The Primary Motives of Reformation
Zeal for God's Honor, Love to Jesus Christ, & Desire for Saving Souls

The following post is part of our ‘Principles of Reformation’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.

“Are not zeal for the honor of God, love to Jesus Christ, and desire of saving souls, your great motives and chief inducements to enter into the functions of the holy ministry, and not worldly designs and interests?” [1] That searching question is asked of presbyterian ordinands in Scotland, and aptly summarizes the principal ambitions of every faithful minister of the gospel in all his efforts for the renewal and reformation of the church.

Without the first two, the third often mutates into pragmatism. Certainly, the reform of the church must never neglect the call of Christ to bring the gospel to the unconverted. But that sacred impulse, moving us to seek the salvation of the lost, must be disciplined by prior, deeper motives, without which church reform will default to uncritical cultural accommodation in the name of evangelism. It is zeal for the honor of God and love to Christ that compel us to go to the lost, but, as we go, they also constrain our methods and our message. More than anything we desire to please Christ, and dare not do anything in his service that he has not commanded in his Holy Word.

Nonetheless, wedded to zeal for God’s honor and love for the Lord Jesus Christ, a “desire of saving souls” is indispensable in leading the elders of the church towards sensible, scriptural reformation.  In reaction to the un-bridled pragmatism of the seeker sensitive movement (where congregations survey the preferences of the non-Christian community, and then reformat worship and church life in order to give people what they want), it is sometimes quipped that faithful, Reformed congregations are the real seeker-sensitive churches. After all, we believe that the only true seeker is God. As Paul reminds us, “no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11), though, as Jesus said, “the Father is seeking” true worshippers (John 4:23). God is the true seeker, and our worship, our ministries, our church life, our denominational structures, should all be made to accommodate his desires as they are expressed in holy scripture.

Yes, and Amen! But honesty demands that we admit that sometimes that sentiment, perfectly biblical in itself, can be used as an excuse for the opposite error to that of the pragmatists. In overreaction to the seeker-sensitive model, we can adopt unthinking- even obscurantist- traditionalism instead. We cease to feel the urgency of the call of Christ to the unconverted. Our pulpits do not ring as they should with passionate pleading for sinners to come to Christ. Our church programs are developed without much consideration for how they will be heard or understood by an increasingly post Christian community. Under the guise of zeal for the honor of God and love to Jesus Christ, we can sometimes let ourselves off the hook, and fail to consider how to reform the church in order to inform, equip, and mobilize a new generation to bring the gospel across the street and around the world. We become insular, ingrown, inaccessible.

Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628-1680), once warned of practical atheism. In Puritan thought, the term referred, “not only to nominal Christians who live like the devil, but to sincere believers who fell far short of the ideal of a life lived in continual awareness of an omnipotent Deity.”[2] While practical atheism remains a common problem, let’s also to beware of what we might call “practical hyper-Calvinism.”  A hyper-Calvinist is one who, in defense of the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation, denies human responsibility, and thus rejects the obligation to offer Christ freely to all people without distinction. A practical hyper-Calvinist, however, believes in the free offer of the gospel. He confesses his commitment to the great commission. He just never actually obeys it. His pulpit never sounds with the gospel offer. He neither knows any, nor prays for, nor pleads with non-Christians. “Let that be the burden of others,” tells himself, “I will be valiant for truth!” But it is the truth that calls us to Christ and commands us to call others too.

The unofficial motto of the PCA is “Faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” These three elements capture well the principal motives for reformation as expressed in that old Scottish ordination vow. The Word of God must regulate and govern our principles, polity, and practice. The reformed faith, as articulated in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, is a standard exposition of Holy Scripture. We adhere to it because it is biblical, richly God honoring, and full of Christ. It abases men, and exalts the Lord. And insofar as we strive always to be faithful to the Scriptures, and true to the Reformed faith, we cannot help but be obedient to the great commission. A deep love for biblical, reformed orthodoxy is the mortal enemy of practical hyper-Calvinism. A church reformed according to Scripture is a church gripped with zeal for the honor of God, love to Jesus Christ, and desire of saving souls.

[1] (The General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, The Practice of the Free Church of Scotland In Her Several Courts, 8th Edition, [Edinburgh, UK: Knox Press, 1995] 153)

[2] Wallace M. Marshall, Puritanism and Natural Theology, cited in Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Vol. I., Mark Jones ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022)134 n. 4