Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Church of Christ (III)

The Catholic Christian Church (II)
In the last issue, we began a kind of reconnaissance of what the Reformed world has historically taught regarding the nature and character of the Church of Jesus Christ. Our initial foray took us to the Belgic Confession (1561), which was written by Guido de Brès. We took this approach primarily because there is so much confusion today about the Church and few even ask anymore about the nature of a true congregation of Jesus Christ.
More often than not a number of pragmatic reasons are put forward when it comes to choosing a local congregation for the family or individual. We obviously don’t have the time to allow every reason to pass in review, but allow me a few moments to give you some that I have heard.
Topping the list is almost invariably the statement that the music is great. Probing deeper the usual discoveries are made. The music is loud, contemporary, upbeat, and cutting edge. Hands are raised and people sway back and forth with their eyes closed. I made a startling discovery at the Chattanooga, TN PCA General Assembly. You might not know this, so it is worth passing along for your spiritual edification. Here’s what I discovered: the Holy Spirit doesn’t move or work when you sing psalms. It is patently true. I was once a skeptic myself, but the GA that year removed all shadow of a doubt. I know empirically.
Prior to our worship service one evening we sang a number of praise songs. Actually, the others sang, because I simply didn’t know them and I couldn’t keep up with when we were going to sing the same verse again—for the eighth time—and when we were going to sing the bridge, and…well, you get the point. As some of the people sang, eyes were closed, hands were raised, and there was a lot of swaying back and forth in near ecstasy. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off or out if people do that. But here’s where my discovery came—ich ben aufgeklärt!—when we finally got around to singing a psalm all the eyes opened, the hands when down, and the swaying ceased. I suppose that people thought that the Holy Spirit was watching and didn’t like what looked like dancing. After all, this was a gathering of Presbos. Therefore, singing praise songs is better than singing hymns and psalms because the Holy Spirit doesn’t particularly care for that type of traditionalism—the dead faith of the living.
Second, the teenagers love the youth program. This comes from the “programs oriented” circles. Our youngest son, who is now an Orange County Deputy Sheriff, got drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school. Prior to the draft that year he played on three pro scout teams. I got to watch a lot of baseball and see a lot of the same faces over an extended period of time. But here’s the point I want to make. At one of those games I was talking to a dad about his son and he was telling me that his son really liked the youth program at the church they were attending—not members of; just attending—so I asked him what his son was learning about God. He glazed over a little and replied, “No, Ron, he really likes it a lot.” I responded that I understood but still wondered what he was learning about God. Finally, the father admitted to me that he didn’t have a clue. The kids or youth leader get slimed, the music is fun, the skits are fun, they watch fun videos like Jesus Rocks, therefore it’s all good.
A third and—in some circles—a growing reason is that certain churches are chosen and others are bypassed because the wife refuses to attend. A lot of the arguing goes on behind closed doors, but it’s there and it’s real. The man, wanting to avoid a conflict every Sunday, caves. This approach is truly an assault on male spiritual leadership in the home. Some women want their husbands to be spiritual leaders, but refuse to follow his lead in attending and joining a congregation that will truly equip him for his task.
In over twenty-five years that I’ve been a pastor I’ve discovered that the primary struggles in my life and in the life of the “lambs” that God has entrusted to me and my fellow-Elders are spiritual in nature. Things like reading the Bible daily on a consistent basis, a vital and heartfelt prayer life, praying with my wife, and leading family devotions top the list of areas where I’m not as consistent as I ought to be. I find this to be true of church members as well. Granted, some are better than others, but it’s a struggle. So why wouldn’t a wife want her husband to choose a local congregation where he’s going to be encouraged to lead at home and in the church and, simultaneously, be equipped to do the same?
Yet, when the wife is either under the influence of so-called Christian feminism or has preconceived notions of what kinds of sermons she expects the pastor to preach there can be trouble. This is not to suggest that the pastor gets it right all the time, but rather is simply meant to point out that if the pastor is truly shepherding and loving the flock that has been entrusted into his care that he will give the congregation what it needs and not necessarily what it wants to hear.

The Heidelberg Catechism on the Universal/Catholic Church
In the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 21, Q/As 54-56) the authors summarize what Scripture teaches about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. They introduce the subject by asking us what we believe concerning this aspect of the Apostles’ Creed, since that is what they are expositing at this point in the catechism.
