You Can’t Reform What You Won’t Touch

I’ve loved all the special services, conferences, blog posts, and books for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation these past weeks. I’ve revelled in remembering stories of Luther’s heroics, hearing messages on the doctrines of grace, and being stirred to keep carrying the torch of reform. Yet I wanted to point out one important truth about Biblical reform we need to keep in mind.

You can’t reform what you won’t touch.

What do I mean? Individual, congregational, or cultural reform does not occur simply by lobbing doctrinal cannonballs from the pulpit to the pews or, worse yet, from one computer screen across cyberspace toward the screen of an intended target. Rather, you have to get messy and touch what you desire to see changed.

Recently Rebecca VanDoodewaard commented, “Sixteenth-century Europe didn’t change because three or four intelligent men wrote new theological works.” She wrote that in the context of explaining how the women of the Reformation worked hard by raising godly families, opening their homes to strangers, conducting poverty relief, promoting theological education, and influencing politics. With hearts and minds full of Biblical teaching, these women put their hands and feet to work with the busyness of going forward and touching people in ways necessary for kingdom service. Many of our male Reformed heroes did the same. For example, Calvin not only wrote The Institutes but instituted the Bourse Française (The French Fund) to care for and retrain vocationally the thousands of immigrants pouring out of France into Geneva. He not only wrote about reformation. He practiced it.

I bring this up because in our camp it is easy to hold up high a banner we might call “Reformed Triumphalism.” This banner represents those who talk proudly of being Reformed and promote its doctrines, but remain aloof from living out these doctrines with people in concrete ways. Those waving this banner often seem more interested in taking people back to the way they perceive things were in the sixteenth century rather than applying Reformed truths and living to this century. It’s as if they read the word “Reformed,” noted it ends with “-ed,” and concluded that being Reformed means living in the past.

Examples of this abound. Those who add volumes of Puritan works to their libraries but who never visit the sick or imprisoned (like many of those books would tell them to do). Those busy building their web presence with Calvin quotes but who do not have a presence in their local community. Those who talk about reforming nations but who do not share Christ with their neighbor. Those who insist on using Bible translations written in the English of past centuries and feel superior to those who use modern ones. Those who are so strict about requirements for the Lord’s Supper that virtually no poor saint comes to the table. Those who readily call a preacher an Arminian for pleading to people to believe on Christ. Those who may speak of the mercy of God to sinners but view works of mercy by the church as promoting a social gospel.

Reformation, like swimming, takes more than just standing on the side talking about it. You have to jump into the pool where other people are. Yet does that not remind us of a simple truth about the gospel? The Son of God became man, and took on his own person our sins at Calvary. He touched sinners, and they touched him. As a result, God’s kingdom came in power. In our own day, as the 500th anniversary begins to fade behind us, let us remember that we not only need the doctrines of the Reformation. We need the spirit of it as well.


  1. William Duncan November 7, 2017 at 6:09 am #

    Piercing words. I pray God will cause me to remember them, and be a doer, and not just a hearer. Thanks.

  2. Gary Scott McNamee November 7, 2017 at 10:09 am #

    When I go fishing, If i catch anything I have to decide if i am going to keep it or not. Is there enough meat on this fish to spend my time and effort cleaning it, is there enough to eat? It is the same way with reading blog articles. Some I read and just go on, some I read and keep. This one I will keep and eat. I am in tears for the myself and my church.

  3. Laura Fabrycky November 8, 2017 at 5:39 am #

    This is excellent.

  4. Adam Brink November 9, 2017 at 8:39 am #

    Thank you for this article! I was encouraged by the emphasis on practical love to adorn the doctrine of God!

    However, this article uncharitably represents the views and practices of people with differing views, practices, and even Bible translations. As such, it ironically violates one of the stronger points of the article.

    As someone who used the Authorized translation of the Scriptures, I do not believe that this article charitably represents my view, or that of any other brothers and sisters I know and love who also use the AV.

    In my 20+ years as a Reformed Christian, I have met a handful of believers that match the description of this article. As such, I believe this article does not do justice to those “on the outside.”

    Every blessing in Christ!

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