Church China Roundtable: The Reformation and Me

CP Editor’s note: Church China is one of the most widely read Christian publications in mainland China and is an excellent glimpse into the life and discussions of the urban Chinese house church. Its bi-monthly magazine focuses on different topics concerning the church and theology and is widely read among house church pastors and lay leaders. This article has been translated and republished with permission. If you read Mandarin, you can access the original article here.

Church China Editor: How should we understand the Reformation in our life of faith today? How to understand the spirit of reformation through the Reformers and their works, and furthermore, how to apply these in the preaching and pastoring of churches today? We invited five pastors who have taken an interest in Reformation theology to freely discuss these questions. They first shared their own story of “encountering” the Reformation – that is in what areas the Reformation has influenced their faith and ministry. Next, they shared what they have observed and felt through real life ministry and theological studies – the issues that need to be addressed when the church today “encounters” the Reformation.

This article is divided into two parts. The first part is titled “The Reformation and Me” and raises five topics of discussion together with the sharing of personal stories. The second part is titled “Five Questions for Churches Today Based on the Spirit of the Reformation.” It forms a preliminary discussion and response to the five issues raised.

The Reformation and Me

Timothy: When I first became acquainted with the Reformation, I read Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will no less than two times. However, at that time I did not grasp the whole concept of the Reformation. Regarding justification by faith, I merely accepted the conclusion, but was not motived to study it more in-depth. So why have I attempted to learn more about the Reformation? One reason is that we come to know true doctrine through the heritage passed down by God’s people. Therefore, I also hope to understand how Christian doctrines are passed down, through a renewed understanding of the Reformation, as well as the heritage that followed it. Another reason is that the Reformation attempted to reform the Roman Catholic church of its day, and eventually to separate from it. On the other hand, based on the documents and trends I have studied, it appears that the church today is trying to return to a unity with the Roman Catholic church. Thus, I feel it is necessary to understand the causes for the separation back then, and through them to see how we today, as the “descendants of the Reformation,” should understand the trends and development of contemporary churches as a whole.

I think the impact of the Reformation on modern evangelical churches is quite clearly on the decline. Putting aside for a moment the main points and actual content of the theology of the Reformation, the Reformation had two clear external characteristics: the first was controversy, and the second was protest based on debate over all the details of doctrine, as well as separation from the Roman Catholic church. However, these two characteristics are both being increasingly neglected today. The weakening of the debate over doctrine is not an insistence on protest, but an attempt to unify with the Roman Catholic church.

Church China Editor: Should we attempt to downplay the Reformation today and lean toward a unity with the Roman Catholic church? What are the hidden dangers involved?

Duo Yan: Before my conversion, my impression of Martin Luther was that he was a reformer who brought about German culture – starting with Martin Luther’s reformation, Germans started to have a self-awareness in culture. Furthermore, through Martin Luther, they started to properly speak German. As a Christian, my first contact with the Reformation was interestingly through a heretical book. There were three things in the book related to the Reformation. One was scripture reading. The book quoted something said by Martin Luther, which I wrote down in my devotional notebook. It was, “Do not ever think you can understand scripture based on your own cleverness. You must be taught by the author of the Bible himself, the Holy Spirit. …You should believe me, because you know that I have practical experience in this area.” This quote led me to pray each time before and after I read scripture. Another issue was regarding freedom. The book said that because the Reformation discovered the Bible and also discovered the freedom that God has given people through the gospel, it took away the oppression of the Roman Catholic church that made scripture inaccessible to people. The third issue was regarding purity – that the Reformation sought to purge all the man-made traditions from the life of the church and daily life.


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Later when I studied in seminary, I began to read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It helped me to form a holistic understanding of the doctrine of the Bible. I knew that these were all correct; however, these correct doctrines did not motivate me.

My genuine understanding and internalization of Reformation began in 2002. At that time, a professor of Christian doctrinal history was lecturing anew on the Reformation of Martin Luther. He emphasized that Luther established the foundation of correcting the faith of the church, and compared the results of the Reformation with the popular beliefs held today. I started to form an innate discernment for theology. There are three areas that made the deepest impression on me. First was Martin Luther’s methodology for prayer, spiritual exercise, meditation, and the theology of the cross. Second was the emphasis on the actions of God. This point touched me very much. My professor said that we often emphasize people turning to God, but the most amazing thing in redemptive history is not human beings returning to God; rather, it is God establishing atonement for the sake of “returning.” Through atonement God returned to humankind. This is the essence of Jesus’ work – he turns God from being wrathful against us into one who saves us, declaring us righteous based on Jesus’ atonement. The key is that God has returned to us. Third, my professor clearly distinguished the difference between Martin Luther’s justification by faith and the Catholic church’s justification by faith; the difference between imputed justification and infused justification. Through his careful analysis, we could see that these two theologies of justification by faith are fundamentally different. This clarified for me the ambiguous parts of the theology of justification by faith.

Since then, the work of Martin Luther that has helped and influenced me the most is the Bondage of the Will. I realize that there was a profound concern in the Reformation regarding saving faith – the concern was not social, not cultural, not political, or even about holy living, but a concern for life, a concern for salvation. I must insist that the lack of this concern is one of the great differences between today’s church and the church in the time of the Reformation. In this regard, we are even worse than the Catholic church at that time. The Catholics at the time were concerned about this issue, but their answer was wrong.  However today we are not even concerned about this question, and so make the correct answers fall in vain.

In Martin Luther’s theology, I also learned that the Bible is God’s word and is alive. In the past, from the perspective of exegesis, I understood the concept of “the word of God is action,” but I did not know exactly how the gospel acts and how it forms the entry and starting point to many truths of the Bible. Martin Luther emphasized how the Holy Spirit works through the word, and how God creates truth through actions and establishes truth through speaking. This renewed my understanding of the gospel to be “the living word of God.” Martin Luther taught me that the gospel is not our preaching regarding God’s action. The gospel itself is God’s action.

In addition, for more than ten years as a pastor, I have had anxiety regarding the decisive reality of truth for Christians. Is it visible and measurable in this world, shared by Christians and non-Christians? Or is it invisible, impossible to touch and understand – a reality that only belongs to those who believe the gospel? Is this reality transcendent or is it common to the experience of all people? In the study of Martin Luther’s writings, the answer to this question became clear. True reality is by faith, not by seeing. It is a reality that is in the gospel that is entered into by faith. For example, what is the church? You can say that the church is a community which shares a common set of beliefs in accordance to a certain covenant, having a common pattern of behavior, and so also having rights and responsibilities common to society. You can also ignore these, and see only how the church is created as a result of God’s actions, and then continuously grown by God’s actions, deriving its life and worth from God’s actions. This is a very different way of thinking, and I think the formation of such a transcendent understanding of the life of faith came with the Reformation of Martin Luther.

In this process, those correct answers for theology which I read and took for granted earlier in the Institutes of the Christian Religion now became alive. I often say that Calvinists should read Martin Luther for Calvinism to become a living Calvinism. Calvin himself also read Martin Luther, and in fact almost completely copied several critical points from Luther for the explanation of some issues. Indeed, Calvin was gifted in organizing, clarifying, and sorting out the ideas. But because he lacked a sense of protest, he lacked that dynamic feeling one gets from reading Luther. Therefore, I think the reason that the powerful doctrines of the Reformation cause no stir in our hearts is because we receive it without the driving force that made Calvin so excited. If we imitate the Reformers and turn to Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel, as well as the reconfirmation and reorganization of Christian doctrines, then these doctrines will also be much alive to us.

Church China Editor: What is the core spirit of the Reformation? Will the church today still be concerned about the core issues that the original Reformers were concerned about?

Waqi: Regarding the question of “the Reformation and me,” I think of two aspects. One is how I came to encounter the good news according to the Reformation in my conversion process; the other is my encounter with and reflection on Reformed theology. In fact, these two aspects are difficult to separate, because theological reflection and my own experience of conversion and calling was a mutually forming process.