How do they answer that question? How would you answer it? If you take the time to study their answer, you’ll find that it is replete with Scripture and scriptural references. Here’s their answer: “That the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of it.”[1]
The catholicity of Christ’s Church extends to the whole human race and this Church has been in existence since the beginning of the world and will endure to world’s end. The Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves this Church for himself. It is his Church and those who are under-shepherds would do very well to keep this in mind. It is not about them or their little empires or their aspirations to be a “successful” pastor; the successful pastor is the one who faithfully and clearly preaches God’s Word week in and week out, who visits his people in their homes, instructs them in the Bible and the catechisms, visits the shut-ins and those in the hospitals, and who manages and administers his meetings well.
What are the means of Christ’s Church-gathering work? The authors answer that the entire process of gathering, defending, and preserving his Church is by the Holy Spirit and the Word. This is the wording that is found in a number of Reformed confessions on a regular basis, albeit we usually find it expressed as Word and Spirit. The point here is that in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition (the living faith of the dead) our reliance is on the Son of God gathering, defending, and preserving his Church by the Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures and by the scriptures themselves.
Even though election is mentioned by the phrase “a Church chosen to everlasting life” the authors also tie in the important concept of the “communion of the saints” when we’re instructed that we are to be living members of Christ’s Church. Therefore, Ursinus reminds us in his commentary on the catechism he helped write that the nature or essence of the Church is “a gathering of people, who receive and confess the true doctrine of God and of his worship, the proper administration of the sacraments he instituted, and obeying his worship.”[2]
In his commentary, Ursinus follows other Reformers in insisting that there is no salvation outside of the true Church and supports his position from Scripture.[3] John Calvin, for example, introduces his explanation of the doctrine of the Church in this fashion: “I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith” and “…for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother.”[4]
What is important to note is that he sees the place where the preaching of the Word of God flourishes is in the Church.[5] In another place, Calvin supplies us with what God has enjoined upon pastors: the “preaching of the heavenly doctrine.”[6] Or, “…the church is built up solely by outward preaching.”[7]
The notion of the communion of the saints is worked out more fully in Q/A 55 when we are asked to explain what we understand by our confession in the Apostles’ Creed regarding the communion of the saints. It is necessary for us to reflect upon that crucial question in the modern Church. What is essential to keep in mind is that our answer must be connected to what we just confessed in Q/A 54. Holding on to the truths we acknowledged there, we’re now going to take another step forward.
Woven into the fabric of the answer is a confession of our union with Christ. The technical term is the unio mystica or insertio. In terms that you and I understand, it’s conformity to Christ’s image or—as we saw last time—being “engrafted” into Christ by faith. Those who are being conformed to Christ’s image are “partakers of him and all his treasures and gifts.” This is the clear implication and extent of the union of the believer with the risen and ascended Christ.
The second aspect of the answer directs our attention to the practical applications and outworkings of being a living member of Christ’s Church; of being a part of the communion of saints. Part of being a member of a local congregation is employing our gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and salvation of other members. In other words, we are to show and know ourselves to be members of a covenant community and that requires our active participation in that body of believers.
One of the many areas where the modern Church is highly deficient is precisely here. Decades of superficial and tawdry entertainment have led many church consumers to believe that they are there to be catered to and entertained. If the entertainment factor stalls, then there is another consumer-driven congregation down the road who is willing to make the consumer happy and not speak about living a cross-driven life. A true body of Christ will be one in which the spiritual gifts will be discovered and then used for the well being and salvation of the others. How many modern consumers, who are eager to get out of the building after the service for a tee time or a tea time, are really concerned about the salvation of the other consumers? It’s possible in some churches never to have to speak to another person and to remain virtually totally anonymous.
The Heidelberg’s third question regarding the Church concentrates on the forgiveness of sins. As the Son of God gathers his Church around the Word of God by the Holy Spirit there should be an acknowledgment of our sins as well as the celebration of the forgiveness we receive both individually and as a body of Christ. It is within the context of this answer that the authors employ the reminders that we are forgiven “for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction” and being granted “the righteousness of Christ.”
