Renewing the Call for Reformation

Richard Phillips

In 1996, leaders from Reformed and Evangelical churches in America gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts to issue a call to reformation. They published The Cambridge Declaration, expressing concern that “churches today are increasingly dominated by the spirit of this age than by the Spirit of Christ,” and called the church “to repent of this sin and to recover the historic Christian faith.” Almost twenty years later, this clarion call to reformation seems to have died out. Now, when Reformed pastors and media figures gather, they typically call for reengineering rather than repentance, and speak of efforts towards revival with apparently little thought of the accompanying need for reformation.

From Faithfulness to Fruitfulness

In part, the shift in emphasis is motivated by a concern that reformation-minded Christians may have lacked a zeal for gospel mission. If we assert, for instance, that faithfulness is our standard of ministerial success, does this not fall short of our higher aspiration to be fruitful in the gospel? Tim Keller, for instance, has described an emphasis on faithfulness to God’s Word as “an oversimplification that has dangers.” He argues that our gospel calling demands “fruitfulness [as] our criterion for evaluation.”1 This is a helpful critique that reformation-minded pastors should take seriously. Experience has shown that earnest Reformed pastors may treat doctrinal orthodoxy as the entirety of our calling in ministry, failing to note our duty zealously to pursue the kingdom work of Christ and his gospel. The issue, in my view, is the proper definition of what it means to be faithful in ministry. Critics are right to insist that orthodoxy must be combined with gospel zeal for a minister to be faithful to his sovereign Lord, who came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

There is more at work today, however, than a helpful reforming of the reformation mindset. Recent years have seen a genuine shift away from reformation, viewing a rigorous concern for biblical accuracy to be a detriment to the cause of gospel fruitfulness. We might summarize the shift in focus by saying that our attention has been drawn from the Word to the world, or from theology to sociology. Even if properly defined, faithfulness is no longer considered sufficient for the minister’s calling: we are responsible to demonstrate gospel fruitfulness and a measurable cultural impact. Success in ministry today requires contextualization strategies of our own devising, beyond the mere proclamation of God’s Word, apart from which we cannot expect to be fruitful in our labors for Christ. 

This emphasis on gospel impact and extra-biblical strategizing raises some important questions. Can a minister determine his fruitfulness in the gospel? Are the factors of success within his control? If they are not, how can fruitfulness be “our criterion for evaluation?” If success is in the minister’s control, have we not introduced human wisdom and power as an essential source of gospel advancement? How, then, is salvation by grace alone and to the glory of God alone? 

In The Cambridge Declaration, leaders like the late James Montgomery Boice emphasized the sufficiency of Scripture for the work of the church.2 Today’s leaders, in contrast, seem to assume its insufficiency. To be sure, God’s Word and prayer are necessary to gospel fruitfulness but they are simply not enough. Today’s trend-setters argue that ministers must not only faithfully preach and practice God’s Word but must implement sociologically-driven strategies that will enable the gospel to succeed in our supposedly unique cultural contexts. It is of course impossible to argue against some measure of contextualization or against the need for a local vision for how our ministry will serve the Lord. The issue at stake, however, is whether or not the faithful preaching of God’s Word and the other “ordinary means of grace” are sufficient to deliver saving power to the lost. Reformers of the past have argued that “the Word of God in the hand of God is sufficient to do the work of God.” The trend in Reformed churches today seems to argue instead that God’s Word and the Holy Spirit are necessary but insufficient for gospel impact. Our sociological skillfulness in producing unique effective strategies will not merely play a limited, tactical role, but will make the decisive difference in enabling gospel light to enliven our culture today. Whatever benefits one may or not attribute to this approach, it unavoidably represents an apparently intentional shift away from the call to faithfulness and reformation, and from the confidence in the inherent sufficiency of God’s Word that was expressed in The Cambridge Declaration.

A New “New Divinity”

One way to understand the shift taking place in Reformed and Evangelical circles is to compare recent trends with those of the 19th century movement known as the New Divinity. In short, I find that the emphasis that leaders like James Boice placed on reformation has been replaced with tendencies that are remarkably similar to those of what was known as New School Presbyterianism. Among these trends are the following: abandoning or at least reconfiguring essential biblical doctrines in order to appeal to our cultural moment; introducing extra-biblical or even unbiblical practices under the warrant of missional necessity; and an overall strategy of cultural accommodation in the place of prophetic confrontation. 

As Andrew Hoffecker has shown in his wonderful biography of Charles Hodge, one of the key divides between the New Divinity and the Old School concerned the subscription of ministers to fixed doctrinal standards.3 While many New Schoolers personally believed more or less the entirety of the Westminster Confession, they did not think that other ministers should be required to do likewise. The inevitable result was that doctrines which were no longer deemed necessary began disappearing from what became the mainline churches. It is important for us to understand the reason for this shift to loose subscription, which is being replicated in our denominations today. In general, those arguing for a looser and broader confessional requirement are not motivated for the sake of doctrinal deviancy. Rather, they believe that contextualizing ministers must be granted latitude to morph their doctrine to conform with the missional demands of their unique sociological setting. This contextualization includes deciding which doctrines to omit from their preaching or at least to recast in order to enable fruitfulness in the context they are seeking to reach. In the view of those who emphasize the decisiveness of contextualization, to require a fixed body of doctrine will handcuff gospel servants so that they will fail in their quest for fruitfulness.

