Editorial: On Pursuing Reformation Today

Aaron Prelock

Reformation in Our Own Day

I mentioned in my introductory comments in the last issue that I think Reformed Christians, pastors in particular, have become somewhat skilled as armchair generals of the theological controversies of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras of church history. We have our shelves lined with Banner of Truth collected works and analyses. We go to conferences that pay homage to John Calvin and John Owen, with Martin Luther even making a semi-apologetic appearance now and then as well. We know 1662 backwards and forwards. We know the doctrinal confessions from the 17th century; we may even use a bit ourselves from time to time. Their battles, their controversies, their sacrifices … we know them inside and out. We know how we would have responded, which sides of the debates we would have been on. We can see so clearly, with the benefit of centuries of historical analysis, what went right and what went wrong. We know how those theological conflicts turned out, the repercussions of each and every decision. Occasionally, we even work up the nerve to offer a few muted criticisms of one or another of those theological giants from the past.

But of what real use are they to us today? Of what practical benefit to Christ’s church is our endless study of the Puritans and the Reformation? For pastors, how has studying the Puritans and church history changed our practice today? How have their critiques and rebukes of the world around them sent their arrows into our own souls to provoke us into godly action? Church history has certainly filled our minds with a great many useful theological perspectives, but how has it changed our lives? Do we read the Puritans and old theological books because they make us feel nice for having read them, or do we actually understand and even appropriate them for our use today?

So, with Reformation Today, I aim to do as the Reformers and the Puritans and as pastors in every age have always done: I aim to provoke.

Now this is not provocation merely for the sake of being provocative. As Erroll Hulse said in his first editorial in the new magazine, ‘Why Reformation Today?’ Every area of life, the church, the home, civil government stands in need of continuous reformation. This will be so to the end of the age because of the destructive and retarding forces of sin. The Scriptures form our absolute, unchanging standard. To that we must conform. Since the local church is where God manifests his saving grace it follows that it is the duty of every local church to conform to Scripture in regard to worship, evangelism, teaching, discipline and literature. From such churches we can expect the principles of reformation to spread into society as a whole, with salt-like effect.’

As he went on to suggest, have we lost the capacity for self-criticism? Do we even see how our churches, how we ourselves, have grown weak and need to be sanctified?

In other words, why Reformation Today? Because the church still needs reformation today.

A Biblically Salty Witness

How many pastors and churches can be described today as biblically salty? Our goal is not to make a name for ourselves with fiery rhetoric, nor are we to be antagonistic to those around us. But are we salty as our Saviour called us to be? Do Jesus and his prophets and apostles speak through our churches today, and in a way that mirrors their power and authority? Or are we instead content that our lack of fruitfulness is surely a sign of our faithfulness?

Perhaps long-time readers are beginning to grow slightly uncomfortable. ‘Where is all this going?’ Please stay with me. My goal is not merely to provoke but also to edify. There will be much in this issue to encourage and edify, and commend. But please give me a chance, especially at the beginning of this issue, to argue that the church in our age, as in every age, desperately needs reformation. We need reformation. You and I, and all our churches, need to be continuously reformed according to the standard of the Word of God. Isn’t that one of the key themes of the Reformation, continuously reforming and being reformed according to Scripture?

May I ask, have our churches, and sermons, and conferences, and lectures, and books, and even songs, become too safe? Are we too used to a status quo? Have we become too familiar with the idea of reformation? Are we content being curators of the past without actually looking at what battles we need to fight today? How many Reformed pastors and leaders spend their time polishing the weapons in the armoury but shuddering to think that one day they might actually use them? Do we study the intricacies of theological strategy from days gone by while remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that we ourselves are being outflanked today? It’s easy to see how other pastors and churches and denominations have compromised or lack biblical health, but can we see how we ourselves have grown unhealthy? To ask it somewhat differently, how many lectures or sermons have we heard that cut us to the heart with our own need of repentance? How many books are written today to convict us of our own sin and our own failure to live as God’s word instructs us? Do we confess our sin, naming it with specifics, or are we happy with a vague and superficial understanding of Christ’s call to take up our cross? What is the purpose of all our study, either of Scripture or church history? Is it merely for our own enjoyment, or is it for the benefit of Christ’s church and the health of his sheep? As Paul’s letter to Titus reminds us, right belief always leads to right living. Faith leads to action. Is that true of us today?