As we move forward, it is evident from the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and from Calvin’s Institutes and other writings and commentaries that there is an inseparable relationship between Christ’s Church and the preaching of the Word of God. It really could not be much easier, so why do we try to make it so hard? What I keep hearing is that if we are to engage the culture effectively there must be the requisite contextualization. The Bible must be placed within a particular cultural context and be made to fit the notions and concepts of that particular culture. In terms of America, we must somehow make the scriptures palatable to the postmodern cultured despiser of the Christian faith.
We do not have the time to go into the whole (to my mind somewhat overrated, over-used, and often misunderstood) idea of contextualization, but Dick Gaffin has made some noteworthy comments in a recent article that are worthy of our consideration. In the first place, he states that “Scripture, ultimately, is not in need of contextualization but provides its own.”[8] Gaffin cites the book of Hebrews as a case in point. He reminds us that it was “Originally addressed, as were the other New Testament documents, to readers in a particular time and place, under specific social, economic, and political conditions” but it nevertheless “reveals remarkably little about these cultural factors.”[9] Gaffin has just given us a much-needed correction to the entire contextualization controversy. In spite of our erudition and desire to be culturally astute, we have overlooked this obvious elephant in the room.
Staying with the example of the book of Hebrews, it is patently true that “What the writer is concerned to have his readers grasp clearly is that they are ‘in these last days’ when God has spoken his final word in his Son (1:2), when Christ ‘has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself…and…will appear a second time…to bring salvation” (9:26, 28). Once again, Gaffin has introduced the obvious, but it is highly instructive. He concludes, “The ultimately relevant and decisive ‘context’ of his readers’ existence, in all its undoubtedly enculturated particularity, is not that particular context but the period between the exaltation and return of Christ, in which the church has its identity as the new and final wilderness community (esp. 3:7ff.).”[10]
Simply put, what is often lacking in modern church services is precisely the relationship between “doing church” and preaching. It’s somewhat understandable when Joel Osteen is not concerned with biblical worship but with entertaining the troops. It’s quite another thing when some PCA pastors are guilty of the same thing.

[1] For this answer, the authors offer us the following texts as pertinent: Eph. 5:26; John 10:11; Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11-13; Gen. 26:4; Rev. 5:9; Ps. 71:17-18; Isa. 59:21; 1 Cor. 11:26; Matt. 16:18; John 10:28-30; Ps. 129:1-5; Rom. 1:16; 10:14-17; Acts 2:42; Eph. 4:3-5; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:10-13; 1 John 3:14, 19-21; 2 Cor. 13:5; Rom. 8:10; Ps. 23:6; 1 Cor. 1:8-9; John 10:28; 1 John 2:19; 1 Pet. 1:5.
[2] Zacharias Ursinus, Het Schatboek der verklaring over de Heidelbergse Catechismus, Vol. 1, (Festus Hommius [trans.]), (Dordrecht: Uitgeverij J.P. van den Tol, 1977), p. 436.
[3] Ibid., 445. Cf. Isa. 37:32; Ezek. 13:9; Joel 2:32; John 15:4; 3:36.
[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, (John McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles [trans.]), (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 19674), p. 1012.
[5] Ibid., 1011-1012, where he says, “And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he (God) deposited this treasure in the church.”
[6] Ibid., 4.1.5, p. 1017.
[7] Ibid., 1019.
[8] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “The Vitality of Reformed Systematic Theology,” in Anthony T. Selvaggio (ed.), The Faith Once Delivered, Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne R. Spear, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2007), p. 28.
[9] Ibid. Footnote 77.
[10] Ibid.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Church of Christ (II)

The Catholic Christian Church
We are examining the Reformed understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ. In the Belgic Confession (1561), Article 27 addresses the matter of “The Catholic Christian Church.”[1] How did the Reformers understand the nature and character of Christ’s Church? The opening words of this article set the stage: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”[2]
In one sense, this statement might seem somewhat routine, but it isn’t. It is a masterful summary of the essence of Christ’s Church. Christians are those who both believe and profess a universal Church. What is that Church like? It is a holy congregation. Let’s pause there for a moment because this qualifier points us in one direction only regarding the Church. The holiness of the congregation ought to be, first and foremost, a reflection of the holiness of our Savior. God raises the bar and sets high standards for the Church (cf. Matt. 5:48). Part of the problem for the modern Church is that the bar has been lowered and the teaching/preaching substantially dumbed-down so that holiness is not on the minds of some Christians.
