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Reformed and Always Being Reformed

What Presbyterians Believe:
Placing Our Hope in the Changes God Makes

By Cynthia Rigby

1116-wpbBelieving we can change things for the better is risky. When we hope that individuals, communities, and institutions are capable of living more wholly, acting more rightly, and treating others more kindly, there is a good chance we will be disappointed and might even look foolish. It is safer to think people and circumstances will never change than to expend the energy that comes with believing they will. It is safer to minimize our own capabilities and responsibilities than to “be the change we want to see in the world,” as Gandhi challenges us.

We tell ourselves, “People don’t change” or “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We push aside our hopes for deeper relationships or a more beautiful world. If we could convince ourselves that change is either impossible or illusory, we could exempt ourselves from fretting about it. If we could give up on changing things for the better, we would never have to deal with the pain of shattered expectations.

What we would have to deal with, however, is boredom. Resisting the possibility and challenge of change, life becomes a matter of repetition and survival, like the board game Candyland in which we move ourselves around the board until we hit the final space. To resign ourselves to banality is, from a Christian perspective, to forget that we are made in the image of a Creator who has invited us not just to exist, but to use our God-given creativity to shape our lives and world in meaningful ways.

Theologically speaking, to set aside our hopes for change in the guise of being “realistic” is to forget that God’s creation continues, and we are agents in the work. We are capable of so much more than only coping, managing, and surviving in this world. We are invited to be partners with Christ in the ministry of reconciliation. We are blessed with opportunities to imagine, engage, and even contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom to earth, as it is in heaven (2 Cor. 5:18).

The 16th century Reformers knew this and lived it. In fact, they came to be known as reformers precisely because they were trying to change the church. They sought to make improvements in the life of the church that, they believed, were consistent with the biblical witness and the best insights of Christians who had come before.

Our forebearer to the Presbyterian Church, John Calvin, thought that change for the better is the work of God in which we have the privilege of participating. His writings testify to his own “sudden conversion,” explaining that God led him to switch from the study of law to the study of theology.

Calvin insists that the Holy Spirit continues to work in both individuals and in institutions, transforming us, sanctifying us, and conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ. The church, Calvin explains, is also in the process of changing.  It is “reformed and always being reformed, according to the Word of God.”

What makes the change Calvin identifies with “being reformed” so exciting is that it corresponds to the activity and influence of God’s living, guiding, life-giving Word. This is what Presbyterians believe: that the Word of God is present and active in the world, making “all things new” in and through Jesus Christ (Rev. 21:5). We ourselves, as individuals and as the church, are being ever-transformed by this Word, even as we share its good news with the world. And part of the good news is this: God is not finished yet.

Changes for the better are promised and are under way. We have reason for hope, even in the face of disappointments and suffering, even though we might look foolish for doing so. Our reason is, simply, our conviction that God is faithful and will see us through (Heb. 10:23).

Our role is not to wait, at least not in any passive sense, for God to craft the new heavens and the new earth. It is to jump right into the work God is doing in this world; to discern what God is saying, and to participate in this hope.

To submit to God’s living Word is to be changed into new creations who then rise up, with Christ, to transform our world into what God promises is already true in the kingdom of God. It is to live faithfully in the tension between the “now” and the “not yet,” impatient to see changes come to fruition not because it is our job to change the world, but because it is our privilege to participate in the transformational work of God.

Cynthia L. Rigby is the W. C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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