REFORMING OR DEFORMING?
Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16).
Change is good–sometimes. Change in cars has been good, with greater safety and fuel efficiency in newer cars than in older models. Change in computers has been good, with each new generation of computers more powerful and user-friendly than previous ones. These innovations and improvements in cars and computers and other technology have been so big and so beneficial that some of us buy into the notion that all change is good.
But it’s not. Change is good sometimes, but not always. Sometimes change is bad. Recent changes in computers have been mostly good; recent changes in sexual morality have been mostly bad. Trying to improve technology is good; trying to improve the Bible is bad.
Behind the slogan “Change is good” lies the myth of inevitable progress. This myth assumes that all change is for the better. The age we live in is better than previous ages for the simple reason that we are the most recent and “up-to-date.” This year is superior to last year simply because it happens to be this year. New ideas are better than old ones, new books are better than old books, the present is better than the past, all changes between then and now have been good changes, and we’ve been evolving onward and upward. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery.” Chronological snobs think themselves and their era superior to all others.
If you’re a chronological snob who thinks the present is always better than what came before, and if you assume all change is good, it saves wear and tear on your brain. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to evaluate whether an idea is true or false; you just have to check whether it’s new or old. You don’t have to ponder whether a change is good or bad; you just go with the flow and accept it without question. However, once you realize that some changes are good and others are bad, you have to sort out which is which. You have to use your brain instead of following your bias toward change for the sake of change.
Spouting the slogan “Change is good!” sounds cheerful and fearless but it’s not very smart. Some changes are good; some aren’t; and we must know the difference. This is especially true in faith and morality, in what we believe and how we behave. We need to know the difference between good changes and bad changes.
October 31 marks the anniversary of when German reformer Martin Luther began calling for changes in the church of his day. Luther introduced reforms in many beliefs and practices and launched the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and others joined with Luther, and these great reformers introduced major changes in faith and conduct. They affected the lives of millions and altered the history of entire nations, mostly for the better.
The Reformers were not chronological snobs. They called for sweeping changes, but they didn’t challenge the status quo simply because they thought newer ideas would be better. No, they thought some old ideas would be better. They had been reading the Bible for themselves, and they saw that the church had been ignoring and even contradicting the Bible’s message. The Reformers didn’t try to invent some brand new approach to faith and morality. Instead, they tried to recover the timeless truths of the gospel revealed in the Bible and preached by the early Church Fathers. They weren’t trying to be on the cutting edge of a new decade; they were trying to go back many centuries to recover and restore the faith proclaimed by Jesus and his apostles. Like the biblical prophet Jeremiah, they were saying: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). Reformers don’t want change for the sake of change; they wanted change for the sake of Christ.
There are changes that reform, and changes that deform. We must always be reforming, but we must also beware of deforming.
We must always be reforming because we’re never beyond the need for change as long as we’re on this earth. No individual is perfect, and no church is perfect. On this side of heaven, there is always something that’s not as it should be, something that ought to change. So we should never be standing still, stuck in a rut. We must be changing and growing closer to Christ. Churches which call themselves Reformed have a saying: “A Reformed church must always be reforming.”
Understood properly, that motto is valuable, but it can also be misused to justify wild ideas and wicked behavior. People promote teachings contrary to the Bible, and when objections are raised, they smile condescendingly and say, “A Reformed church must always be reforming.” They take this to mean that churches must always be playing around with some new unbiblical beliefs or immoral behaviors. What they call reforming is really deforming.
“Always reforming” means striving to think and live more in tune with the Bible and more in touch with Jesus. It doesn’t mean constantly coming up with new doctrines or new ways to God that Jesus and the apostles never spoke of or even dreamed of. Yes, change is always needed, but we must be changing to fit the truth, not changing the truth to fit us. We must always be reforming and always beware of deforming.
One thing that sometimes makes it hard to sort out the truth in church life is that some so-called progressives haven’t been entirely honest. They haven’t been very forthright about the sort of changes they’re trying to push. They may still use quite a bit of traditional language, but they mean something very different. They pay lip service to the historic teachings of Christianity but believe things that are utterly at odds those teachings. Every once in a while, though, someone comes clean and says plainly what he thinks and identifies his real agenda.
For example, the senior pastor of a church from a major American denomination recently wrote:
Now it is our turn to get honest. Although the creeds of our denomination pay lip service to the idea that Scripture is “authoritative” and “sufficient,” many of us have moved far beyond that notion in our theological thinking. We are only deceiving ourselves–and lying to our evangelical brothers and sisters–when we deny the shift we have made…
We have moved far beyond the idea that the Bible is exclusively normative and literally authoritative for our faith. To my thinking, that is good! What is bad is that we have tried to con ourselves and others by saying “we haven’t changed our position.”