Reliable statistics point to a sharp downturn in biblical morality among Christians so that incidences of marital infidelity, addiction to (Internet) pornography, divorce, homosexuality, unbiblical business practices, cheating on expense accounts and taxes, and a host of other sins go unchecked. This is not even taking into account those who do not commit such sins but have virtually no Bible reading, prayer time, and family devotions. In the final analysis, what amounts to “holiness” is going to a true church (we’ll see in Article 29 how the B.C. says each Christian ought to go about seeking out, attending, and attaching him- or herself to a true church) and not merely one that calls itself a church. As we progress through de Brès’ exposition of this section of the B.C. we’ll discover that there is a spiritual process that is necessary for the Christian that involves a great deal more than the garden variety “church shopping,” “church hopping,” and the superficial “I want to be entertained” mentality manifested by some—many—today. Few today take the requisite time to perform a biblical search for a true church—to their detriment and the detriment of their respective families.
Holiness is for Christians only and for serious Christians at that. De Brès explains that the holy congregation is comprised of true Christian believers, which he will also qualify according to biblical, Reformed standards in Article 29. It is important to note at this juncture however that his emphasis is on the communio sanctorum aspect, thereby distancing himself from the Roman Catholic emphasis on the church as Institute. For example, Rome defines the Church as “The congregation of all the faithful, who, being baptized, profess the same faith, partake of the same sacrament, and are governed by their lawful pastors, under one visible head on earth.”[3] The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is the step-sister of Roman Catholicism. It also emphasizes the external organization of the church and locates the essence of the Church in the Episcopal hierarchy. “The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but his infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods.”[4]
How Long Has the Church Been Around?
Like his fellow-Reformers, de Brès asserts that “This Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal king, which, without subjects he cannot be.”[5] In opposition to Dispensationalists who believe that the Church was a sort of “afterthought” in Christ’s mind, a sound reading of Scripture points in an entirely different direction. Even though she has gone through a number of modifications the Church has been one in both testaments. The Church has been in existence from the outset and will be until the end.
This should, in our day and age, give us great confidence because what David Wells calls “our time” manifests one of the most deplorable lacks of biblical knowledge than almost any previous time. It is, indeed, comparable to the Dark Ages, which is tantamount to 1,000 years without a spiritual bath. It is also clear that de Brès understood that true Christians are the subjects of Christ’s kingship. In the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 12, Q/A 31) we are asked why our Lord is called Christ, the Anointed One. Part of the answer to that question reveals to us that he is “our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the enjoyment of that salvation, he has purchased for us.”[6]
What is key for us to note is the combination of Word and Spirit that not only permeates this confessional statement but also virtually every other Reformed confession as well. The modern Church has found a number of surrogates for the Word and Spirit, but in the Reformed tradition there has always been a healthy emphasis on the two working together. The same Spirit who inspired the scriptures works in the hearts and minds of the true Christians, true members of Christ’s Church both to enlighten and to illumine. One of the key places where this combination works is in and through sound preaching of the Word of God.
This is truly an area where the modern Church is bankrupt and has given the “seekers” stones for bread. Preaching has been de-emphasized and all but pushed off into an obscure corner. The praise band and leadership team take center stage—and a stage it is because it certainly isn’t a chancel. During the Middle Ages and afterwards, the altar of the Roman Catholic Church was in the center of the sanctuary. The pulpit, where the short homily was delivered was off to the side. In many churches today the sermon is a “side dish” and is preferably kept short—very short—and upbeat, filled with anecdotes and the more or less loose stringing together of quotable quotes. If there even is a text and it is read, it is then relegated to a place where it will never be heard from the rest of the service. If it is heard from again the poor text is twisted and distorted to mean anything and everything the pastor wants it to mean that day. Sadly the ill-trained and ill-equipped audience will never know the difference.
Thankfully, there are still faithful churches of Jesus Christ where the Word of God is proclaimed plainly and clearly and where faithful pastors will preach what Scripture teaches even, if necessary, to their detriment. What matters—most—is that the pastor is feeding the sheep from the Word and not from the latest headline, movie, song, or quote from Ghandi, Kierkegaard, or Kafka. In short, the Word is exposited, even if it means not “engaging the culture” for a moment.
What is Faith?
In opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers taught that the Church of Christ was truly catholic and not Roman Catholic. By the catholicity of the Church the Reformers understood—with their emphasis on the communio sanctorum—a holy Church that “is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.”[7] That which joins the true Christians together is true faith.
The Reformers clearly understood what Scripture teaches about the nature of true saving faith and have passed that rich heritage on to us. Before we look at what John Calvin and the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism say about true faith, however, I want to digress for just a moment to make a crucial point about some matters that are often omitted in our modern setting. The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism set out to write a book of comfort. The first question and answer of that catechism is at least as well known as the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. We are asked, What is your only comfort in life and in death? A summary of the answer given is that we do not belong to ourselves, but belong “with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” By mentioning the Father and the Holy Spirit as well, the authors provide us with a thoroughly Trinitarian starting point.
An interesting side bar—and little known fact—is that approximately one year before the Heidelberg Catechism was published, one of its authors, Zacharias Ursinus, published a larger version in Latin comprised of 323 questions and answers. The first question is essentially the same as in what has come down to us in the Heidelberg Catechism, but what is highly instructive is the answer given in the larger catechism. (The translation of this first answer is mine.)
“That I have been created by God according to his image unto eternal life; and that God, after I had willfully lost this image in Adam, God took up me into his covenant of grace in his immeasurable and unobliged mercy, in order to grace me by faith according to the obedience and death of his Son, whom he sent in the flesh, with righteousness and eternal life; and he has sealed this covenant in my heart by the Holy Spirit, who reforms (or recreates) me according to the image of God and who calls Abba Father in me as well as by his Word and visible signs.”[8]
Ursinus demonstrates not only the Trinitarian nature of the foundation of this theological/pastoral thinking, but also immediately brings us into the realm of the covenant of grace—and all that it entails—, the much-disputed active obedience of faith, denied by Norman Shepherd and a number of those adhering to the Federal Vision, the passive obedience of Christ, justification by faith, glorification, the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, and the Word and sacraments. It is this type of astute theological formulation that typifies and characterizes both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Reformation.
One final comment is necessary before we proceed and that is Ursinus’ emphasis on the covenant of grace at the outset of his work. Rather than handling the covenant of grace as a separate locus in theology he is telling us that it will play an integral part of his entire exposition. In terms of how Reformers down through the centuries have understood how expansive the covenant of grace is in terms of its effects upon other loci of theology we need only look at the introduction to Bavinck’s exposition of ecclesiology. To make this accessible to the English-speaking world, I’ll limit myself to his popular dogmatics Our Reasonable Faith.[9]
He begins by explaining the “route along which” the blessings of God accrue to his people. It is Christ who “brings the benefits of calling and regeneration, faith and repentance, justification and adoption as children, renewal and sanctification, into being in His believers on earth, and sustains and reinforces them.”[10] Where does a true church of Jesus Christ come into play in this? Bavinck states, “We have already noted that He grants all those benefits by means of his Word and His Spirit, but have still to see that he also grants them also only in the fellowship that binds all the believers together.”[11] Thus, Bavinck insists on the combination of Word and Spirit as well as fellowship with a true body of Christ.
Modern churches tend to be individualistic but for the Reformers and Bavinck “The believer…never stands apart by himself; he is never alone.”[12] The manner in which Bavinck works this out practically is summarized in the following manner: “The believer is born from above, out of God, but he receives the new life only in the fellowship of the covenant of grace of which Christ is the Head and at the same time the content. If by virtue of this regeneration God is his Father, the church may in a good sense be called his mother.”[13]
When we delve into Book 3 of the Institutes, we discover that Calvin is still speaking within the context of the covenant of grace as he delineates the way in which we receive the grace of Christ. His opening words in 3.3.1 state unequivocally that the Holy Spirit is the bond that unites us to Christ. He writes, “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and dwell within us.”[14] In other words, “…all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him.”[15]
For Calvin, “…the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”[16] Moreover, “faith itself has no other source than the Spirit”[17] and no other object than Christ.[18] In a very instructive, but also biting section Calvin reminds true believers that faith rests on knowledge and not upon pious ignorance. More specifically, faith rests on knowledge “not only of God but of the divine will.”[19] For our purposes, however, it is his definition of faith that summarizes his teaching as well as manifests to us the inter-dependence of Reformed pastors and scholars.
