.” (Inst. 2:10:4)
Intrinsic to God’s Word is also a complementarity between law and gospel. The moral law of God as summarized in the 10 Commandments demonstrates God’s holy character, exposes man’s sinfulness, his need of a mediator, and provides a guide to sanctification. The law breaks us, but the gospel heals us. The law says “run,” the gospel gives us legs. You need both to properly understand either.
In addition to graciously giving us an inspired hermeneutic, God has also given us a regulative principle for worship in his Word. God knows best how he is to be worshiped as I argue in this article. It is an often-neglected Baptist doctrine that stands in need of recovery in local credobaptist churches. Chapter XXII of The Second London Confession of Faith, “Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day,” in Article I summarizes my point well:
The Light of Nature shews that there is a God who hath Lordship, and Soveraigntye (Sovereignty) over all; is just, good, and doth good unto all; and is therefore, to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served with all the Heart, and all the Soul, and with all the Might. But the acceptable way of Worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself; and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations, and devices of Men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way, not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.
The regulative principle is by no means a straight jacket, but opens the entire Bible to us.
4. Knowledge of God and knowledge of self are the pathway to genuine wisdom.
Calvin’s opening words in the Institutes represent an accurate summary of biblical anthropology and theology and are irreducible pillars for life and ministry. When I see myself as a great sinner and Christ as a great Savior, then my thinking is ordered rightly. God is holy, I am not, and because of this, I need his holiness, power, strength, and wisdom every moment both as a follower of Christ and a leader in his church.
This critical truth has profoundly shaped both my devotional life and my preaching. Without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self. As Calvin wrote,
“It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating hi to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. . . we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.”
5. I need older, wiser (living) mentors to help me along the way.
In short, I need dead mentors, too. Being my own pastor has always felt a bit schizophrenic. Every pastor needs a pastor. Timothy had Paul, Augustine had Ambrose, Luther had Von Staupitz, Calvin had Bucer, Beza had Calvin, Whitefield and Wesley had each other, Sproul had Gerstner.
I need at least one seasoned godly mentor, too, one who is able to guide, direct, chasten, and encourage me in the things of God, one who is positioned to keep a close watch on my life and doctrine.
6. I need to engage the past and allow it to inform the present and the future.
We do not stand alone. As is often said of church history, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We were not the first to tread this territory, and we certainly will not be the last. Therefore, we need the insights of Scripture-saturated, God-entranced church leaders from the past to help affirm, amend, or correct our interpretation and application of Scripture. While history does not play a magisterial role for us, it can and should play a ministerial role in our lives and ministries both through the figures and doctrines from our rich evangelical heritage.
Not only do I need a living mentor, I also need heroes from the past. These men come with one benefit that living heroes do not: the final chapter of their lives has been written, and we know how they turned out. Though they are flawed like our living mentors, neither Twitter, Facebook, nor lurid locations on the internet will topple their ministries.
7. Proclaiming God’s Word is not the pathway to popularity.
John the Baptist’s declaration in John 3:30 ought to be that of every faithful gospel minister: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Faithful preaching of God’s Word will make enemies both in the church and in the world. It will make enemies in the church because every congregation—even those who hold fast to regenerate church membership—is a mixture of wheat and tares. It will make you enemies in the world because Paul told the Corinthians that the gospel is offensive to the natural man (1 Cor. 1:18).
The sacred desk is no place for the theological hobbyist, the intellectually curious, the wise-cracking hipster, the weak of backbone or him who seeks a laid-back middle-class living. As the lives and ministries of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, the Puritans, Edwards, Spurgeon, and thousands of other sons of the Reformation have proven, gospel ministry is a death sentence for self-love and the craving for rock star status. There is no crown without a cross.
As Luther put it, there are ever and always two theologies warring for supremacy within our hearts: a theology of glory vs. a theology of the cross. A call to follow Christ is a call to lay down our glory, take up a cross, and walk the Calvary road for his glory alone. Theology properly begins above, not below.
8. Reformation continues until Jesus returns.
The battle for the Bible was not over when Protestantism germinated and blossomed in Luther’s train. It was not over in the Southern Baptist Convention when key offices at last bulged with conservative evangelicals. It is not over in local churches. Our cry will always be “semper reformanda”—reformed, always reforming (according to Scripture).
Our hearts are prone to wander from orthodoxy, thus in every age we must reaffirm and guard our confessional integrity and our submission to God’s inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word. I’m not as young or restless as when this journey in grace began, but I will always be reforming—both in my heart, in my family, and in my congregation.
Praise God that it pleased him to work through ordinary men like Luther and Calvin to unleash afresh an extraordinary gospel to work in all its grace-driven power in my life and in the lives of countless millions of other believers through the century. I am deeply grateful for 500 years of its leavening power in the church. Every evangelical, no matter the denomination, is deeply indebted to Luther, Calvin, and those who courageously followed in their wake.
Until Jesus returns, may it please God to continue building his church through the sin-killing, life-transforming gospel of the reformers, which is nothing other than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria!