“…in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9, ESV)
With Reformation Sunday almost upon us, and our annual remembrance of Luther’s famous protest, nailing 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, we might well ask: was it all necessary? Would the Reformers, not to mention the cause of a united Christendom, not have been better served by working patiently from within the Roman Church to reform some of its undoubted excesses.
In Calvin’s day, many said as much. Calls for moderation and for tolerance abounded, far better, they said, to have unity and a few errors than truth with division! Which do you think is more important, “Unity or Truth?” Answering this question, William Gurnall, the 17th Century Puritan, said, “Unity without truth is no better than conspiracy!”
As you might expect Calvin responded to these charges forcefully and in writing with a tract entitled, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.”
In the introduction he said, “There is something specious in the name of moderation, and tolerance is a quality which has a fair appearance and seems worthy of praise.” But, he goes on, to say that to remain silent in the face of deadly error is not meekness but indifference to everything that really matters. If ever there was a word for our own generation, this is it!
When it came to justifying the necessity of reforming the Church, Calvin said two issues explain the whole matter — two issues that “comprehend…the whole substance of Christianity,” and from them every other part flows. “The Knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained." If we lose these, Calvin said, we lose everything. This was what was at stake in the Reformation: the Roman Catholic Church had (and still has) lost the very essence, the heart and the soul of Christianity. Although people can be saved despite these errors, they will never be saved because of them. Worse, they will be forever led astray from the true worship of the true God.
You might find it surprising to see Calvin put worship before the gospel? Surely, you might think, the gospel should come first? Surely this was the great aim and benefit of the Reformation: to rescue and restore the gospel from its Popish, medieval, man-centered, works-based legal framework? But Calvin intentionally said, “No!” The most important principal necessitating the Protestant Reformation was not recovering the true gospel, it was recovering true worship. The gospel is a means to that end. By the gospel men are rescued from the idolatry of the self, and saved to the praise of the glory of God's grace (Ephesians 1), to proclaim the excellency of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light (1Peter 2). In short, the gospel exists because worship doesn’t! Consequently, without the saving work of Christ, God is robbed of His glory.
You will never understand the animus driving the Reformation, if you don’t understand the Reformers’ passion for true doxology — worship driven and defined by Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone as its only rule). On this, Calvin was just as emphatic:
“I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. (But) the words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1Sam 15:22; Matt 15:9).”
With Reformation Sunday fast upon us, this should give us all pause to consider: Is worship the animating force of our lives? Is this what the gospel has done to you and to me — turned us into true worshippers, who worship in Spirit and in Truth? This is the reason for the universe’s existence. Is it the reason for your existence? What would your life look like if it was? How would your working week change? What about your weekend and your Lord’s Day? May God gives us all the grace to rise above the inertia of an earthbound soul— grace to become men and women who live and who love to worship.