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Being Constantly Reformed by the Bible: A Neglected Reformation Principle

Editors’ note: 

The Bible is infallible: but our understanding of what the Bible teaches, and our application of that understanding, are not!

There is no reason to assume that what you first learnt about the Bible is infallible. Or that those who first taught you the Bible were infallible. Or that the ministry that converted and mentored you was infallible! While we should deeply appreciate them and their ministry, and praise God for them, only God is infallible. And, while his word the Bible is also infallible, that infallibility does not automatically transfer to those who read or teach the Bible, however sincere and godly they are.

Horse Blinkers Ilario Reale

One of the great Reformation principles was Semper Reformanda, that is, that we need to be continually reformed by the Bible, and so we need our interpretation of the Bible to be continually reformed as well. The Bible is infallible: but our understanding of what the Bible teaches, and our application of that understanding, are not!

Enduring Confidence, Changing Understanding

When I was converted in 1963, I was trained to trust the Bible as the word of God. When I went to Uni in 1964, the first friend I made there was a theological student who had recently moved from fundamentalism to liberal theology. He worked hard to change my mind about the authority, inspiration, and reliability of the Bible. Thankfully the result of this attempt was that I grew more convinced of my views. And I can honestly say that my views of the inspiration, authority and reliability and sufficiency of the Bible have not changed since then, and that I hold them with even greater confidence now 50 years later. The basic structure of my theology has remained the same: Reformed, Evangelical, and Anglican.

However I have changed my mind, or deepened my understanding in many areas since then, both in my understanding and my application of the Bible. Here are some examples, in roughly chronological order.

  1. In my early Christian life I read many missionary biographies—a staple of Evangelical formation. There I discovered that conscientious Christians all wake very early in the morning to have an extended prayer time. I used to wake up early, kneel down to pray, and then fall asleep! It was a relief to discover that the Bible told me to pray, but did not actually require me to follow the example of those admirable missionaries! Getting up early is one possible application of the Bible’s teaching on prayer, but not the only one.
  2. In about 1975 I suddenly realised that I had always preached with the aim of changing individuals: converting them, helping them grow in faith, bringing them to maturity in Christ. Then I realised that actually the Bible is God’s change-agent for his people, and that maturity is Christ is actually corporate maturity. I found that God was mostly concerned with the shared corporate sins of his people; that most of the Bible was actually addressed to God’s people (See Deuteronomy, the Old Testament prophets, and most of the New Testament letters)  When we read ‘you’ in the Bible, the context generally shows that it is more likely to be ‘all of you’ than it is to be ‘you as an individual.’ This realisation changed my reading of the Bible, and my preaching. I now preach to congregations, and with an occasional challenge to individuals, and I pray that congregations will change, as well as individuals. And I challenge individuals to be as concerned for the maturity of others, and of the congregation as a whole, as they are for their own personal maturity.
    I then realised that the gospel is primarily described in the Bible as God’s plan to create and sanctify his own people. It is wrong to teach John 3:16 as if it were solely God’s message to individuals, when it is about God’s love for the world! Christ died for his flock (John 10); the lamb of God took away the sins of the world (John 1); Christ laid down his life for his bride; the church (Ephesians 5). Preaching an individualised gospel is attractive to our individualised society, but it has bad results: it confirms people’s self-centred individualism; it makes converts think that belonging the church is optional; and it makes them think that evangelism is also optional. Actually the gospel is that God loves the world, and God is creating and forming his people, and he calls and summons us to join his people. Here was a correction to my highly valued traditional Evangelical understanding of the Bible.

  1. I remember discovering that the so-called ‘right of private judgement’ —a key feature of Evangelicalism in the 19th century—was not a feature of Reformed theology and practice. 
  2. At one point, when I was writing a book about the nature of the Bible, I realised that my traditions (Reformed, Evangelical and Anglican) taught that the main thing to know about the Bible was its authority. This was a key issue at the Reformation, and a main-spring of Evangelical piety. Yet, as I read the Bible to see what it said about itself, it seemed to me that its primary claim was its power (See Isaiah 55, Jeremiah 1: 1, Zechariah 1:1-16, Mark 4:1-34, John 8:31-38, 15:3, 17:17, Hebrews 4:12,13, James 1:21, 1 Peter 1:23, etc). It also claimed its truth and authority, but its power was just as important, and emphasised even more. This became very important for me. For if the Bible is true and authoritative but not powerful, then we will have to make it work in our own lives and in our ministries. But in fact God’s words are as powerful as God is! He is the one who makes his words work in our lives, and in our ministries. I have found this a great encouragement in my own life, and in my ministry. It is not that I have lost any confidence in the truth and authority of the Bible. But I have gained great confidence in the power of the Bible!

