J. G. Vos
Church reformation according to Scripture is always incomplete on earth.
Ecclesia reformata reformanda est ("The church, having been reformed, is still to be reformed"). This follows from the fact that Scripture is an absolute and perfect standard, while the church at any point in its history on earth is still imperfect and involved in sin and error.
This process of reformation must be continuous until the end of the world. At no point sooner may the church stop and say, "I have arrived. Thus far but no farther!" Only in heaven can the church triumphant say that.
In this process of reformation, there are certain historical stages and certain outstanding landmarks of progress achieved. For instance, the great historic creeds and confessions of the church are such landmarks of progress. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, marks true progress in the reformation of the church up to the time when that confession was formulated.
We may never regard this process as completed in our own day, or at any point in the earthly history of the church. We must always forget the things that are behind and press on to the things that are in the future; we must always strive to apprehend that for which we are apprehended of Christ Jesus. The church's doctrine, worship, government, discipline, missionary activities, educational institutions, publications, and practical life—all these are to be progressively reformed according to Scripture.
Reformation has always been a step-by-step process, and it must necessarily be such. Zealots would attempt to achieve everything at one fell swoop, but they only smash their head against a stone wall. God works by historical process—a gradual, continuous process—and we must conform to God's way of working.
Not only is advance in study of the Scriptures required, beyond the landmarks of the past, but searching self-criticism on the part of the church is called for. The church's subordinate standards must always be subjected to examination and reexamination in the light of Scripture. This is implied in our confession that only Scripture is infallible. If only Scripture is infallible, then everything else must be constantly tested and retested by Scripture.
Not only the church's official standards, but its life, its programs, its activities, its institutions, and its publications must be subjected to a searching self-criticism on the basis of Scripture. These must always be tested and retested in the light of the Word of God. Such self-criticism on the part of the church is the corporate counterpart of the self-examination to which God in his Word calls every individual Christian.
Such self-criticism on the part of the church is difficult. It calls for effort, intelligence, learning, sacrifice, very great humility and self-denial, and absolute honesty. It requires loyalty to Scripture, a loyalty that is willing to go to any length in order to be true to the Word of God—a truly heroic and radical loyalty to Scripture.
Such self-criticism on the part of the church may be embarrassing and even painful. It may mean that the church, like Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, may find itself in By-path Meadow, and will have to retrace its steps humbly and painfully until it is back on the King's Highway again. Such self-criticism on the part of the church may be devastating to the special interests or projects of particular individuals or groups in the church. It may demonstrate that particular features of the church's standards, life, or program are not fully in harmony with the Word of God, and should be reconsidered and brought into harmony with that Word.
For these and similar reasons, self-criticism on the part of the church is often neglected, and even strongly opposed. Those who advocate it or seek to have it undertaken are likely to be represented as extremists, fanatics, enthusiasts, visionaries, troublemakers, and the like. Yet it is by such self-criticism that the reformations of the past have been achieved. Men like Luther, Calvin, Knox, Melville, Cameron, and Renwick were concerned only about the judgment of God in his Word. They were not deterred by the adverse judgments and attitudes of men.
When the church has dared really to look at itself in the mirror of God's Word, in dead earnest, the church has been at its greatest, and has been influential in the world. It has gone forward with new life and vigor. On the other hand, when the church has hesitated or refused to look at itself intently in the mirror of God's Word, it has been weak, stagnant, decadent, ineffective, and uninfluential.
Constant denominational self-criticism on the basis of Scripture is a duty. But is this really taken seriously? How much zeal, how much concern—I will even say, how much tolerance—is there for it today?
There is a constant tendency in every church to regard the present state of affairs as normal and right. Thus, what is in reality mere custom comes to have virtually the force and influence of principle, while matters of principle come to be treated as if they were mere conventions or human customs, having only the authority of usage or popular approval. The sanction of present usage is regarded as sufficient to establish a matter as right, legitimate, or even necessary. And, conversely, the lack of present usage is regarded as sufficient to prove that a matter is wrong and improper. This kind of stagnation, this attitude of regarding the status quo as normal, shuts the door against all true progress in church reformation. For the status quo is always sinful. It is always falling short of the requirements of the Word of God. It is always something less than what God really requires of the church. Since the status quo is sinful, it may never be regarded with complacency—far less may it be regarded as the ideal for the church. It is a sin to absolutize the status quo.