In 3.2.7, Calvin gives us these words: “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[20] Hold on to what Calvin says here as we proceed to what the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism taught.
If someone were to ask you to give them a succinct definition of faith, what would you say? The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 7, Q/A 21) give us this answer: “True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a firm confidence that the Holy Spirit works by the gospel in my heart, that not only to others, but also to me, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”[21]
Our tendency might be to read over that as if it were yet another theological dictum, but that is far from the case. Since the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism intend their work to be a book of comfort for true believers (cf. Lord’s Day 1, Q/A 1) we can rightly read their work as an extended spiritual discourse on what it means to be in union with Christ and to be conformed to his image. At key points in their exposition, we find them referring to the union of the believer with his or her Lord and Savior by means of the term “ingrafted.”
In Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, Answer 21 we read that those only are saved “who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
Further up in a section discussing the implications and applications of justification by faith Question 64 asks, Does this teaching not make people careless and wicked? The answer given is as follows: “No. It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”
Finally, in the longest answer in the Heidelberg Catechism and one that was actually added a year later to the original document, a comparison is drawn between the Lord’s Supper and the papal mass. Without giving the entire answer, it is instructive to listen to what the authors taught regarding the Lord’s Supper. They write, “The Lord’s Supper testifies to us, first, that we have complete forgiveness of all our sins through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all; and, second that through the Holy Spirit we are grafted into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and this is where he wants to be worshiped.”
Unfortunately, a number of modern pastors are little concerned that their audience or adherents are true believers and comprehend the importance of being conformed to the image of Christ. They seem more interested in beating the bushes for the lost, unchurched, or cultured dispisers, which is a good thing, but not at the expense of leaving the congregation at “square one” of the rudiments of the gospel. Those who are Reformed or Presbyterian and disregard the unio and prefer to preach all types of “trendy” matters short change their congregations horribly. What could be more important than grasping something of what it means that we are brought into intimate union with him, have been purchased/ransomed/redeemed by his atoning sacrifice, and are to live life coram Deo—in the presence of God, to the glory of God, and under the authority of his Word?
In an excellent article by the Dutch church historian, Willem van ‘t Spijker, our attention is directed to how central the concepts of true faith and the unio functioned in Calvin’s theology.[22] He begins by citing Emil Brunner’s notation that the ingrafting of the believer with Christ was the central motif in Reformation theology and that most of Calvin’s theology was unintelligible without a thorough understanding of the centrality of the unio and I would add to that Calvin’s concept of preaching.[23]
How important is this notion of the unio for the individual as well as for the corporate body in the Church? Van ‘t Spijker is convinced that it is of ultimate importance in two specific areas: 1) assurance of faith and 2) the morality that attends true salvation.[24] But whether we are talking about the life of the congregation in general or an individual specifically, the application still holds. In faith, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper the unio mystica teaches us to seek our lives extra nos, outside of ourselves in Christ.[25] For the astute theologian and Christian this must apply to both Christ’s active as well as his passive obedience. Do we merely look extra nos for his atoning sacrifice on the cross without also looking extra nos for his perfect keeping of God’s Law?
Van ‘t Spijker is convinced that when Calvin speaks about our assurance of justification—both temporally and finally I might add—the extra nos is the only possibility to exist before God.[26] He reminds us that what Calvin offers in Inst. 3.11.10 is a foundational theme in his theology.[27] Moreover, Calvin used the concept of the unio as equally fundamental for understanding his theology of the Holy Spirit.[28] In other words, “Christ extra nos becomes, by means of the Spirit, Christ in nobis.”[29] This notion is worked out in the Institutes more fully in 3.1.1 and 3.1.3.
For our purposes van ‘t Spijker’s comments regarding the unio and ecclesiology are of particular significance. He writes that even though the insertio is a personal occurrence, it is of no less importance within the context of ecclesiology.[30] Why is that? Quite simply put it is due to the emphasis placed upon the unio and the Lord’s Supper, which involves the catholic Church of Jesus Christ. He is further convinced that for Calvin the Lord’s Supper was the greatest theological mystery, but that everything in the true believer’s life is summarized and concentrated in this ecclesiological occurrence.[31] In fact, he goes so far as to assert that the being of the Church as well as being a true church of Jesus Christ is, in some sense, bound up in the Lord’s Supper.
