Champions of Reformation
During my days at the University of Ghana, I became the executive secretary of the Adventist student fellowship on campus. The doctrines and details of Adventism were rather new to me—not so much the Sabbath, although I had only recently grasped the biblical foundations of that doctrine. Rather, the greatest new realization for me was what could only be described as a pervading sense of “difference.”
I sensed that I was not a conventional Christian, and would not be seen as such by Christians of other denominations. In truth, I was quite satisfied with this. I wanted no part in tongues-speaking, infant baptism, and other religious absurdities. I was an Adventist, after all.
Any non-Adventist traditions I liked were rather old. For instance, I respected—even liked—Martin Luther, John Huss, Calvin, Zwingli, and the Wesley brothers. They were wrong about Sabbath, but hey, if they’d had enough time…
Of course, this early religious pickiness was a direct result of the education one receives early on in Adventism. I was born an Adventist, but had wandered away, and was only now learning what Adventism was about. Like G.K. Chesterton, I had sailed around the world looking for truth, and had returned to find it on familiar shores.
The truth was clear to me: Adventism was the most biblically advanced end-product of the great Protestant Reformation. I sat with a few privileged others, not quite on the summit, but at least on the highest rung of the theological ladder. If other denominations had not corrupted the reformative process, they wouldn’t have rejected such obvious advances in the quest for truth as the Sabbath and the state of the dead.
Related: What are the differences between Adventism and other Christian denominations? Do they matter?
This schooling was both direct (i.e. baptismal class, etc.) and informal. It was implied in the tone with which even passing remarks were made about other denominational beliefs and practices. It was implied in the unstated condemnation that simply stating the truth made against the blatant theological errors of others.
Like Israel, which had abandoned Abraham along the path of faith, and instead crossed over to ethnocentrism and works, these denominations had branched off from the path of sound doctrine to the deluding highways of dogmatism. It was Adventists—such as myself—who had discovered the old, beaten, narrow paths, and who were following the trail towards truth. We were the champions of the Reformation.
Personal from the Beginning
Nine years on, I have learned a great deal about my own faith, as well as the faith of others. I’ve learned to see things from the perspective of others, even if I choose not to focus on them for too long. I’ve learned to truly understand people, even if I disagree with them. If anything, my convictions about what is fundamentally true have been strengthened over time. However, I’ve also learned to be a little less brazen in my attitude towards those who hold other convictions.
Let me explain why.
One of the early mistakes I made in my understanding of the Reformation was that I believed it was an institutional phenomenon. After all, it was a movement. It was hundreds, thousands, then millions of people leaving the mother church and changing the religious, social, and philosophical landscape of Europe—and subsequently the world. It was the institutional reorganization of various companies of Christians based on location, and the influence of significant leaders in those locations, such as Calvin in Switzerland and Luther in Germany. In my understanding, the Reformation was patently a church-level movement.
Of course, I was aware of the personal struggles of people such as Martin Luther, and the personal sacrifices of Wycliffe and certainly Tyndale. However, this personal dimension of the Reformation only came to the fore for me more recently, as I came to the realization that, in like manner to Christ’s message in Palestine 2,000 years ago, the Reformers presented an argument that was persuasive, first on a personal level, and then on an institutional one.
Luther, for example, battled with an implacable sense of guilt for sin. He was uncertain whether he could truly experience forgiveness, and was tormented by the idea that he could not avoid constantly offending and blaspheming God. If sin led to death, he thought, then he was doomed to die—hated by God and upbraided by the devil. He said, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
If Luther preached forcefully afterwards that “the just shall live by faith,” it was not because he’d seen this truth for the first time in Scripture, but because he had experienced it’s true liberating in his life.
Wycliffe and Luther’s call to righteousness by faith in Jesus must first be accepted personally. Furthermore, just like the Reformers themselves, each person must travel from the calmness of ignorance and self-deception to the turbulent realization of personal sin and guilt, at which point we must each deal with the internal conflict between our aspiration for peace in Christ and our desire of self to survive the religious adventure.
No Christian who belongs to any denomination, Adventist or otherwise, has truly experienced the Reformation unless they have experienced this internal struggle. In a sense, the Reformation creeds of sola scriptura, sola fidei, and sola gratia are just as descriptive as they are prescriptive. The truth, power, and sufficiency of Scripture can only be experienced and attested to by those who have been changed by it. The exclusivity of faith in the work of salvation cannot be apprehended unless faith is exercised without works. The depth and beauty of the grace of Christ cannot be experienced from the outside, except at the point of thorough repentance and conversion.
