The difference between Reformed Principles and Reformed Practices

As pastor Tom shared as he was preaching from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there is a natural human tendency to want to make rules for things we believe we need to do to achieve Salvation. When we do that we are in fact saying it is not sufficient to believe. Adding to the one Gospel any action we  present as something that helps us achieve our own Salvation is then very very dangerous.

No church is free of that danger of wanting to achieve, and often fear is used to motivate people to add extra ‘layers’ to faith by defining practices or things that must be done – actions which must be taken — in order to maintain one’s forgiven standing before God. Once a set of actions have been identified, pride of practice tends to keep them in place, if fear has fallen away.

So, guess what, over time, unless it has been super-humanly diligent in guarding against this, any congregation in any setting gets off track, and begins to accept as necessary for salvation some practices that have passed their best used dates.

I see it as true of Nobleford CRC as it is of any congregation, and this Transition time is exactly about reviewing that and reflecting on why we do what we do, and maybe if we recognize something we do has lost it’s meaning, lost it’s relevance, and is being done only as an extra layer of achieving God’s happiness with us, it might be time to reconsider.

It is not a fun job to help a congregation see that. Pastor Tom seemed to know this when he said prophets like Jeremiah would not get a call to a church…

This week I realized, with some shock and humour mixed together, that part of my role here will be a prophetic call back to operating on classic Reformed principles as we re-examine our practices.

The humour that I believe had God laughing a good belly laugh about this predicament is that I had never ever imagined myself doing that in my working out my calling as a preacher of the Word. I just want to bring Gospel to people. I wanted to be part of church planing and outreach, part of starting over as the CRC. I don’t want to give teachings on classic Reformed principles. But it seems essential to what I am called to do in this work. And it shocks me a bit and makes me a bit grumpy, sort of like the guy who wanted to be the main striker on a pro soccer team, and the coach makes him water boy.

But last week, thinking back, I saw what I should maybe have seen from the beginning. I preached on the beginning in my beginning here, Genesis 1 and 3, and was surprised that people were surprised at my presentation of a very very classic Reformed view of the Creation account. The “formless and void” interpretation of Genesis 1 that saw it as an evangelistic chapter is age-old in Reformed theology! Clearly, over time — with exposure to other preachers and theologies through radio or other means — in the CRC we have lost that interpretation and adopted ones as ‘true’ that ignore reformed principles of interpretation.

I felt a need to remind the congregation about classic Reformed understandings of Worship (which I only touched the surface of really), because it was obvious that some had forgotten them and believed worship is about us, not about the Sovereign God being met and revealed.

And more recently — and this led to my waking up to this challenge this week — I encountered the view that a pastor is more like a hireling in the congregation, and if we are not happy with the hireling’s work we can send them packing. That is very very far from a classic Reformed view of what it means to be called by God as a preacher and what it means for a congregation to ‘call’ a pastor. I am currently doing research to write a whole post or article or sermon about that, but it is taking time to gather the information. But basically stated, the classic Reformed understanding is that a congregation calls a pastor to do God’s work among them, and they promise to take care of that pastor’s material needs so that the pastor can focus on growing spiritually and in knowledge and practice of the Word of God, and can then share that with the congregation so they grow too. Technically, or theoretically, that means there is very little ‘control’ the congregation has over what the pastor does to achieve that personal spiritual growth that he passes on. Only if the pastor gives evidence of being seriously off track from the Word of God can the congregation really take corrective action. Of course, that is principle. Practice is quite different, and congregational expectations and politics get caught up in it, and it is very hard to live by the principle. And, I might mention, pastor’s lose track of this principle as well, but I’m not here to train pastors. But when the principle is forgotten, people begin to talk about the pastor’s role as if the pastor is simply hired help that can be fired. I’ll stop there, because I feel I’ve wandered from the subject I set out to write about today.

In classic Reformed views, as best I understand this — I’m writing off the cuff and so am a bit uncertain – we have some key principles that shape our approach to things, and each generation needs to evaluate what practices flow out of those principles.

Five key Reformation principles for example, are:

  • Only Scripture is our appropriate authority about God (not human tradition)
  • Only Faith is required (not our achievement)
  • Only Grace or God’s unmerited favour brings us forgiveness of sin
  • Only through Christ
  • Only one getting Glory is God

Each of those has sub-principles. For instance we have principles of how to interpret Scripture, how to give God Glory (in worship) and so on.

Another principle we derive from scripture is that of the priesthood of all believers, and we have principles of what vocation or calling is as well as I touched on above.

Each Reforming generation is charged with the task of how to live out those principles, and if you review church history since the Reformation you will see that these practices change. They are flexible. They have been viewed that way because we recognize the danger of the practices becoming achievements by which we are tempted to try to earn God’s favour all over again. But, over time, we forget the principle behind the practice, and get attached to the practice thinking it is another “Only” in the list. And so we start to believe that “Only if the organ is played” or “Only if the bass guitar is played” or “Only if the pastor does what I like” or “Only if _______” is God being revered and honoured.

So, I’m going to try go get in the habit of asking people: “What is the Reformation principle behind what you are talking about and doing?” and if the answer is not satisfactory, I might just ask “Is this then merely a layer of practice who’s time has come and gone.

By the way, it has been delightful to visit with those of the senior generation who were taught these principles and understand this. They will likely be reading this – if they do – wondering why Pastor Pete feels a need to review this ‘old hat’ stuff that we all know. Maybe they can help me pass it on afresh!


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