Furthermore, few of us retain belief in Christ as the sole way of salvation. We trust that God can work under many other names and in many other forms to save people. Our views have changed over the years.
In Canada the moderator of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination stated that he doesn’t see Jesus as the only way of salvation. He doesn’t believe Jesus is God or that he was born of a virgin and rose bodily from the grave. I’m sad to hear such blatant unbelief, but I’m glad such people are saying plainly what they really believe (or don’t believe) instead of pretending they hold to biblical teaching. Still, why not start a new religion instead of continuing under the name of a denomination that officially claims trust in risen Christ and allegiance to the Bible as the final authority for faith and life?
In Germany, a prominent theology professor recently resigned from the church and declared that he is not a Christian at all. He thought honesty required this. He says he doesn’t accept the Bible as God’s Word, and he doesn’t pray to Jesus, and he finally reached the conclusion that it was dishonest for him to be a church member and call himself a Christian. This professor goes on to say that so-called progressive, liberal Christianity is “contemptible,” because it doesn’t believe the Bible or honor Jesus as God and yet refuses to give up the label of Christian. He says that if you’re going to call yourself a Christian, you had better trust in Jesus as God and Savior and believe the entire Bible to be God’s Word. Otherwise, if you’re honest, you shouldn’t call yourself a Christian at all.
If only such clarity were more common! This professor is wrong to reject Christianity, but at least he acknowledges that he has done so. He admits his unbiblical beliefs and doesn’t pretend he’s offering Christianity in a new-and-improved form. Many others aren’t so honest. They present themselves as reformers; they may even claim to be doing what Reformation heroes like Luther and Calvin did. But they’re not reforming the church; they’re deforming it.
What’s the difference between reforming and deforming? Perhaps the shortest answer is this: In reforming, the Bible changes us; in deforming we change the Bible. In reforming, the Jesus of the Bible encounters us and speaks to us and changes us. In deforming we try to change the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus Seminar, for example, is a group of skeptical scholars who take various parts of the New Testament account of Jesus and vote on which parts really reflect Jesus’ life and words and which don’t. They reject most of the sayings and miracles of Jesus is Scripture. This is done in the name of reforming our understanding and providing a more accurate picture of the “authentic” Jesus than the Bible provides.
How ridiculous! The Jesus Seminar scholars have no personal knowledge of Jesus; the New Testament accounts come from eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally. The Jesus Seminar comes 2,000 years after the events in question; the New Testament accounts come from people who saw and heard and touched Jesus. The Jesus Seminar scholars have a different native language than Jesus spoke and a different culture than the one Jesus lived in; the New Testament writers spoke the same language and shared the same culture as Jesus. And yet the Jesus Seminar claims to be able to sort out the truth about Jesus better than his personal companions who wrote under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit of Christ. That’s not reforming; it’s deforming. It’s making Jesus fit our ideas instead of making our ideas fit Jesus.
In genuine reforming, we humbly admit that we don’t know Jesus at all on our own, and that our knowledge of him needs to be constantly expanded and corrected by what he reveals about himself in the Bible. We shouldn’t limit our understanding of Jesus to a few favorite stories we heard in Sunday school. We shouldn’t be satisfied with a few favorite ideas we have about Jesus and ignore the parts of the Bible that don’t fit the way we want to picture him. If we truly trust in Jesus, we are committed to continually reforming our understanding of him in light of Scripture. In humility we admit that Jesus is greater than our present knowledge of him, and we rely on his Word and Spirit to help us grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord.
Constantly searching Scripture to know Jesus better is one thing; constantly doubting Scripture’s portrait of Jesus and trying to come up with our own picture is quite another. Some scholars and church leaders seem to view the church as a giant Jesus Seminar, where everyone decides for himself what parts of the Bible to accept, and where nobody ought to take the entire Bible as God’s truth. They don’t believe that anyone can have a firm, accurate knowledge of Jesus. They don’t believe in Scripture as a definitive, authoritative revelation. They want a pluralistic, tolerant church in which all opinions are accepted–except the opinion that we really can be sure of God’s truth. They think it’s arrogant to insist that we have access to concrete, accurate revelation of Christ in the Bible. They claim to be inclusive and pluralistic, but in fact they exclude anyone who claims to know definite truth through the Bible’s revelation of Jesus. A theology professor, describing his own liberal denomination, puts it this way:
The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends… Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth… it cannot tolerate those who believe that there really is a definite revelation of the divine, that the church really can discern and express the truth about God… Hence pluralism is by nature exclusionary. Thus it is no surprise that pluralists readily desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology. Pluralism is at once absolutist and relativist. It is absolutely committed to the negative doctrine that there is no divine revelation that delivers general knowledge of God.
