Questions from the Street: “What is this ‘Re-Formed’ thing?”

Mark Wheeler

May 25, 2014

Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church

I Corinthians 9:19-22; II Timothy 3:10-17

Questions from the Street: “What Is this ‘Reformed’ Thing?”

Victorious God, when we are ambushed by evil, when we feel overwhelmed by our enemies, come and break into the darkest places of our lives with the dazzling light of Your hope and unshakable promise of Your love. Inspire us with the power of Your Spirit so we will follow wherever You may lead. Amen.

Two men driving through Spokane were pulled over by a Highway Patrol. The officer walked up and tapped on the driver’s window with his nightstick; the driver rolled down his window, and WHACK!, the trooper smacked him in the head with the stick.

The driver screamed back, “What was that for?”

The trooper said, “You’re in Spokane, son. When we pull you over, you better have your license ready when we get to your car.”

The driver said, “I’m sorry, officer; I’m not from around here.”

The trooper ran the man’s license, and he was clean. So he returned his license and walked around the car to the passenger side and tapped on the window.

The passenger rolled down his window, and WHACK!, the trooper smacked him on the head, too.

The passenger cried, “What did you do that for?”

“Just making your wish come true,” said the officer.

“Huh?” replied the passenger.

The trooper said, “I know that 2 miles down the road you’re gonna say, ‘I wish that tough cop had tried that routine with me!’”[This is just a story – not related to any truth, please WSP take no offense!]

Authority! When it’s done well everyone is happy; when it is not, no one is. Middle School teachers (and parents of any age kid) know that everyone needs to be under some kind of authority, and no one likes it!

We are in the middle of a short sermon series dealing with questions of faith, of the Bible, of theology, and Presbyterian culture. Some of these questions have come from friends and family members who may not have a Christian faith, and some have come from long-time followers of Jesus. Today’s particular question came to me from one of those latter types. I have heard it asked in several different forms: “What does it mean to be ‘Presbyterian’?”, “What is ‘Reformed’?”, “What’s the difference between all the different kinds of Christian denominations?Three weeks ago I was sitting in my Mom’s church, and I listened to Pastor Ben say something like, “I’m going to give you a ‘Reformed’ understanding of …. You’ve heard me mention ‘Reformed’ lots of times. It’s good stuff. You should “Google” it and see….”

So, today, we are looking at what seminaries take whole semesters to teach – and in 2,000 words we are addressing the question, “So, what is this ‘Reformed’ thing?” or “What does it mean to be ‘Re-formed’?

Because this could, literally, be a 42-hour course that I am “answering” in 20 minutes (or so), I will have to choose from among a myriad things about “Reformed Theology” to address. From the 5-points of Calvinism; the “essential tenets of Reformed Christian faith” including things like the sovereignty of God, salvation through faith in Christ alone, the trinity, obedience to the Scriptures as God’s Word and rule for faith and life; I am choosing the over-arching theme of “Authority”. Who is in charge? How does that “authority” get communicated? What is our responsibility?

500 years ago, in the early 16th century, the historical drama of Christendom encountered a giant theological turning point – and that intersection of ecclesiastical understanding, the cross-roads of faith, had to do with “authority”.

So, in 1517 a Roman Catholic priest in Germany, after much reading of the Bible and even more prayer, looked at the Church and noticed that it seemed like people, including the leaders of the Church, lived in submission to the wrong authority. The local priests should not be in charge; the bishops over their diocese should not be in charge; the College of Cardinals in Rome should not be in charge; even the Holy Father, the Pope, was only human, and should, therefore, not be ultimately in charge.

Authority belongs to God alone, and we discover His will for us in His Word, the Bible.

Who was this Roman Catholic priest? [Martin Luther.]

Just a few years later, another Roman Catholic who wanted to be a priest, but whose father wanted him to be a lawyer, moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and in his legal pursuits founded another group of Jesus-followers who agreed with Martin Luther’s understanding of authority.

His name was? [John Calvin.]

Martin Luther and John Calvin knew of each other, they even wrote letters to each other – but they never met. And, while they agreed with each other on a number of theological points, there were a few things that Calvin thought Luther needed a little more schooling in.

Neither of these men planned to create new denominations of Christianity. They both sincerely wanted to, hoped to, “reform” what their mother church was doing wrong.

And so, it was in the 1530s that the Roman Catholic Church named them, and their movement, “Protestants” – they were protesting the Roman Catholic Church’s right of authority. From within the movement itself it became known as the “Protestant Reformation”.

