The Greatest Reformer

Speech delivered at the Reformation Day Rally of Eben-Ezer CanRC, Living Hope FRC, and Trinity ARP in Chatham, Ontario, on October 31, 2023.

Today we celebrate and commemorate the Great Reformation. In the 1500s, the Lord used men like Luther and Zwingli and Calvin to point out error and corruption in the church, and to lead people back to sound doctrine and pure worship. This was not the first reformation of the church, nor would it be the last; but it had more impact than other reformations, and so we call it “the Great Reformation”. Luther, Calvin and their colleagues are often called “the great Reformers”.

But however “great” the Reformation and Reformers were, we must be careful to understand them as part of something greater. If we focus too much on the Great Reformation in itself, it can also become a distraction, and we end up venerating Protestant saints and hollowing out our theology. Even the greatest of Reformers must be understood and celebrated in light of the greatest Reformer of all: our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our primary purpose, as Reformed people, is not to be Calvinists but to be Christians. In fact, if we ever make it our secondary purpose to be Reformed beyond what it means to be faithful Christians, we have waded in the waters of sectarianism. If we are imitators of Calvin, we may only be that insofar he imitated Christ. If we insist on Reformed doctrine, we may only do so insofar it is the doctrine of the Scripture. Our core identity as Reformed people was defined not by Luther and Calvin, but by Jesus of Nazareth. 

That is why at this Reformation Day celebration I ask your attention to the greatest Reformation that took place, not in the 1500s, but much longer ago. We can understand the Great Reformation only as an outflow of that “greater Reformation”.

1. Yet another reformation in Israel

When Jesus arrived on the scene, he stood in a long line of reformers. The Old Testament had its share of judges, prophets, priests, and kings who pointed out decay and corruption, and called God’s people back to sound doctrine and holy living. Much of Jesus’ preaching is similar to what these ancient reformers had said. The same truths and admonitions had to be repeated over and over, and we still need to hear them today.

According to Mark 1:14-15, Jesus “proclaimed the gospel of God and said: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Like the Old Testament prophets, he reminded people that God is their great King, and that they should prepare for his coming. All sinful compromise must end; all wickedness must be removed from their lives; all sin must be confessed and washed away. Jesus preached the need for repentance, especially to those who thought they were quite good enough.

Jesus pointed out that true obedience to God should not be outward only, but a matter of the heart. This was nothing new; Moses had already said: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” David had sung it: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.” But it is so easy to fall into the trap of outward ritual, of going through the motions without depth of faith, of doing religion rather than having heartfelt love for the Lord. The first-century Jews needed a firm reminder, and so Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of religious celebrities and called his followers to simplicity and sincerity of worship.

In his preaching, the Lord Jesus also taught what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”. He pointed out that Samaritans are neighbors, too; that we should pray for our enemies as well; that we should give generously even to those who could not return the favor.

And Jesus taught, clearer than anyone before him, that true wealth is not money on earth or prestige among people, but the heavenly treasure of being at peace with God, and of inheriting a life that continues even after we die. He proclaimed the hope of the resurrection and the crucial importance of the final judgment.

In all of this, the Lord Jesus worked tirelessly to bring the nation of Israel back to what Moses had already taught them. Back to the basics of law and covenant. Back to taking the LORD, their God seriously. All of these points were taught by prophets and other reformers before him; and in the last two-thousand years, the church has often needed similar reminders.

2. The fulfillment of all other reformations

All of this makes Jesus of Nazareth a great reformer. But if he had merely been another reformer, his influence would have lasted perhaps one or two generations. Just as in the time of Joshua and the judges, forty years seems to be long enough for people to fall from the height of reformational zeal into the abyss of forgetfulness and idolatry. What makes Jesus the greatest Reformer of all is the fact that he accomplished lasting, radical change. He brought the very reality of what he preached. He not only announced the Kingdom of God, but ushered that Kingdom into the earth.

The Lord Jesus brought about true change in a way that no one else before or after him could. The Old Testament prophets could only point forward: one day, the Lord will bring complete salvation; one day, the light will shine brightly. But when Jesus came, he was the Light of the World, he was the Sun of Righteousness, risen with healing in its wings. He fulfilled the Old-Testament prophecies: what they could mere promise and foretell, he made happen.

During his life on earth, Jesus lived as a perfectly righteous man; he was what God’s people should have been, but couldn’t. So he personally embodied obedience to the law, and its holiness and blessing. Earlier reformers could only call the people to righteous and holy living; Jesus made it happen.

In his death, Jesus actually carried away the sins of the world; the earlier sacrifices of animals could only hint at this possibility. In fact, the Lord Jesus carried his blood into the sanctuary of heaven and so reconciled God with man. All the reformers that had come before, even great men like Moses and Samuel and David, could only make temporary changes on earth; but our Lord Jesus changed things forever, even in the heavenly realms.

In his resurrection, Jesus received the new and incorruptible life that the prophets and psalmist could only hope for and stammer about. The promise of a Kingdom of peace and joy, without sin and death, was no longer a future hope held out to believers; but a reality that the disciples witnessed first hand, and in which all true Christians will share.

Most importantly, Jesus brought about internal, spiritual reformation, which had been foretold in Jeremiah 31. “In those days, says the LORD, I will make a new covenant. I will write my law on their hearts. They will all know me, from the least to the greatest. And I will remember their sins no more.” Jesus said it so simply, but it was the greatest reformation of the church when he announced: this is the new covenant, in my blood.

And then, when he left for heaven to take his seat on the eternal throne, he poured out his Spirit. From that moment on, God’s people knew not only in general that God was there for them, but they intimately knew God-with-us in Jesus Christ, and God-in-us in his Holy Spirit. From that moment onward, a worldwide community grew of people, who were not only taught by the letter of the law but literally reformed by the power of the Holy Spirit; a worldwide church, in which the Kingdom of God started taking shape, where people live the glorious life of the resurrection in step with the Holy Spirit.

3. The source of ongoing reformation

So Jesus Christ was the greatest Reformer, and his Holy Spirit continues to reform hearts and minds and lives on a daily basis.

And all of the two thousand years that followed, and all the years or centuries that will follow yet as we wait for Christ’s return, stand in the light of that definitive reformation. All faithful reform movements in the history of the church point back to this work of Jesus Christ. With all the hot debates in which men like Luther and Calvin were involved, their ultimate goal was simply this: to continue in the line of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus had ushered in. It was never over just doctrinal points; it was always about the Kingdom of God and the glory of king Jesus. The solas of the Reformation, the five points of Calvinism, they all boil down to the same desire: to serve the Lord as we know him in Jesus Christ our Savior.

We call ourselves Reformed. May that always simply mean this, nothing more and nothing less: that I belong to Jesus Christ, who brought the Kingdom of God on earth through his faithful work, his suffering, and his death. If we are Reformed, let it especially be true that our lives are being reformed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that we become more and more like Jesus.

Some of us may see the need for the church to be reformed today again. If anything in the doctrine or life of the church must be changed, let it be a return to the reformation that Jesus himself brought. Even when we call ourselves “Protestants” and celebrate Reformation Day, let us never boast in Luther or Calvin or any like them; may our boast be in the one great Reformer, who is also our Saviour and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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