Areas Needing Reform

So in what issues does the church especially need reformation in our day? You might be able to suggest some key areas, but here are a few from my lists:

·     What is pastoral ministry? What does it mean to be a shepherd of Christ’s sheep?

·     What’s the difference between cheap grace and the grace of repentance?

·     What does a healthy church look like?

·     How can we work towards a biblical philosophy of pastoral ministry and local church life?

·     What do discipleship and spiritual growth look like in the life of an ordinary believer?

·     How can the local church aid in this discipleship and spiritual growth?

·     How can we have genuinely diverse congregations rather than multi-ethnic uniformity?

·     How do we develop a right philosophy of pastoral authority (that it does exist and is a good thing!)?

·     How can the right use of authority serve as a guard against tyrannical authority?

·     How has class influenced British Christianity, and how can a biblically-informed discussion of class help our churches grow in strength and breadth but without the mutual resentment that so many secular discussions of class bring?

·     What are the non-negotiable big-picture theological moorings for political discussion?

·     Should Christians think or even talk about politics? (Yes they should!)

·     Do we talk about justification too much, and in doing so have we undercut the biblical emphasis on sanctification?

·     How do money and materialism influence our ideas of success?

·     Does money influence how and where we think about church planting?

·     Do happiness and assurance in the Christian life come largely from reflecting on our justification or does Spirit-empowered sanctification and progress in holiness also drive happiness and assurance for the believer?

·     How do we grow men in the church? We desperately need reformation in how we train men.

·     How do we train the children in our churches to love both Jesus and his church?

·     How do we develop biblically meaningful women’s ministry that isn’t afraid to lean into Titus 2 sorts of instruction?

·     What are the qualifications for elders/pastors, and have we relied too heavily on 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 rather than seeing them in light of 1 Peter 5? In other words, are we looking for men who will shepherd Christ’s sheep, or are we just looking for reasonably sane warm bodies who don’t sin that badly?

·     Has congregationalism become too independent? What might Savoy and 1689 have to say about inter-church fellowship and mutual cooperation?

·     Does minimising our differences create greater unity or hinder unity? How might leaning into our own ecclesiological differences with various denominational groups in Britain actually strengthen all of our convictions about how Jesus wants us to function in the local church?

·     Are we sometimes content with a superficial (even anti-intellectual) level of theological study? Or, how could more time for contemplation and biblical reflection actually help pastors fulfil their God-given responsibilities better?

·     Should churches develop new ministries or streamline and focus on what they’re good at? Which produces greater gospel effectiveness?

·     Should the church focus more on evangelism or on discipleship? No cheating now; you can’t pick ‘both’.

·     What is appropriately emphasised in British Christianity? What is lacking?

·     What does the rest of the world see when they look at British Christianity?

·     How should we think about the whole orbit of ideas in the conversations on biblical counselling and mental health?

·     Should we bury the incredibly misleading and unhelpful idea that ‘Britain is a post-Christian nation’?

·     How can we speak more effectively to the world around us?

·     How can we be better aware of the world around us without being conformed by the world around us?

·     How do we develop a biblical understanding of ethics?

Let me push that last one a little further. Developing biblical ethics is a massive need for the church today. Reformed Christians are finally starting to understand our theological poverty in this area. What are the current ethical issues in our day? My list is (in no particular order):

·     Sexual ideologies

·     Gender confusion

·     Christians and medicine/science

·     Abortion/contraception

·     Euthanasia

·     Educational philosophies

·     Racism/racialised perspectives

·     Class and the church

·     Marxist ideology and Christian responses

·     Secularism and statism

·     Immigration

·     Israel/Ukraine and just war theory

·     Christian perspectives on international politics

·     Relationship of the church to the State

·     Using ‘pastoral’ questions to avoid taking a biblical position

What would you add to these lists?

Whether or not we will agree on the specific answers we might give to each and every issue, isn’t focusing on these sorts of questions what Reformation Today has always been about? I hope to continue the good work that Erroll Hulse and Kees van Kralingen have put into RT over the years by doing precisely the same thing they have done; that is, looking at how the church needs reformation today.