First of all, my genuine realization of the gospel according to the Reformation was the time when I came to understand “justification.” I remember early in my conversion, I felt the struggle with sin deeply. I kept committing the same sin over and again, which pained me very much. How could I ever come back to God? After each time sinning, I felt deeply that Jesus died for such a loathsome, dirty sinner like me. He shed his blood for me, so that through him I could “shamelessly” come back to God and pray for God’s mercy. This was very important to me. I sinned, but on the contrary, God gave me grace on the basis of Christ and did not punish me as I expected. This the strong impact that the gospel made on me early in my conversion.

Soon after, the church I attended launched into Reformation theology marked by predestination. It also launched into a theology of fellowship that was marked by pietism and the theology of Watchman Ni in traditional house churches. In my faith journey, I have in fact long been influenced by pietism (because my discipler was influenced by Watchman Ni, he led me in such a way to pray and taught me the path of the cross). However, at the same time I read some articles on Calvinism. This caused a great conflict in my life. For example, I remember my discipler telling me that one very important reason that God is gracious to you and uses you is because he values your heart for him, or values your purity and sincerity, and so on. But I was already influenced by Calvin at the time and believed that in terms of my depraved nature, there was absolutely nothing that can be valued by God.

This experience early in my conversion later turned out to become a major dispute in our church regarding its future path, and it led to the division of the church. During the division of the church, I began to reflect more on theology. In this process, I began to question the teaching centered on predestination. I felt this to be a very mechanical relationship. It was not until I read J. I. Packer’s Hot Tub Religion that my understanding of the relationship between God’s grace and human responsibility became clearer. I understood that our outward actions are the results brought about by God’s grace and work.

In fact, looking back the real reason for the church division was that when we first began to establish a confession of faith, we were vague in certain matters of theology (for example, when to call it “God’s predestination” and when to call it “God’s providence”). The absence of clarity and thoroughness, coupled with a rigid attitude, led to the division of the church.

Later in my study of doctrine such experiences increasingly made me feel deeply about this question: why was the impact of the gospel so powerful at the beginning of the Reformation, but the same doctrine passed down to us today makes no similar impact on the church? At the time of the Reformation, every doctrine was clear and lively expressed in the lives and ministry of the people. However, in today’s church, the doctrines are often abstract and not easy to accept and grasp. We spend a lot of time teaching the content of the doctrines, but believers only get abstract knowledge, and in real life their intuitive focus is still on what to do and how to do it. They are very earnest in doing things and learn a lot of knowledge, but what is reflected in their behavior is not the vigorous response brought about by studying the doctrines. The doctrines do not genuinely shape their lives. So why? I think maybe it is because they do not really understand these doctrines. Those who teach Christian doctrine may give a complete presentation of theology, but it is still alien to how the doctrines are actively applied in practical life. Our teaching of doctrine is merely intellectual recitation, and so naturally people’s responses are not the intended transformation.

Church China Editor: Why in the beginning of the Reformation was the impact of the gospel so great, and yet the same inherited doctrine in today’s church does not seem to not have the same powerful impact?

Zhangen: For me, predestination was the entry point for my understanding of the Reformation. From predestination, I saw that God is not one to be dealt with lightly. In addition, salvation is as clear as black and white, and thus important to be clarified. At that time, I was a new believer. I began to read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in order to be clear about genuine faith. This profited me much.

My sincere reading of Martin Luther came two years later. At that time, I went through some experiences which made me confused about certain other issues related to the assurance of salvation. At the same time, I also became interested in issues related to “discernment for being a minister of God.”  Books such as Commentary on Galatians and Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther were both of great help to me, especially in two respects. One was epistemology – how do I know what I know is right? From a purely rational point of view this is an unsolvable problem. It is the same question that the Roman Catholic church asked Martin Luther. The other aspect is the authority of the ministers of God (these two questions are in some sense two extensions of the same question). After reading these books, my view of the Reformation changed. I used to think that the Reformation was merely to correct theology that went astray. But now I realized that the Reformation had a deeper spirit, namely that it was founded on faith instead of rationality.