Broken Window Flickr Travis Nep Smith

  1. I remember preaching a sermon series on Malachi at St Jude’s, and then 15 years later deciding to preach it again. I did not look at my old notes, but prepared it freshly. Then after I had preached it again, I looked though my old notes. How much I had learned in that 15 years!
  2. Although I believed all the time in the return of Christ—a staple ingredient of Anglican, Reformed and Evangelical theology—my own focus was entirely on God’s work in the past: the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. I thought that I did not need the promise of future hope, and I did not need the warnings of future judgement. Then I was preaching my way through 1 Peter, and got to the verse, ‘set your hope fully on the grace to be given us when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (1 Peter 1:13). And I thought, ‘How foolish I am to reject this part of Gods revelation, and how arrogant I have been to know about it, but think I do not need it!’ So I repented, and since then have grown continually to depend on the return of Christ. This has filled my life with hope, which, I now realised that hope was an essential ingredient of Paul’s Christianity: faith, love, and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13, Colossians 1:3-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:2,3). How foolish to focus on faith and love and ignore hope! How much I needed this focus on Christ’s return. For in my case, my gospel sufferings, such as they are, would have made me bitter in the long term, were it not for the promise that those who suffer for Christ will enter his glory (Romans 8:17,18, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 1 Peter 4:12,13). This has also given me hope for Christians who are martyred for Christ all around the world today. And, to be honest, there are some sins which I would probably commit if it were not for the fear of appearing before the judgement seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:9,10, 1 Corinthians 3:10-23).
  3. Although self-offering to Christ and to God is in the Bible, and although it is part of Evangelical and Anglican understandings of the Bible, I had always been strongly influenced by the focus on human sinfulness in all three traditions, so that I thought I could never to do this, despite the Bible telling me to do so! Then I made a number of discoveries. The first was the remarkable progression in Romans from Paul’s negative comments about the human body in 3:9-20, his strong contrast between flesh and spirit in chapters 6-8, to his extraordinary instruction in 12:1,2 ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’. I agreed with Paul’s theology of the sinfulness of my body: could I follow him in his  challenge to  to full-bodied offering? My view of my own sinfulness meant that I was reluctant to do offer myself to God, and so did not challenge others to offer themselves to God. I have finally begun to dare to offer myself to God as a living sacrifice, as God instructs me to do. And so I have begun giving the same challenge to others. When thinking about this, I was amazed to discover that John Calvin borrowed Augustine’s picture of a human heart offered to God as his emblem.I had never imagined that either Augustine or Calvin would have used such an emblem!!! And I was encouraged when I discovered just recently that the basis of our offering of ourselves to God is that Christ is offering us to himself (Ephesians 5: 15-27), and that God is able to present us to himself with great joy (Jude 24)!  This is a massive change for me. It was in the Bible all the time. I had not seen it—my personality and lack of faith had blinded me to it.
  4. I realised recently that my driving style was more like ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ which does not require personal revenge, but is intended to limit it! Instead I should ‘love my neighbour’ on the road, including big trucks, white vans, and cars which cut in. This is a good idea. Why have I not been doing it for the last 50 years?
  5. I have often preached about sin and sinfulness. However I have now realised that in doing so, I was assuming Genesis 1 and 2, and teaching Genesis 3. But nowadays almost all unbelievers have lost the doctrine of God the creator, and so lost the doctrine of the dignity and glory of humanity made in God’s image. If you think you are just a speck of accidental cosmic dust, and there is no God, then sin does not make sense, and to be told that you are a sinner may just confirm your cosmic irrelevance. So now whenever I preach on sin I preface it with 5 minutes on God making us in his image, for a glorious destiny and dignity. Then, of course, sin matters!

You will notice that in some cases I learned something new about the true meaning of the Bible. In some cases I learnt to apply something that I knew was there, but had rejected or ignored. And, in some cases I found new ways to apply what was there. As I have studied the Reformed traditions and the Evangelical traditions, I discovered that the versions which I learnt as a young Christian were not always correct or complete. So Calvin’s life, ministry, and theology was richer than some 20th Century versions of Reformed tradition.

Lifelong Learning

I have recently been studying the theme of wisdom in the Bible, and one aspect of that theme is that learning God’s wisdom is a life-long experience, and it is foolish to think you are sufficiently wise, and have nothing to learn. Lifelong learning and life-long change is a key to Biblical wisdom (Proverbs 1:1-7, 4:1-9).

I still value the traditions of Reformed theology and practice, Evangelical theology and practice, and the Anglican expression of that theology and practice. But traditions make good servants and bad masters. Semper Reformanda (always being reformed by the Bible) is essential, because both individuals and churches can and do err. Read the New Testament letters and see how much repenting churches have to do!