Martin Luther’s followers became known as “Lutherans”, and John Calvin’s followers became known as “Presbyterians” (which is a Greek word for “elders” – the church took Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” philosophy a step further and placed ordained elders, teaching elders and ruling elders, in leadership, under the authority of God through the Scriptures.

In Presbyterian history we also run into names like John Knox, a student of Calvin’s who took this theology to his home country of Scotland; and from the British isles to America we find Jonathan Edwards, and Cotton Mather, and Princeton University.

In each new generation and location, the Calvinist-Reformers took with them one of John Calvin’s theological and ecclesiological mottos of faithfulness: “As the Church of Jesus Christ, we are Reformed and always BEING reformed, according to the WORD of GOD.”

Today’s question is, so what? What does that even mean? And maybe the follow-up question is, if God is the same “yesterday, today and forever”, why might His Church ever have to change?

 So, turn with me to I Corinthians 9:19-23. These are Paul’s words to the Church in the troubled city of Corinth. Listen to the Word of God: I Corinthians 9:19-23…. —-

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

 Reformed and always BEING reformed, according to the WORD of GOD; but if God is the same “yesterday, today and forever”, why might His Church ever have to change?

That some might be saved.

Notice what Paul says here. He does not say he changes the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ! He does not say that the culture of his audience determines what the truth of God’s Word is. The cultural changes and shifts do not alter the realities of God’s love or justice. God does not change.

What does change? The way Paul communicates God’s truth!

To slaves he speaks and illustrates God’s Word in a language that slaves could hear and understand.

To Jews, and to Jews who truly lived under the Pharisaic understanding of the Old Testament, he speaks and illustrates God’s Word in ways that would make sense to them.

To Gentiles, to atheists, to multi-theists, to apatheists, Paul changes how he communicates, how he relates to them, so that they can hear the Gospel and respond.

To the young, the seekers, the immature, to wonderers, the weak, Paul lives with them in ways to communicate God’s love and power so that he might win some of them to the Gospel.

Paul says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some!

Paul reformed once, and Paul reformed again, and Paul was always being reformed so that by all possible means he might save some!

Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church has not moved in 107 years! Why should we “reform” at all? We’re still in the exact same place! Answer? Because the world around us has changed a great deal! This neighborhood is not the same neighborhood it was 10 years ago; let alone 60 years ago when the pastor could knock on a door and people gladly skipped to church the next Sunday; or 108 years ago when 4th Presbyterian Church was dreaming as far north as they could imagine and started a Sunday School for the children living in the boonies of Spokane (almost as far north as Wellesley!). The world around us has changed!

Shout outs: what are some of those changes?

But that does not mean that we simply become like the changed culture! We must be like them enough to present the Gospel, but only in so far as we can still be “according to the Word of God”. These Corinthian letters were some of Paul’s earlier letters. Let’s look at his very last letter we have in our New Testament, II Timothy 3:10-17 …. —- If this passage is true, what does it say is our boundary of possible reform, our border for change?

10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

To be “Reformed” means to live under the authority of God through His written Word, the Bible, and in constant communion with His living Word, Jesus Christ. It means holding fast to the truth of Scripture, while being willing to hold loosely our own traditions and cultural norms.

Under whose authority are we living as a Church today? If God is in charge, are we willing, and able, to experiment in new ways of being His Church in this 21st century, that some might be saved?

Friends, let’s live boldly into this calling – actually living like we believe what we say we believe. Is Jesus Christ both Lord and Savior?

Victorious God, when we are ambushed by evil, when we feel overwhelmed by our enemies, come and break into the darkest places of our lives with the dazzling light of Your hope and unshakable promise of Your love. Inspire us with the power of Your Spirit so we will follow wherever You may lead. Amen.

Resources:

Handbook of Christian theology; Living Age Books; New York, NY; 1958; P. 40-43.

McKim, Donald K.; Theological Turning Points: Major Issues in Christian Thought; John Knox Press; Atlanta, GA; 1988; Pp. 109-113.

Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship; Calvin Institute of Christian Worship; Grand Rapids, MI; 2012; P. 390.

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2 thoughts on “Questions from the Street: “What is this ‘Re-Formed’ thing?”

  1. I liked the way you answered the question about Reform in a way that was easy to understand .
    Again, I gained knowledge of God’s word and history of the Church

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