The Bible is the word of God, but what proof do we have that the Bible is the word of God? Some contemporary Biblical scholars have concluded after extended study that this is God’s word; but others have studied equally long and concluded that the Bible is not God’s word. I think the approach to nswering this question is: I must first believe that the Bible is the word of God, and then carefully study it. Similarly, the Catholic church says that the Bible is confirmed by the church, and so the church has the final authority. However, Calvin said that although the church has confirmed the Bible, that was merely a blessing to the church. The church has not attained higher authority than the Bible. John the Baptist pointed out Christ – does that prove that he was greater than Christ? To have faith as the foundation is really the deep spirit of the Reformation. Whether Catholicism or contemporary Biblical criticism, rationality is behind them all. The requirement that “we must be increasingly rational” is really a crisis. “Justified by faith alone” is really an irrational principle. It is contrary to the natural religious instincts of human beings, and at every level an analysis of it makes us unable to accept it. The same is true of predestination. Why did I at first object to predestination? It is because I thought it was “irrational.”

From this perspective, I sometimes think that the Reformation is “anti-intellectual” and related to certain mystical experience. What I mean is that there is no true conclusion about the Bible or about theology without any connection to the Holy Spirit. Whether it is reading Luther or Calvin, I think that they are mystics in a sense. This “mysticism” is not the kind that is “mysterious,” but the personal experiences they had in the gospel through the Holy Spirit (the core is an experience centered in salvation). In fact, it is their personal struggle with God that brought them into certain studies. So, sometimes I wonder what is the difference between contemporary reformed theology and Calvinism in the past? I think the difference is big. There is a real prophetic spirit in the Reformers, who are not like “scribes.”

Church China Editor: How should we look at the work of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church based on his work in the Reformers’ lives?

John: As for the Reformation, at first I felt it was merely ancient history and so did not pay it much attention. Later, I realized that the study of theology is actually the acceptance of some theological heritage. I asked myself, what is the heritage that I accept? In search for the return to the source, one will first return to the period of the Reformation. I found that some of the principles that I took for granted were originally found during the Reformation when the truths of the Bible were rediscovered. Among these are the assurance of salvation, the relationship between justification and sanctification, and so on. These had a great impact on my ministry.

When I realized anew the personal faith experience of Martin Luther, my understanding of Reformed theology became alive. I am not merely talking about this problem from the perspective of private faith experiences. What I mean is that it is the work of God in Luther’s life that allowed him to have a deeper experience of God’s righteousness. Based on Luther’s experience, I thought about my own experience. If one is ignorant of the process of literature formation, theology at the literary level may be dead. This understanding helped me to understand Reformed theology. I no longer regarded the various contents of the Reformation as history, or some kind of literature, for academic discussion; I now reflected on these ideas together with my own experiences. Then I found that the matters the Reformers discussed had a very close relationship to me. It allowed me to understand the Bible more clearly, as well as some of the concrete experiences that the Bible talks about. In fact, it can become important material and motivation for the church and in preaching.

Compared to the time of the Reformation, signs of the end times in our age are more obvious and strong. The Reformation is not perfect, only the Bible is perfect. But the Reformation is a path that can lead us back to the Bible. However, I feel that the church in China in general is foreign to the Reformation. The teaching that was first received in the Chinese churches is in fact the ideas that the Reformers had rediscovered from Bible and left behind. It is when we realize the need to rethink our position in faith, or have encountered disputes and conflicts that force us to make a judgment of what is right and wrong, that we return to the source of the Reformation. I have had the opportunity to get to know many of the older coworkers who represent Chinese church history for nearly two decades. Their generation’s understanding of the Bible is far less than the believers who were influenced by fundamentalist theology before 1949; even less is the issue of theological education. The long-standing anti-theology tendency has made them unconcerned with the questions of the Reformation.

However, recently a group of people has arisen from the churches in China who are upholding Reformed churches and Reformed theology. They are therefore proponents of Reformed theology and the Reformation. But I think there is a crisis in it. Because what they stress is, in fact, church organizational systems and other related issues in secular culture. In my opinion these two have nothing to do with the driving force or cause behind the Reformation. To equate church systems and governing constitutions that are derived from Calvinism with the fruit of the Reformation is a misunderstanding of the Reformation. This will even lead to further burying of the real heritage of the Reformation. I think it is necessary to start from Martin Luther’s personal life experience, and then step into the world of the Reformation.

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With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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