Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Be Reformed and Keep Reforming

Eko Ong

Hebrews 4:14Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. … 10:35Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37For,
        “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”
39But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (ESV)
As we look back, how do we tend to remember ourselves? Do we treasure our accomplishments? Do we regret some missed opportunities or broken relationships? Yet here we are, living our lives as little soldiers of Christ. We are busy with our lives – be it our ministry, family, career, or study. In the midst of our hectic lives, we do not “have time” to pause and reflect upon our spiritual growth. I am not advocating an extra-critical evaluation. Nor am I suggesting a heart bleeding self-apology. It’s just an honest self-assessment before the Lord of our souls – rejoicing in where we grow and admitting what we lack.

Although we are swamped with our daily chores, our Lord is good. He gives us corporate wisdom to celebrate certain days on which we may perform spiritual self-check-ups. So enter the Reformation Day 2012! It is saddening that many American evangelical Christians quickly associate October 31 with the Halloween yet have no slightest clue what happened on that day in 1517. Moreover, they think that Martin Luther of the Protestant Reformation was a 20th century American civil right hero. Ironically, the Reformation is the heritage of all evangelicals. Many things may be said regarding the Reformation. Yet one thing for sure, the Reformation was a display of evangelical endurance. Imagine yourself as an anxious and a borderline mental 16th century Augustinian monk, previously concerned about your eternal destiny every single minute until a moment of divine epiphany from reading the epistle of Romans, having nailed his 95 theses against the sale of indulgences on the door of the church of Wittenberg, then having to face the church magisterium including the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and finally excommunicated from the Church he loved. Needless to say, what Luther had was no one’s cup of tea! Yet Luther, known for his “Here I Stand” speech, endured and maintained his evangelical view of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone and Sola Scriptura. He looked upon such grace, and thus attained unfailing confidence in the evangelical doctrines. He then looked in anticipation and faith onto what the Lord will do through him. So he endured. God laid down the foundation for the Protestant Reformation through Luther. Then others such as Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, and Knox kept built upon it. Later, Luther translated the Scripture into the vernacular German, continuing the legacy of John Wycliffe. The Protestant Reformation is indeed a chain reaction of which impact has not stopped until today.
What an arduous process, yet majestic! So perhaps we can sit and enjoy the fruits of their labors. After all, they were our forerunners. And we should stop fighting for things. We are now more civilized and peaceful, aren’t we? The toiling day is over. Yes? No, absolutely not! Christian living is a pilgrimage, a journey, a “restless rest”. In fact that is one of the main themes in the epistle of Hebrews which was written to the first-century Christians (most likely in Rome) who started to undergo severe persecution. The above passage reminds us that we ought to confidently keep moving forward with endurance and be faithful to our calling and the promise of eternal life. It is not with our own strength as we are fallible and easily breakable. Instead, the power comes to us as the children of God. The person and work of Jesus Christ are our launching pads and the Holy Spirit is our fuel. Christ is our high priest who keeps interceding for us (Heb 7:24-27, Rm 8:34). We have been redeemed in Christ. That’s who we are. We shall strain forward (Phil 3:13-14) with the blessed hope that we will become like Christ (Rm 8:29). Yes, often times we feel weary. There are so many distractions, holding us back from progressing further in our spiritual lives. Perhaps we are discouraged and starting to lose heart as we serve God. Yet the author of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, encourages us with affirmation and strong exhortation. The Greek word for ‘to encourage’ (parakalein) also means ‘to urge’ or ‘to exhort’. Our postmodern consumer-oriented culture often associates encouragement with therapeutic speech which is imbued with comforting words. They make us feel cozy and eventually numbed. Yes, we should encourage in love. But affirmation must be accompanied with exhortation. We have Christ as our high priest, thank God for his grace. So: “Hold fast to our confession”, “Do not throw away our confidence”, “Endure!”, “Do not shrink back lest we will be destroyed!” Now some may be quick to theologize: “Hey, we are among the elect, we won’t be destroyed regardless of what we do! The warning is hypothetical”. Well, be careful when we are tempted to think that way. Don’t we ever treat biblical warning hypothetical! Let’s take it seriously and act upon it! If one takes biblical warning lightly (God will forgive and accept me unconditionally … I don’t need to change although it would be nice … I’ll settle with an entry-level Christianity since there are other things I need to do now), either he has a false assurance of faith or he is storing up divine discipline for himself. Think of those tough warnings as God’s providence for making our calling and election sure (2 Pet 1:10) – if taken wholeheartedly! So, “Keep serving God, don’t give up”, “Don’t quit telling people about Christ”, “Don’t lose heart when we are stumbled in our sanctification, repent and bounce back”, “Be faithful, endure to the end, hit the finish line”.  
Having reflected upon ourselves as individuals, it is fitting for us to start thinking about the body of Christ. After all, this was what happened to Luther. The spark came when he was worried for his personal salvation. At the end, he was used by God to reform his church, the true Israel, the bride of Christ. We will do well to remember, as Dr. Gaffin wisely articulated, that the gospel of Christ is indeed centered on our union with him. From there, all the spiritual blessings such as justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification flow. It is a present yet at the same time an eschatological reality. Having been united with him, we are also united with others who are united with him. In Christ we are one body, members one of another (Rm 12:4-5).  So how do we progress as a corporate? While we may grow individually, do we take part in serving the body of Christ? Do we have genuine fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ? For those of us who are leaders or leaders-to-be, do we seek to please the Lord or men? Do we compromise our theology for the sake of “church growth”? Do we cater to their demands instead of their needs?
As a Reformed Christian, I take pride in our solid theology and won’t hesitate to rank it first among all theological systems. Yet it is not without faults. Often times I found others mislabeling Reformed theology to be cold and mechanistic. While I believe a large part of it was a product of consistent and accumulated misunderstanding, I often find that we are at fault. Reformed Christians stress the intellectual aspect of our faith, the doctrines. As such, we tend to think that we have arrived at the endpoint in terms of theological orthodoxy thereby hesitating to be refined and sharpened. Even worse we often neglect to demonstrate our affection and applications of the very doctrines we hold dear. Yet to be reformed is also to keep reforming. We have an infallible foundation, the very Word of God. On top of that the saints, including the Reformers, erected our theological pillars. But the building project is not over. We are still pilgrims. It is untrue that we get everything right and other Christians don’t. It is untrue that demonstrating our practical love to our fellow believers and those who are not in Christ is secondary to our intellectual devotion. Keeping the Good News only for ourselves is self-contradictory since any good news is meant to be shared with others.
Let us mark our spiritual journey with a milestone on the 2012 Reformation Day. Reflecting upon and humbling ourselves before God’s Word, how should we respond? There are so many things to do for weak vessels like us. But remember that it is God who works in us (Phil 2:12-13). Let us be obedient and faithful, be reformed and keep reforming! Having full assurance in the author and perfecter of our faith, we participate in the ongoing building project together with the saints of all ages. We look forward to the consummation of God’s glory which is beyond words although the inspired writer captured it quite well:
Hebrews 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (ESV)

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