Twenty years ago, Reformed theology made landfall on the shores of my life with the force of a Category 5 hurricane.
I’d been in ministry only a few months and preached only a few times when God put a few men in my path who gently and patiently guided me toward sound doctrine. They introduced me to Augustine and his Confessions, Luther and his Commentary on Galatians, Calvin and his Institutes, the five solas, TULIP, Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress, Spurgeon and his steel backbone in the Downgrade Controversy, Lloyd-Jones and his Romans series.
Consistent with the Reformed way, I hadn’t been looking for a Big God theology; it found me. And like the landscape after a massive hurricane, my mind and heart and ministry have never been the same.
My pastoral ministry has been deeply shaped by the Reformation—its key figures, its theology, and those who have followed in its tradition such as the Puritans and my Particular Baptist fathers. Space and reader patience would fail me were I to list all the ways the Reformation has shaped me, but here are seven ways it has helped me and can help every pastor.
1. Regularly preaching the five solas means you’ll always be relevant.
At its most fundamental level, the Reformation was a recovery of relevance because it was a recovery of the gospel. The gospel—preached from a framework of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as found in Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone—is relevant in every single age. And God’s Word is powerful “out of the box.” I don’t need to revise it, improve it, or update it. Scripture comes equipped with its own affirming power, and if I proclaim it faithfully to both the lost and the found, it will do its work through the Holy Spirit.
The Reformation was a recovery of relevance because it was a recovery of the gospel.
Recovery of the gospel was at the heart of the Reformation, and keeping the gospel front and center will always be the heart of faithful gospel ministry. Michael Reeves said it well: “The Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel.” In my exegesis, my exhortation, my application, and my own life and leadership in both home and church, I must always be moving toward the gospel.
2. You don’t have to search for a silver bullet for transformation. God has provided it.
The formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura, is what helpless sinners need. How did Luther sum up his massive contribution as the unwitting founder of Protestantism? “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Scripture provides us with an all-sufficient framework for worship, for discipleship, for evangelism, for counseling, for life.
God has a people. He is sovereign. And so he will certainly save and sanctify sinners when we preach his Word. Yes, we must do evangelism and missions if we would obey Scripture. Yes, we must take the gospel to our neighborhood and the nations with compassion and zeal. But we must trust that the Spirit of God working through the Word of God is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes. We press for repentance and faith, but the Word does everything in converting a sinner; we do nothing.
3. God has told you how to interpret his Word and how he expects to be worshiped.
Jesus makes clear in Luke 24 that we are to interpret the Old Testament as finding its fulfillment in him. Thus, the New Testament writers show us how to interpret the Old in light of the person and work of Jesus. In his Institutes, Calvin identified the Reformed tradition’s bedrock method of interpreting and exegeting the sacred text:
It follows that the Old Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and was confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it is summed up in Christ. Who, then, dares separate Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ? Who dares to estrange from the gift of free salvation those to whom we hear the doctrine of the righteousness of faith was imparted? . . . If the Lord, in manifesting his Christ, discharged his ancient oath, one cannot but say the Old Testament always had its end in eternal life.
Intrinsic to God’s Word is also a complementarity between law and gospel. The moral law of God as summarized in the Ten Commandments demonstrates God’s holy character, exposes man’s sin and need for a mediator, and provides a guide to sanctification. The law breaks; the gospel heals. The law says “run”; the gospel gives us legs. You need both to properly understand either.
In addition to an inspired hermeneutic, God has given us a regulative principle for worship. He knows best how he is to be worshiped. The regulative principle is by no means a straightjacket, but opens the entire Bible to us.
4. Knowledge of both God and self line the path to genuine wisdom.
Calvin’s opening words in the Institutes represent an accurate summary of biblical anthropology and theology—and are irreducible pillars for life and ministry. Only when I see myself as a great sinner and Christ as a great Savior does my thinking become rightly ordered. God is holy, I am not; I need, therefore, his purity and wisdom and power every moment as both a follower of Christ and also a leader in his church.
I’m not as young or restless as when this journey in grace began, but I will always be reforming.
This critical truth has profoundly shaped both my devotional life and also my preaching. Without true knowledge of God, there is no true knowledge of self.
5. You need living mentors.
Being my own pastor has always felt a bit strained. Every pastor needs a pastor. Timothy had Paul, Augustine had Ambrose, Luther had Von Staupitz, Calvin had Bucer, Beza had Calvin, Whitefield and Wesley had each other, Sproul had Gerstner.
I need at least one seasoned godly mentor, too—one able to guide, direct, chasten, and encourage me in the things of God, one positioned to keep a close watch on my life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16).
6. You need dead mentors.
As is often said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We were not the first to tread this territory, and we won’t be the last. Therefore, we need the insights of Scripture-saturated, God-entranced church leaders from the past to help affirm and amend our interpretation and application of Scripture. While history does not play a magisterial role for us, it can and should play a ministerial role in our lives and ministries through the figures and doctrines from our rich evangelical heritage.
So not only do I need a living mentor, I also need heroes from the past. And these men and women come with one benefit that living heroes don’t: the final chapter of their lives has been written. We know how they turned out. Though they are deeply flawed like our living mentors, neither Twitter, Facebook, nor lurid corners of the internet will suddenly topple their ministries.
7. Reformation continues until Jesus returns.
The battle for the Bible wasn’t over when Protestantism germinated and blossomed in Luther’s train. It wasn’t over in the Southern Baptist Convention when key offices at last bulged with conservative evangelicals. It wasn’t over when conservative Presbyterians split from moderates. And it’s not over in local churches today. Our cry will always be semper reformanda—reformed, and always reforming (according to Scripture).
Our hearts are prone to wander from orthodoxy; in every age, therefore, we must reaffirm and guard our confessional integrity and our submission to God’s Word. I’m not as young or restless as when this journey in grace began, but I will always be reforming—in my heart, in my family, and in my congregation.
Praise God that it pleased him to work through flawed, ordinary men like Luther and Calvin to unleash afresh an extraordinary gospel. Every evangelical, no matter his or her denomination, is deeply indebted to the reformers and those who courageously followed in their wake.
Until Christ returns, may God continue building his church through the sin-killing, life-transforming gospel, recovered in the Reformation, which is none other than the gospel of the Lord Jesus.