We understand, therefore, that the Reformation is founded on principles that are designed to be experienced, and not merely accepted: the solas must be real as well as true. Luther and other Reformers wrote and preached as much from personal experience as they did from the discovery of theoretical doctrinal truths. The Reformation has been a personal affair from the very beginning.
This is is why I have become more patient with Christians from other Protestant denominations. I have recognized that their systems are powerless to change unless they themselves change, and that true heart reformation is more important than which church they currently attend. In addition, I recognize that the same is true for those within my own church. Any number of factors can determine which church one attends, and within Adventism itself, it is true that not all of us are experiencing the Reformation in our individual lives. What’s more, I realize the same is true for me.
Faith is not an event limited to the point of our conversion; rather it must be a constant feature of our lives. Whenever my faith wavers and self-sufficiency sets in, I consider it a personal repudiation of the principles of the Reformation. When this happens, not only is faith compromised, but also the Scripture that declares it and the grace that affords it. It is a terrifying realization; however, I thank God for the godly grief that leads to repentance.
The Real Legacy is Experience
If the principles of the Reformation are to be maintained, they must be maintained as an ongoing experience—first of the Christian, and then of the church. If not, society will maintain these principles as entries in the books of historians, and nothing more.
Even today, recent ecumenical advancements between the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations bear out this risk. We stand to lose a great deal if we allow the solas to become merely the expired truths of a bygone era, and we cannot preserve them through preaching alone.
Christ must continue to be the real Savior of real people. He must continue to be the only necessary mediator between men and God. He must continue to be the only object of our faith, and the only dispenser of grace—first to me, and then to those I can reach. Failing this, I have no witness. And how shall they hear without a preacher?
Yes, the Reformation was in large part an institutional affair, leading to church formation and denominationalism. However, its roots have always been personal. As we continue along the path of increasing light as a church, it is necessary that we remember this.
Over the past few decades, those who, along with Adventists, share the name of Protestant have become increasingly willing to declare the protest over. From the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification made by Catholics and Lutherans in 1999, to the ongoing efforts towards a shared Eucharist between the two churches, it would indeed appear that the foundations of the five-hundred-year–old movement are shaky.
As Adventists, we have historically rejected such unguarded ecumenism, preferring instead division from the rest of Christianity as the cost of our fidelity to the Bible. It is not that we desire to be divided, but that we instead desire to be true to Scripture.
Back in my days at the University of Ghana, I was rather incensed when it was suggested by the university’s chaplaincy board that all Christian fellowships, ours included, participate in summer evangelistic programs. Our fellowship was a part of the chaplaincy board by obligation, and, as executive secretary, I represented Adventists on that board, along with the fellowship’s president. How could we assist in an effort that would preach a gospel other than the one we believed? How could we aid in the dissemination of a gospel that trivialized the law of God while emphasizing dubious spiritualistic and ecstatic experiences?
I was similarly concerned when the fellowship choir was drafted into the university’s mass choir, which was obliged to perform at university gatherings, which were scheduled almost exclusively on the Sabbath.
You might argue I was way too fanatical and idealistic in those early days. Perhaps you’re right. However, one thing is certain to me now: there is a far more insidious form of ecumenism we can very easily subscribe to.
While Catholics Protestants are reformulating doctrinal positions to converge theologically, Christians everywhere, Adventists included, are not reformulating their experience to match whatever doctrines they espouse. For Protestant Christians, this means we can converge in two ways. Firstly, we can converge on the grounds that the doctrines which divided us from Catholicism yesterday no longer do today. However, we can also converge by living lives in which those doctrines have no practical relevance in our lives, except for formally classifying us under the prestigious epithet of Protestantism. If the latter happens, the former is not even necessary.
Yes, denominational ecumenism is prophetically significant (see Great Controversy, pg. 588), but within the grand scheme of the great controversy, this is a far more sinister form of ecumenism, in my view. In the end, what more is the Reformation than a call to primitive godliness? And is it not within this vein that yet another great Reformation is promised?
Before the final visitation of God’s judgments upon the earth there will be among the people of the Lord such a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times. The Spirit and power of God will be poured out upon His children. At that time many will separate themselves from those churches in which the love of this world has supplanted love for God and His word. (Ellen White, Maranatha, pg. 169)
What else is described here, if not a last great reformation of God’s people and church? Revival and Reformation, then, is the great call of our time. May we find the boldness and persistence to seek it truly, and may God grant it graciously.