This is not to say that Reformed leaders today have no doctrinal standards for their gospel preaching. It is, however, those doctrines deemed “non-gospel” or superfluous to the gospel that are considered negotiable. The doctrine of creation, for instance, with the Bible’s emphasis on the special creation of Adam, whose sin caused the historical Fall, suffers widespread assault today from Reformed and Evangelical pulpits, websites, and books. Another doctrine that tends to be sublimated today is the judgment of God, a teaching that forms so prominent a role in the gospel message of such evangelists as Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul (see Matthew 10:28 and Rom. 1:18-24; 2 Thes. 1:9-10). According to the strategic mandate of some who demand gospel fruitfulness, the last thing Christians should mention is the threat of hell awaiting unrepentant sinners. Instead of urging sinners to escape the burning wrath of a holy God, we must instead warn of the potential threat of sin to human flourishing. How different this strategy is from that of the apostle Paul, for instance, in his stark confrontation with pagan unbelief on Mars Hill (Acts 17:30-31). In the interest of sociological skillfulness, we are ending up today with a gospel presentation that falls considerably short of the Bible’s message of Jesus Christ. Can we proclaim Christ’s gospel from a Bible shorn of both protology and eschatology, that is, one with the biblical account of the fall and of the final judgment removed? I would urge, in contrast to today’s trends, that our churches will better lead sinners to true and saving faith in Christ by biblically reforming our message. If we are actually relying on God’s gracious power to grant us gospel fruit, we will connect our preaching more closely with the doctrine of the Bible than with the dogmatic demands of the secularist world. 

Without laboring this analysis, today’s new “New Divinity” also introduces unbiblical practices under the warrant of cultural requirement. Perhaps most prominent is the satellite worship campus, where the image of a charismatic preacher is electronically beamed into a gathering which could barely qualify as a congregation. Attempts even to discuss the biblical validity of this practice are drowned out by revivalistic demands for the maximum distribution of oratorical gifts. The cause of gospel fruitfulness further seems to demand a strategy of accommodation with an increasingly paganized culture. A minister simply cannot expect to be used greatly for Christ today if he insists on defining gender norms biblically, decrying our society’s bloodguilt in the genocidal sin of abortion, or abominating the biblically horrific sin of homosexuality. In stark contrast to our courageous brothers and sisters who are suffering throughout the world today, American Reformed revivalists operate on the assumption that persecution must be avoided at virtually all cost on behalf of the church’s gospel appeal to Christ-hating cultural elites.

The Unchanging Need for Reformation

As I have pointed out, an emphasis on reformation should not completely deny the legitimate challenges of contextualization or the important place of a genuinely missional vision. With that said, we must insist on defining our ministry context in a biblical way. Far from each ministry facing a unique cultural setting, we primarily face together a unified context of the human race in the spiritual bondage of sin. In short, whatever value we may place on a sociological definition of our context, our theological understanding of man in sin must predominate. With this in mind, the chief factor in every gospel strategy must be the minister’s arch-dependence on the sovereign grace of God to grant regeneration, faith, and eternal life. Moreover, we must rely above all on the mighty provision that God has made in his Word alone, ensuring that above all else we must faithfully preach the entirety of its counter-cultural message, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. To this end, the need for reformation today is as great as it has ever been, following the pastoral conviction that Paul gave to Timothy and to the entirety of the church that would follow: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

I mentioned The Cambridge Declaration, which called churches to reformation in light of the inroads of the world into our witness and ministry. I had the privilege of working closely with James Montgomery Boice in the years that followed the founding of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and frequently heard him express his conviction about the greatest need of the church in the years that would come. Boice pointed out that Evangelicals had earlier taken a stand for the inerrancy of Scripture, but he asserted that formal convictions regarding inerrancy are simply not enough. The key issue is the sufficiency of Scripture to do God’s work in and through the church, as the Bible is preached, believed, and practiced. Properly defined, then, the calling of the minister is to be faithful in proclaiming that Word. Boice wrote: “The most serious issue, I believe, is the Bible’s sufficiency. Do we believe that God has given us what we need in this book? Or do we suppose that we have to supplement the Bible with human things?” Boice further asked, “Do we need sociological techniques to do evangelism?”4 He answered that the Bible is sufficient for the work of the church in evangelism, sanctification, Christian guidance, and even social reformation. Why? Because Paul was right when he said that the Bible is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Boice wrote: “That is, it is the very Word of God and therefore carries within it the authority and very power of God… That is what we need. It is what everybody needs. And only the Word of God is sufficient to it.”5

In renewing this call to reformation today, it is precisely this conviction that we need to see restored to our churches and ministry: the Word of God in the hands of God is sufficient to do the work of God in our time, in our city, and in our church. Our calling is to be faithful, refusing compromise in any way – in doctrine, in practice, and in gospel zeal – so that through our ministry God’s greatness and power may be exhibited as light in the darkness of our world.


1 Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 13-14.
2 See James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 72-85.
3 W. Andrew Hoffecker, Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 279-283.
4 Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? 72.
5 Ibid., 85.

Richard D. Phillips (D.D., Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and serves on the board of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals as well as other organizations.  Dr. Phillips, along with Dr. Philip G. Ryken, serves as the commentary series editor for the Reformed Expository Commentary.  The author of numerous books and articles, Dr. Phillips is regular columnist with PFT (For Christ) as well as a contributor.

Richard Phillips