Judging Tradition

Notice that the three traditions I value, Reformed, Evangelical and Anglican are traditionally very traditional! A clear example of this is their use of the King James translation of the Bible for 350 years. The Reformation principle was that the Bible should be in the vernacular language. But adherence to tradition resulted in reluctance to change and implement that wonderful principle.

There is of course danger in reacting against or ignoring the values of our traditions. We are foolish to ignore wisdom from the past. But there is a comparable danger in holding to our traditions and so muffling God’s word. It is after all Roman Catholic doctrine, not Protestant doctrine, that Bible and Tradition form the one Word of God, and that Tradition interprets the Bible correctly!

I am not suggesting that our traditions are of no value, nor that we should ignore them. We can learn from others, but should not be ruled by them. We should NOT use their ideas as a short-cut which means that we fail to read the Bible to discover what it means. That is like reading a commentary rather than reading the Bible!

Some Appropriate Questions

  • I often ask ministers at preaching conferences how long it is since they changed the way they lived because of something they read in the Bible. If the answer is more than six months, then something is wrong!
  • It is good to ask what changes God wants to make in the life of our church according to the Bible.
  • Are we, in practice, more committed to the traditions of Reformed Theology, Evangelical theology and practice, or denominational theology and practice, than we are to the Bible? Didn’t the Reformers try to reform the traditions of their day by the Bible?
  • Have you learnt anything new from the Bible since your early days as a believer?
  • Have you changed your application of the Bible since your early days as a believer?
  • Have you even wondered if by your traditions you are leaving, rejecting or making void the word of God? (Mark 7:6-13).
  • The Reformation was a reformation of prayer by the Bible: have you recently reformed your prayers by the Bible?
  • The Reformation was a reformation of theology by the Bible: have you recently reformed your theology by the Bible?
  • The Reformation was a reformation of ministry by the Bible: have you recently reformed your ministry by the Bible?
  • The Reformation was a reformation of daily life-style by the Bible: have you recently reformed your daily life-style by the Bible?
  • The Reformation was a reformation of church life by the Bible: have you recently reformed your church life by the Bible?
  • The Reformation was a reformation of world-view by the Bible: have you recently reformed your world-view by the Bible?
  • The Reformation was a reformation of evangelism by the Bible: have you recently reformed your evangelism by the Bible?

Some Practical Advice

  • Remember that Christ lived by every word that came from the mouth of God in the Old Testament (Matthew 4:4); that he will be ashamed of us when he returns if we are ashamed of him or his words (Mark 8:38); and that we must receive the words of his apostles as his words, and God’s words (Luke 10:16, Matthew 10:40, Galatians 1:11,12).
  • Do not drop your earlier ideas, nor adopt new ideas, too lightly! Take time to ponder, read the Bible widely and carefully, consult some commentaries, talk about it with your friends, ask your minister for some useful reading.
  • Don’t form your understanding by reacting against error, either your own error, or the errors of others. Reaction against error is no guarantee of finding the truth!  And strong reaction against an error means that it is still shaping you! Children who reject all their parents’ values are still controlled by them!
  • If you find an entirely new interpretation of the Bible, it is not likely to be right!
  • Do some work to find out what other Christians have believed on this topic, and benefit from the arguments they used to clarify it and resolve it.
  • Look at the life-styles and ministry-styles associated with an idea or understanding.
  • Reflect on how your own character, temperament, natural tendencies, needs and sins might influence your evaluation of this idea.
  • Don’t be influenced by your need to be liked, or your fear of rejection. You are accountable to God for your opinions and your actions: ‘each of us will have to give an account to God’ Romans 14:12.
  • Don’t major on minor issues, and don’t sideline major issues.
  • Think through what it would mean to put your proposed ideas into practice. Would it honour God? Would it benefit others? Would it honour Christ? Would it increase your love of others? Would it promote godliness?
  • Test your ideas by the Bible. Is it a matter of central importance in the Bible? What are the consequences of your idea according to the Bible? Is it a matter on which the Bible gives clear instructions? Does it reflect a major Bible theme? How is the Old Testament teaching on this topic fulfilled in Christ and explained by the New Testament?
  • Ask God to give you his wisdom as your study the Bible and reflect on the issue, so that you may grow to maturity in Christ, and not fall into foolishness or false wisdom.
  • My advice to preachers is that when they read a passage of the Bible in order to preach on, and think ‘Well I know what that means’, is this: ‘Take a lung-full of humility, and start again to do careful exegesis. You will find new ideas, insights and applications!’ This happens to me every time I prepare a sermon, and it happens to me when I have preached a passage of the Bible many times before. Lifelong learning is the key!

Christ alone! Grace alone! Faith alone! Scripture alone! And Semper Reformanda!

Photos, from top to bottom: Tom Leuntjens, Illario Reale, Trevor Nep Smith; flickr