The status quo always needs to be repented of. No matter how fine it may be, it is still sinful and needs to be repented of. To regard the status quo with complacency is one of the greatest sins of the church in our day—a sin which must grieve the Holy Spirit, and a sin which certainly prevents the church from making its true and proper progress in reformation according to Scripture. A church dominated by this idea cannot really move forward. It may indeed slide backward in defection and apostasy. At best it will only move in a fixed circle, always coming back to where it started from.
The churches of America, by and large, have moved in a fixed circle through their past history. We might also say, they have moved in a vicious circle. The pattern has been a slump followed by a revival followed by a slump, and so on. True progress is not made. The best that can be done, it seems, is to manage to get out of one pit after another. Nothing is more prevalent than this kind of stagnation in the church. Nothing is more difficult than to get any feature of the church's structure or activity really examined and reformed in the light of the Word of God.
True progress means building on the foundations laid in the past. But true progress does not mean being held in check by the dead hand of errors and imperfections of the past. There is only one legitimate check on true progress, and that is the check of Scripture itself. The true reformation of the church is a reformation on the basis of Scripture. It is a reformation within the bounds of Scripture, not a reformation beyond Scripture.
Are the church's official agencies, publications, and institutions to reflect a cross section of opinion as it actually exists in the church, like Mark Twain's "English as she is spoke"? Or are they to take their stand on the existing official standards of the church and maintain that line in confronting the public? Or are they to pioneer in denominational self-criticism on the basis of Scripture? Are they to blaze a new trail, going forward into new territory in the light of the Word?
These are difficult and serious questions. The tendency is to bypass and ignore such questions as these. These questions are seldom faced. The tendency is rather to regard the status quo as normal. Or, if not the present status quo, then at any rate the achievements of the past are regarded as normal. If we could just get back to the way things were in "the good old days" and maintain that standard, we are told, then everything would be fine.
But would it? Where have we been? This is 1959. How are we to be excused for having failed to advance beyond our forefathers in understanding the Scriptures? How can we say that the reformation of the church was completed in 1560, in 1638, or even in 1950? What have we been doing since then? Has our talent been buried in a napkin?
It is not difficult to admit that there are some evils in the church which need correction. But the tendency is to say that if we could just get back to the sound basis of a generation or two ago, everything would be just as it should be. What more could anyone ask? We could just hold that line for all time to come. But that would not be doing our God-given duty. Our forefathers reformed the church in their time; God calls us to reform it in our time. We cannot rest on our laurels. We must strike out for ourselves, by faith, on the basis of the Word of God.
We live in a pragmatic age, an age impatient with truth, an age concerned mostly about practical results. It is an age impatient with those who rate truth above results. Our age wants results and is quite willing to believe that figs grow on thistles, if it thinks it sees the figs.
I have heard, when someone sought to bring some feature of the church under the critical judgment of Scripture, the objection that the time was not opportune. "You may be right," the objector would say, "but is this an opportune time to bring up such a matter?" Now, we should realize that truth is always timely, truth is always in order, and that if we wait for an opportune time to bring up truth, that opportune time may never come. That more convenient season may never arrive. Always there will be some reason that can be urged for not undertaking the reformation of the church according to the Word of God. God is the God of truth. He is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Christ is King of the kingdom of truth. To this end was he born, that he might bear witness to the truth. He who is of the truth hears his voice.
The too-ready willingness to accept the status quo as normal is one of the great obstacles in the way of the real reformation and progress of the church today. This attitude is sinful because it is blind to the real sinfulness of the status quo. It fails to realize that the status quo always needs to be repented of, always needs to be forgiven by divine grace, and always needs to be reformed by the church on earth. It fails to realize the truth of the statement of Augustine that every lesser good involves an element of sin!
At bottom, this complacent acceptance of the status quo as normal proceeds from a wrong idea of God, an idea which fails to reckon with his holiness and his purity, and from a wrong idea of Scripture, an idea which fails to realize the absolute character of Scripture as the church's standard.
To place God's truth and honor first, above all other considerations whatsoever, requires great moral consecration. In this matter, it is true of the church as it is of the individual, that he who loses his life for Christ's sake shall find it.
Johannes G. Vos was a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and taught Bible at Geneva College for many years. This article first appeared in Blue Banner Faith and Life, which he established and edited. Although written in 1959, it is just as relevant to today's church as it has ever been. This article, republished in the Banner of Truth, August 1959, is the property of the Synod of the RPCNA and is reprinted here with their kind permission. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2002.
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church