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The De-formation of the Church and the Need for Re-formation

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The church’s reformation is not about fragmentation, but a way forward to unity around that which is central to the church, around Christ and him crucified.

This is an excerpt from the introduction of “Reclaiming the Reformation:Christ for You in Community” by Magnus Petersson (1517 Publishing, 2021).

When I emphasize the church’s need for reformation in this book, I’m not pointing at any particular context. When the Reformation occurred during the late Middle Ages, the point was obviously directed against the Roman Catholic Church, but today the message of the Reformation is directed to the same degree at Protestant ranks; this is a message that the whole evangelical church family needs to hear together. This means historical church bodies, evangelical denominations, as well as non-denominational networks. To you Lutherans in particular—high church as well as low church—I write as a former pastor of a modern Pentecostal church who has discovered the riches that belong to you but seem to be way too often neglected by you. Some of you even seem ashamed of your reformational heritage and desperately seek other paths for renewal of the church rather than those of the Reformation. I write to my brothers and sisters in the evangelical, charismatic, and non-denominational camps, as one coming from their own ranks, yet as one who has made a pilgrimage ad fontes through the bountiful history and traditions of theology and ecclesiology and discovered irreplaceable riches that our churches may take advantage of. The church’s reformation is not about fragmentation, but a way forward to unity around that which is central to the church, around Christ and him crucified. So, to be protestant, even if I personally do not like the term, does not primarily mean to protest against something but to be pro, thus, for something. The Reformation’s chief glory is nothing but the gospel, that wonderful message concerning undeserved grace that flows out from the cross of Christ. To reform the church means that this joyous message should always stand in the center of the church and shape her worship, message, and mission. Simply put, it means putting the evangel back into the evangelical church, reclaiming the common Christian (apostolic and catholic) ground, a return to and a reestablishment of evangelical catholicity. However, to restore the church’s center in the spirit of the Reformation means, now as it did then, that a person must ask certain critical questions, point out abuses and failures, and call people to repentance, back to Christ. Therefore, the first step to personal and congregational reformation is to recognize the deformation of the church that has occurred and continues to occur because of the reality of sin.

We live in a fallen world where everything expires. Our bodies and minds decay, hearing decreases, and vision weakens. We all find ourselves on a downhill slope and are constantly surrounded by destructive forces. Spiritual decay has been a recurring element among God’s people since the days of the Old Covenant and throughout the whole history of the church. God’s people stray from faith, and the central truths that were formerly held in high regard are obscured, distorted, and, finally, denied. We are all sinners with an inherent distortion that constantly lures us the wrong way. We are like cars with skewed alignments that veer toward the ditch or oncoming traffic if the driver does not have a firm grip on the wheel. This is what we call original or inherited sin. All of us from birth are deformed by a deep mistrust of God’s goodness and are drawn to that which opposes God. Sin’s deepest meaning is that men have lost their trust in God and have tried to commandeer the driver’s seat because they fear that life will not be as good as it could be if they do not take control themselves. So, the innermost essence of sin does not deal with immorality even if such things are always the consequence of a loss of trust in God.

This inherited sin remains with us even after we have come to faith in Christ, and it is something we must battle for the rest of our lives. In the words of Luther, this righteousness that God bestows upon us and that the gospel proclaims to us is an “alien righteousness” (iustitia aliena), namely, Christ’s own righteousness. It does not consist of an actual or inner righteousness that replaces our sinful nature, but it comes to us from another One. It comes to us as a gift that is completely independent of us, from the outside. When we are justified, or declared righteous by grace through faith, it is not because of anything we have achieved through our good works or personal piety, but because of something done for us and imputed to us. Sin is not counted against us when we live by faith in Christ, but our ingrained distrust of God will remain until the day of resurrection. Sin causes us to be curved in on ourselves. Among other things, this shows itself in the inclination to trust more in our own reason than God’s promise. Priests, pastors, and church leaders do not escape this sinful reality either. The fear of failure, the striving after the recognition of men, and the desire for success in ministry gives a lot of fuel to our inherent affections. Do we, even in the midst of our work for the church, dare trust that God’s Word is sufficient and powerful to carry out God’s work in our time? Do we trust that Christ is present as he has promised through the means he has instituted? This is an important question that we constantly need to ask ourselves.

Just as it is with us individual believers, the church as a whole does not need to do anything in particular to be deformed. Just being in and living in this world means that we are put under the pressure and influence of the spiritual powers of the day. The different powers that are active in our contemporary setting strive to form us according to this world and its mentality. Perhaps today we are bombarded more than at any other time by different messages that arouse our desires, shape our ambitions, and guide our thoughts. The church may exist, if it only adapts itself according to the ruling norms and doesn’t make any claim that can be conceived of as alien or offensive. The problem is that the spirit of the day speaks so clearly in the lan- guage of our hearts, because our hearts are deformed by the power of sin. For this reason, the Christian life cannot proceed from the often-heard cliché that a man should “listen to his heart”—it is pre- cisely the heart that is the problem (Matt 15:19)! The deformation is ongoing, so reformation is constantly needed, a return to the center and core of the faith. Martin Luther saw this clearly. His first thesis of the 95 that he nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg 500 years ago was: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

This is an excerpt from the introduction of “Reclaiming the Reformation:Christ for You in Community” by Magnus Persson (1517 Publishing, 2021), xv-xviii.