Always Reforming

I can still hear my grandpa’s refrain about “Ninth Street,” our home church in Holland, Mich.: “Don’t change anything. If you change, you’ll lose something.” So he voted no on every proposed change to the congregation’s pattern of worship and lifestyle. It was his way of trying to “stay true to what’s Reformed.”

What an un-Reformed attitude! John Calvin would have called him on it.

Grandpa disregarded a central Reformed affirmation: the Lord’s Spirit is ceaselessly at work in the church, ever making her new, continually moving her toward a final, perfect future. As Calvin wrote, “The Lord is daily at work in smoothing out wrinkles and cleansing spots [in the church]. [It] is . . . daily advancing and is not yet perfect: it makes progress from day to day but has not yet reached its goal of holiness” (Institutes, IV.1.17). 

Similarly, the Spirit is continually active in the life of every believer.

Christ’s people have become united with him in his resurrection.  That all-important fact, that singular relationship, forms the foundation upon which all spiritual progress can happen, the nourishing center from which believers can flourish and grow.

Growing to maturity in Christ doesn’t happen in an instant. “This restoration is not accomplished neither in a minute of time nor in a day, nor in a year; but God abolishes the corruptions of the flesh in his elect in a continuous succession of time, and indeed little by little” (Commentary on 1 Cor. 1:8). God continues this renewing process in us until we die; and in the church, until the Lord returns.Given these twin facts—our union with our resurrected Lord, and the Spirit’s enduring work—believers must be forward-looking, continually open to being changed, daily eager to receive the Spirit’s reforming work. We must keep striving to dwell in Jesus, to become like him, to fellowship with him, and to live for him—four crucial prepositions by which we can chart our spiritual progress.

To oppose change, to fossilize theologically and spiritually, is to disobey God. But Calvin also cautions against any thoughtless jettisoning of the past. Thankless disregard for ancestors in the faith, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 21:1), leaves believers wide open to falling for every whim or fad that comes along.

Though earlier saints were not infallible in their beliefs and practices—only God and God’s Word are—Calvin didn’t act as if they were any more foolish and stupid than we are.

Thus Calvin’s counsel for making spiritual progress: 1) Keep moving forward—always. 2) Do so by going back to God’s Word, the source and font of all Christian teaching. 3) While doing the first two, don’t bypass generations and centuries of faithful Christian teaching and testimony.

One measure of Christian maturity is how well we handle one another’s sins and imperfections and our doctrinal and lifestyle differences. On matters of teaching and lifestyle, of course, honest Christians often honestly differ. Mature believers keep in mind that “not all the articles of doctrine are of the same sort.”

Some teachings are fundamental—“so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all,” as Calvin says. But others are “nonessential matters [and] should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians.” That’s a wise distinction to keep in mind, lest “we . . . thoughtlessly forsake the church because of petty dissensions” (Institutes, IV.i.12).

Summing up matters, here’s the Calvinist tradition’s motto—its marching orders: “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—secundum Verbum Dei” (A Reformed church must always keep reforming—according to the Word of God).

Calvin believed that the Christian church has potential to become the most revolutionary force on the planet. Never, therefore, should her members become set in cement.

FOR DISCUSSION:
  1. Cooper cites Calvin's insistence that we always need to keep changing. Why is that?
  2. What does "striving to dwell in Jesus, to be like him, to fellowship with him, and to live for him" look like in your life?
  3. Calvin warns us also not to thoughtlessly jettison the past. Where have we done that personally or as a church?
  4. Which teachings are essential and should always be preserved? Which are non-essential and should not be allowed to cause divisions among us?
  5. What does the Calvinist motto "A Reformed church must always keep reforming" mean to you? How does that apply to our church today?

About the Author

Rev. Dale Cooper is chaplain emeritus of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich. The Banner thanks him for writing a special series this year on highlights from John Calvin’s teaching.

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