Reforming involves the humility to admit that although Christ has revealed himself by his Word and Spirit, we do not know him as well as we should, and even what we do know of him, we often fail to love and obey. Such reforming humility drives us to seek to know him better and to respond more faithfully to what we know. Deforming, on the other hand, considers it arrogant for anyone to be certain about God’s truth in Scripture. In this view, humility means always being unsure of everything. This is a mindset which doubts or denies objective truth and moral absolutes, all in the name of humility. G. K. Chesterton, the brilliant writer from the early 1900’s, had this to say about such misplaced humility:
What we suffer from is humility in the wrong place… A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason… the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts he can even learn… The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether… We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.
It is terribly deforming to believe in no objective truth outside yourself. You end up asserting your own instincts and feelings and opinions, with no standard to evaluate yourself, no desire to reform your beliefs and behavior in keeping with that standard, and no confidence that you know a real and living Christ who can touch you and change you.
Consider the controversy over homosexuality in many denominations and congregations. According to the Bible, homosexual behavior is sinful, but God forgives those who repent and trust in Jesus, and he guides and helps them to refrain from sexual activity or else marry a partner of the opposite sex. The church has often failed to convey the love of Christ for homosexual persons, failed to be gracious toward those who repent of same-sex acts, and failed to encourage and support those who strive to resist their same-sex longings. This is one of the many areas where the church must always be reforming.
But the church must not be deforming. We must not deny the biblical standard of male-female monogamy or the biblical teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful. And that’s exactly what some so-called progressives are doing. One author bluntly admits that the Bible opposes homosexual behavior but then says experience is the final authority. He concedes, “For the authors of Scripture homosexuality is sin. Moreover, the Bible nowhere suggests a more positive viewpoint.” But then he says we must “distinguish between what the Bible says and what is really the will of God for us… testing what is good and bad by the world of experience… The Bible is not, therefore, a necessary condition for knowing what good and evil is.” He concludes, “There is every reason to remove the homosexuality issue from the church’s agenda as a moral and religious problem.”
Another writer, a minister, goes even further and openly maligns the God of Scripture. He says,
When we discuss homosexuality, we identify with the old tribal deity, the one full of anger who orders whole cities to be wiped out. Christ reveals a God of infinite love who is the origin and power of life itself. The tribal deity who demands strict adherence to the rules has no place in the faith Christ reveals to us.
Now, who is the God this man speaks of as a mean old tribal deity? It’s the God of the Bible, the God whom Jesus called his Father! The Scripture which reveals this God is the very same book of which Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken.” And yet this man claims that the scriptural God who gave the moral law and judges sin is not the God Christ reveals but just an old tribal deity. How foolish! The Lord is eternal; does that make him old and outdated? The Lord revealed himself to the Israelites in marvelous ways; does that make him tribal? The Lord gave the Ten Commandments; does that mean Jesus hates all rules? When a new-and-improved Jesus is contrasted with an old, tribal, rule-making God of Scripture, what’s happening is not reforming but deforming. The Bible praises God and denounces sin; deformers praise sin and denounce the living God. Of such people Scripture says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).
There is only one supreme standard for knowing God and determining whether something is true or false, good or bad, for Christ or against him. That standard is the Bible. Scripture says, “If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isaiah 8:20).
When a belief or behavior clashes with the Bible, the reformer rejects that belief or behavior; the deformer rejects the Bible. A deformer wants to be progressive; a reformer wants to be biblical. A deformer wants what is new; a reformer wants what is true. A deformer claims there are many ways to God; a reformer knows Jesus is the only way to God. A deformer says it’s primitive to insist that only Jesus’ blood can take away sin; a reformer keeps right on telling sinners that there’s power in the blood. A deformer wants to stay five years ahead of the times; a reformer wants be ready for eternity.
What about you? Are you reforming or deforming?
Change is good–sometimes. It’s good when the Bible changes us. It’s bad when we change the Bible. Many deformers are as eager to change others as any reformer would be. Many who reject the real Jesus and like their own ideas better are eager to win people over to their position. They write books, organize campaigns, and do countless other things to bring about the changes they want. But what happens in the end? Jesus told some deformers of his own day, “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15). Deforming gets people ready for hell; reforming gets you ready for heaven.
So be sure you’re not deforming but reforming. Only the Bible can show which is which.
Father in heaven, thank you for revealing yourself in the words of the Bible and in the person of Jesus. Keep changing us, Lord, to think and live more in tune with the Bible and more in touch with Jesus. Protect us from deforming, sinful tendencies in our own souls and from the deforming influence of false teachers. By your Word and Spirit, help us to be constantly reforming, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.