Reflections on the Reformation 500 and the Gospel Conference

Over four-thousand Chinese leaders and mission workers from around the world recently met in Hong Kong for the “Reformation 500 and the Gospel” conference. I’ll offer an overview and commentary on the meeting.

HK500 pict (credit- Joann PIttman)
Credit: Joann Pittman

From the Main Stage

Three plenary speakers gave three talks, one-per-day.

John Piper

Chinese believers were introduced to vintage Piper. His opening message helpfully reminded people of the central (but oft overlooked) promise of the New Covenant––– new hearts. Salvation is more than forgiveness; it causes God’s people to delight in Christ above all things.

His final two talks were especially significant for the Chinese context. He challenged pastors not to accept the word of teachers and so-called experts, but rather to compared everything with what is found in the biblical text. This will require rigorous thinking (not mere information that’s been memorized).

Finally, Piper explained from John 11 and elsewhere why God most delights in his own glory and why this is tremendously loving to his people. Whether participants realize it or not, he was emphasizing the importance of God’s “face” (lian).

Paul Tripp

He observes that Christians normally relate the gospel either to the past (what we’re saved from) or to the future (i.e. eternal life). Therefore, he led participants to consider how the gospel addresses the here and now. In typical Paul Tripp fashion, his candid messages challenged pastors to do serious self-reflection.

Pulling no punches, he warned Chinese pastors of “identity amnesia”, whereby believers forget who they are in Christ. Many church leaders become proud, forgetting they are God’s children and Christ’s servants.

What’s more, Tripp reminded listeners that God uses people who are meek, who suffer, and don’t live in comfort. We have a choice–––seek the praise of people or of God. What’s the deeper desire of our hearts?

Richard Pratt

Pratt offered a change of pace from other speakers. Inserting humor and broken Chinese, he offered a broader perspective of the gospel. Focusing on the God’s kingdom, he drew from Genesis 1:26–28, Isaiah 52:3–10, and Matthew 5. The corrective from an individualistic gospel message is welcome.

From my interaction with others, Pratt’s second talk caused some confusion. Although saying the church is the true “Israel” of God, he seemly presented China as the next-in-line (after America and Europe) to bear Israel’s call as a light to the nations. Consequently, it’s difficult to discern the precise nature of the kingdom, as Pratt presents it. While avoiding overt political comments, the vagueness of his remarks likely spurs various questions that are tangential to his main points.

photo-1454991170847-afc8d5b828dd_opt

This critique aside, I applaud Pratt’s consistent emphasis on God’s kingdom as central to the gospel. In his concluding talk, he proclaimed “Heaven is not the goal of the kingdom of God…What is the goal? The earth!” In other words, God wants his will done on earth as in heaven. Biblically speaking, “heaven” refers to God’s throne room, not some far off otherworldly location. Thus, the gospel announces God in Christ will establish his throne in this world. This entails the resurrection of our bodies, a truth that Christians too frequently overlook.

Chinese Speakers

Although the 3 plenary speakers reside in America, the meeting was organized and led by Chinese church leaders. This observation alone was one of the greatest joys of attending the conference. Many Chinese talks were interspersed between the plenary speakers. These Chinese pastors addressed topics related to the Reformation, such as the five solas (e.g., grace alone, Scripture alone, etc.). Not all of these sessions were translated into English. The talks were more thematic rather than expositions concerning the Reformation itself.

A Few Final Comments

Conferences are always more than the speakers and scheduled activities. So, I’ll offer a few tidbits and lingering critiques.

1. What about the Reformation?

The conference did not focus on the Reformation as directly as one might expect. The messages were edifying and stem from Reformation thinking. However, I’d prefer the conference speak more directly to the Reformation’s ongoing relevance to the Chinese church. How might historical issues surrounding the Reformation relate to contemporary China?

2. “Reformed”?

As many in China know, numerous Christians lack the training to understand various nuances concerning church history, denominations, theological debates, etc. A de facto denomination system emerges. It is shaped by guanxi (relationships, networks) more than historical and perhaps theological conviction. Consequently, Chinese believers tend to be less nuanced in their theological views and instead rigidly see theological ideas as “package sets.” Just as one commonly hears someone say, “We Chinese all believe….”, in the same way, many believers will say, “All Reformed people…..” or “All charismatics…”, etc.

John Calvin
John Calvin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mention this dynamic because I’ve heard the question asked, “Is this conference and its extended ministry pushing Reformed theology?” For multiple reasons, this is a natural question deserving attention.

First of all, the answer depends on what one means by “reformed.” If “reformed” means “Protestant”, then yes. More often, people have in mind either Calvinist soteriology or Presbyterian theology. Though some use the term, “pushing” is not a fair term. The conference speakers did not give sermons about TULIP. The leadership generally affirms a Calvinistic view of salvation; however, they don’t wave this banner above the gospel. The involvement of multiple baptist leaders is evidence the conference is not a “Presbyterian” movement.

I make these comments for a simple reason. Some people in China feel the need to “pick sides,” being wary of other theological camps. This attitude makes it difficult to facilitate church unity in China. One fruit of this conference is precisely that it brings together a spectrum of Chinese Christians and workers. Therefore, meetings like this one are a welcomed blessing.

3. Lost in Translation?

Very little of the conference was “contextualized” in a substantial or uniquely Chinese manner. This is not surprising since many (most?) of the speakers and organizers have ministries outside the Mainland. The messages, whether from Westerners or Chinese, resembled what one would hear at a conference sponsored by Desiring God Ministries or Together for the Gospel.

Is this a criticism? Not necessarily.

The talks were biblically substantial, filled with gospel truth. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder how the conference might have been different. Should such meetings be substantially indistinguishable from conferences held in America?

A few speakers said the church should “always be reforming.” If so, what does it mean for the Chinese church to reform itself where it has surrendered too much to tradition? Even if we affirm Reformation theology, at what point might we need to reconsider whether certain emphases and strands of Protestant teaching reflect historically Western questions? The Reformation was a particular response to specific historical problems. At a broad level, the church yielded too much authority to tradition.

Is it not possible we might repeat this mistake as the Christian movement continues spreading throughout Asia from the West? If so, we need a contextualized application of the Reformation for the Chinese church.

Overall, we have much reason to rejoice. Thousands of Chinese believers were united in spirit as we studied the truth. The conference successfully brought people together for the purpose of worshiping the one King of all nations.

 


 

This article was originally published on ChinaSource.org (May 26, 2017).

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