Going forward, I would like to see Reformation Today continue to be a library of biblical counsel on all of these local church and cultural issues and more. While RT is unashamedly written from a Reformed Baptist perspective, I would like to draw from the best and most biblical insight from a variety of denominational perspectives. I would like to see RT continue its focus on African Pastors’ Conferences and draw from the experience and insights of faithful pastors in other contexts who might be able to challenge us in our thinking and practice. The quote attributed to Martin Luther about soldiers’ loyalty being demonstrated by whether or not they fight where the battle truly rages (it’s not his but it certainly fits with his ethos) is something of my goal for RT. This is not fighting the culture wars; it’s about Ephesians 6 and putting on the whole armour of God. It’s not about shouting at the world around us; it’s about caring well for Christ’s tender lambs and bearing faithful witness that Christ is our king. It’s not pastors getting out of their lane; it’s pastors and churches helping believers understand that Jesus is Lord over absolutely every tiny corner of our lives. And submitting to his good and gracious rule is the only way to be truly happy.

So what?

So, how do I hope to accomplish these things as editor of Reformation Today?

First, I want to care well for Christ’s sheep myself. Having left the dear congregation in London I served for 10 years, I would greatly appreciate your prayers that God would provide a flock for me to tend in this next season of my life and ministry. Pastoral ministry is tremendously important to me, and I believe faithful service in Christ’s vineyard will make me more useful to this magazine. Reformation Today is about the church – pastors and educated laypeople, as it has been said in the past – and the church is where Christ is claiming victory over the world and forces of darkness. I also think ministering in an ordinary congregation myself and continuing to develop connections with ordinary pastors in the UK will better inform my own perspective on what’s necessary for RT and its readers.

Second, I hope to continue the valuable work that has been done before me by publishing content that helps Christians think. That’s the bit about being provocative. I’m not aiming to be an irritant, but I want Christians to think deeply and think well about Scripture and Christian life in a fallen world. That will come through articles on the issues mentioned above, through devotional theology, through church history and biographical studies, through examples of solid exegesis and preaching, through reviews of popular and less popular books (both positive and negative reviews!), and through extracts of valuable books from pastorally-useful authors who’ve gone before us. I also believe most Christians can be encouraged to reach higher when it comes to their own spiritual growth and theological development. I saw that in my own ministry in London over the last decade, and I know many pastors who would bear testimony to the same thing. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, God’s people should be encouraged to develop a taste for meat rather than only milk. Material, regardless of what type, that is deliberately focused on the practical theological issues of our own day will be particularly appealing to mature believers. Part of helping believers grow in their theological depth is not just giving them deeper content (which often then frustrates them when they don’t understand what it means or why it’s important) but deliberately crafting that content with application in mind, helping them join up the dots between theology that could seem abstract and daily life. This is often the main disconnect in historical theology: great lessons from the past remain lost in the past. In contrast, and to paraphrase Herman Bavinck’s foreword to Wonderful Works of God, rich theology that fuels understanding, worship, and application makes the Christian’s heart sing.

Third, to fuel this sort of critical thinking (but hopefully without encouraging a critical spirit), I would like to have head-to-head interactions between thoughtful Christians who disagree on a number of important issues, for the purposes of education and mutual sharpening rather than for stoking division. Sample head-to-head theological scrums might include:

·     church revitalisation vs church planting;

·     directly exegetical (biblical) argumentation vs good and necessary consequence;

·     association vs confessionalism;

·     expository preaching vs applicational preaching;

·     evangelistic strategies;

·     pastoral philosophies;

·     theological viewpoints;

·     political perspectives;

·     ecclesiological differences.

I believe that Christians should be able to discuss doctrinal differences without it devolving into conflict, especially when we’re talking about matters of the local church and pastoral philosophy. We talk about our culture becoming so sensitive that people can’t take critique anymore, that no one has the stomach for a vigorous exchange of views today. Has this become true in the church? Among pastors? At pastors’ conferences? Maybe discussing how our views differ from each other’s – openly but graciously – might actually strengthen both our positions.

Finally, I hope to make a dominant emphasis on the nature of pastoral ministry and shepherding Christ’s sheep. Reformation Today isn’t just for pastors. Church members especially need to know what to look for in a pastor and in a church, and they will be also helped by the reflections that are pointed particularly at pastors.

Now not everyone will agree with every article or every perspective. That’s okay! The goal is catholicity rather than uniformity, and when necessary, hearty but also gracious disagreement. And I’d love to hear from our readers what issues you’d like to see more content on. That will help me balance the various aspects of this magazine.

So why Reformation Today? Because the church in 21st century Britain still needs reformation, as does the church in every age and in every quarter of the world. May God use RT to aid church members and pastors alike to be more conformed to Christ’s image, and may we find that Christ-likeness is truly the happiest way to live.