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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Always Being Reformed
October 27, 2011

October 31 is not only Halloween – it is also Reformation Day. This year it marks the 494th anniversary of the date Martin Luther published his 95 theses objecting to Rome’s sale of indulgences. Luther did not intend thereby to start a new church, only to engage the church in a scholarly debate on the appropriateness of promising special divine favor on people who gave money to the church.

When we celebrate the Reformation, let us be clear what we are and what we are not honoring. Luther and Calvin, the two greatest figures of the Protestant Reformation, never sought to start new churches – and they never ceased trying to heal the divisions in the church that the Reformation had unleashed. Reformation, for them, was an act, not of defiance to the existing church, but of hearing anew and being transformed by the Word of God revealed in Scripture. That is what we honor on Reformation Day.

The sixteenth-century Reformation included not just those who departed from the Roman church. As part of the Reformation, a strong movement of spiritual revitalization took root and flourished also among the Roman Catholics in what came to be called the “Counter-Reformation.”

“Reformation” is not first of all about our challenging defective church institutions. Indeed, the Reformed understanding of “Reformation” is that it is something done to us, rather than by us.

A saying emerged in the early generations of the Reformed churches: “The Reformed church is always being reformed according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.” We still have that language in the Book of Order (F-2.02) The Latin phrase translated “always being reformed” – semper reformanda – is in the passive voice, not the active. The slogan underscores that reform is something we receive, not something we do. The Spirit does the reforming, in accordance with the Word of God.

The church never comes to the end of its need for Reformation in the power of the Spirit. In every generation the church has needed to be cleansed and refitted for its mission. We ought to be neither surprised nor dismayed when we see need for reform in the church. It just goes with the territory of being “church” – always has been, always will be.

Still, it is necessary from time to time to speak against ecclesiastical malpractice. Jesus didn’t let hypocrisy in the religious establishment go unchecked, nor should we. Still, no matter how hard he was on religious authorities, he never abandoned Temple Judaism (though there were plenty of other contemporary renewal movements to which he could have turned).

Each year on our church calendar, the Sunday before October 31 is denoted “Reformation Sunday.” It is a day to celebrate not the splintering of the church, but the power of God’s Spirit always to transform us through a fresh encounter with the Word of God. We live best into our Reformed heritage when we dust off our Bibles and prayerfully listen together to the Word of Holy Scripture, realizing all the while that the Bible is not an instrument in our hand with which to straighten others out, but an instrument of the Spirit to straighten us out. We go to Scripture not for ammunition to use against others, but for transformation by the renewing of our own minds. May the Spirit be mightily at work in us, to reform us according to God’s Word, so we can more faithfully bear witness to the Good News revealed in Jesus Christ.

Eager for the Spirit to reform us,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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