A second and third Reformation…

Posted by on May 31, 2016 in Blog | 4 comments

Just over a decade ago Rick Warren called for a second Reformation. Making a stirring plea at both the Baptist World Alliance Conference and the Willowcreek Leadership Summit, he suggested that whereas the first Reformation was of doctrine, the second needs to be a Reformation of deeds. It was challenging stuff, and a decade later we can see its prophetic power. As we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation (usually dated as 1517), it seems appropriate to join the growing tide of conversations about needed reformations.

Not that Warren’s plea was really heeded – but then prophetic words often aren’t. And some of the quibbles raised against the Saddleback leader were fair. Is it really necessary to create a false antithesis between doctrine and deeds -as though we can choose one or the other? Isn’t it more true to say that right doctrine wisely understood overflows into right actions. Indeed, if it doesn’t, it isn’t right doctrine, even if it is (if that makes sense). The reverse is not necessarily true, and we might hit upon right actions for a wide array of reasons that have nothing to do with sound doctrine.

Arguing about this only misses Warren’s point. In his analysis the greatest challenge which faced the church back in 2005 was its lack of credibility. I doubt that the following decade has caused him to alter his assessment. The church speaks of the transformed lives of its members, but the wider society usually sees an agenda that is barely different from the mainstream. Sadly sometimes the only perceivable difference between the life style of a Christian and someone who is not, is church attendance. And in these days of churchless faith, when many Christians no longer attend church, even that distinctive might be absent.

What might a Reformation of action look like? It would take seriously the biblical principle of incarnation – of being there. Nothing beats getting alongside those who need help. True, it was a messy business is Jesus’ day – and you probably can recall those passages which record the shrill reprimands he faced for mixing with tax collectors, prostitutes and drunkards. The more things change the more they stay the same, and when we get our hands dirty by trying to understand and help in difficult situations, it is not long before the critics come out. Tell me about it. I participated in a conference on gender dysphoria in Canberra last week, and have noted some of the raised and quizzical eyebrows. And that was just a talk fest – not real hands on action. Ah well, such is life…

Valid though Warren’s call for a second reformation is, I would suggest a third is also needed – a reformation of right feeling (or orthopathy, as it is sometimes called). Why this call? It is possible to do the right thing out of a commitment to sound doctrine and duty – and yet to have a heart of stone to the deeper issues at stake. The older brother in the parable of the prodigal son is a classic example of this. He never strayed from his father’s house, and always did what his father asked – but his heart was in another place. It was a place of resentment, judgement and indifference. He did everything right, even though everything inside of him was wrong. He covered it admirably until the day his wayward brother returned and was treated to a feast and a welcome fit for a king. That was when the older brothers veneer was stripped away. In the outburst that followed, the hardness of his heart was quickly exposed.

Now let me not be too harsh. In a media saturated age, compassion fatigue can quickly set in. We hear one horrendous story after another. After a while we can’t take much more in. The media rises to the challenge, and finds even more horrendous stories with which to bombard us. After a while lessor pains seem trivial – and we allow ourselves to gloss over them. The loneliness of an old man who desperately misses his deceased wife no longer moves us – our hearts not sufficiently soft to offer even five minutes to hear the story for a second time. And when we hear the account of those whose lives have fallen apart, it is so much easier to believe that they were their own worst enemy, and that it really was their fault. Believing that lets us off the hook so nicely. But so what if it was their own fault? Is their pain any less real?

A reformation of right feeling would see us need to cultivate empathy. But how can we empathise unless we see (and see very deeply) that we have been recipients of God’s grace because we needed grace. If God hadn’t first lavished unconditional love upon us, where would we be? We are saved by God’s grace and by God’s grace alone.

Hold on, doesn’t this bring us back to the first Reformation?

Not such a trivial insight that. Understand Luther correctly, and you have a reformation of doctrine, of actions and of feeling. Roll on the Reformation…






  1. Haha, nice writing, I enjoyed the twist.

  2. Yes indeed… An emotionless, stoic adherence to doctrine or works is seriously deficient!

  3. Very true Brian. God does call us to have a soft heart to be there for others in a real and personal way, not just financial.
    Nevertheless I know from personal experience that as a young Christian my heart was very open to help others to be the conduit so to speak as God’s hands. As I walked further in life and was bruised and battered by life experiences I found there was not always a helping hand or a loving heart to help me; and my heart began to harden, I still tried to be aware of where God desired me to be for others, acknowledging that He was present in my life for me and that was not always the case for many that He had me minister too. The years wore on and the hardships and hurt increased not only by non Christians but by those I saw as friends, as family and as happens even so called good Christian people. The hurt hardened my heart yet God continued to call me to have a heart for others – how difficult that became, as it does for many of us. Nevertheless God asked me to forgive those who hurt me, those who were not there for me, I tried sometimes successfully, sometimes with great pain – and in time I believe that I forgave those who had hurt me. I remember well Rick Warrens teaching and what often became of the practical outworking of it. It is not by works that we are saved but by Grace. However as a body of believers works and grace go hand in hand. I have found that many who give their time without the right heart attitude and boundaries fall by the side of the road, and there is often no Good Samaritan to pick them up – so they get up lick their wounds and the works stop and the wrong mindset begins.
    So we are back to your article the world still needs a reformation of deeds – this can only occur if Christ is in the centre of it – man can not accomplish this task alone as we do not have the emotional strength to do this alone.
    Thank you for your article, on a very important requirement of Christians living out their lives, its all about running the race and finishing the race having lived as God has asked us to.

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