We must keep in mind that van ‘t Spijker never mentions the notion of weekly communion as necessary for a holier congregation. It is well known that Calvin sought weekly communion, but we must keep in mind that that is not van ‘t Spijker’s point. It is conceivable that a congregation can celebrate the Holy Meal weekly and because of the preaching not be conforming or be conformed to the image of Christ at all. What matters first and foremost, since the sacraments are merely appendix doctrinae, that the preaching of the Word be sound and solid.[32]
Therefore, de Brès has provided us with an excellent Article to open the discussion regarding the universal Church of our Lord. He ends by touching on the idea of “the power of faith” and this is where pastors, his fellow-Elders, and biblical preaching come into play. The power of faith is not a magical quantity, but is rather qualitative. Just as faith can be strong or weak; moving forward or being diminished, so can its power. That being the case, we pastors need to perform some very serious soul searching on a regular basis and ask ourselves what kinds of sermons we’re preaching. Are we striving to gain the smiles and approval of our listeners or are we willing to tell them what Scripture says; what Scripture demands? William Still challenges us and reminds us of this essential truth: “To be pastors you must be ‘fed men’, not only in knowledge, but in wisdom, grace, humility, courage, fear of God, and fearlessness of men.”[33]
Once, by God’s grace, we overcome the fear of men—especially those who are “big givers,” wealthy, or who occupy a privileged place in society, we’ll be more prepared to preach the gospel. Once we settle in our own minds that what our congregation needs is our holiness and guidance in being conformed to the image of Christ, we might become prepared to leave off all the “engage the culture” claptrap and cutesy stories and anecdotes and actually equip the saints for service in the Kingdom of Christ.

[1] The chief author of the Belgic Confession was Guido de Brès, who was a preacher in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and who died a martyr at the hands of the Roman Catholics in 1567.
[2] Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson, Reformed Confessions Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 188.
[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 196911), p. 562.
[4] Ibid., 563.
[5] Beeke & Ferguson, Harmonized, 188.
[6] Ibid., 64.
[7] Ibid., 188. Italics mine.
[8] Zacharias Ursinus, Catechesis, summa theologiae per quaestiones et responsiones exposita: sive, capita religionis christianae continens, n.d.
[9] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, (Henry Zylstra [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956).
[10] Ibid., 514.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid. Emphases mine.
[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, in the series, The Library of Christian Classics, (John McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles trans.]), (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 19674), p. 537.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 538.
[17] Inst. 3.1.4, 541.
[18] Inst. 3.2.1, 542.
[19] Ibid., 545.
[20] Inst. 3.2.7, 551.
[21] Ibid., 94.
[22] Willem van ‘t Spijker, “‘Extra nos; en ‘In nobis’ bij Calvijn in Pneumatologisch Licht,” in Geest, Woord en Kerk, Opstellen over de geschiedenis van het gereformeerd protestantisme, (Kampen: Kok, 1991).
[23] Emil Brunner, Vom Werk des Heiligen Geistes, (Tübingen: Paul Siebeck, 1935) where he writes, “Das ist auch das Zentrum der reformatorischen Theologie, namentlich in ihrer calvinischen Gestalt, der Lehre von der insertio in Christum, von der aus alles andere bei Calvin—seine kämpferische Ethik so gut wie seine Erwählungslehre, seine Lehre vom Sakrament und der Kirche sowohl wie seine Lehre von der Heiligung zu verstehen ist” (p. 33). A few pages later, Brunner emphasizes that the unio (insertio) is “die Mitte des ganzen calvinischen Denkens” (p. 38). Comp. S. van der Linde, De Leer van den Heiligen Geest bij Calvijn, (Doctoral dissertation Utrecht), (Wageningen: H. Veenman & Zonen, 1943) & Werner Krusche, Das Wirken des Heiligen Geistes nach Calvin, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1957).
[24] In Dutch, van ‘t Spijker’s comments are a nice word play. Assurance in Dutch is zekerheid and morality is zedelijkheid.
[25] Van ‘t Spijker, Extra, 114.
[26] Ibid., 115. “Wanneer Calvijn spreekt over de zekerheid van de rechtvaardiging door het geloof alleen, wijst hij op dit extra nos, als de enige mogelijkheid om voor God te bestaan.”
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid., 121.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 131.
[31] Ibid., 131-132.
[32] See Herman Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).
[33] William Still, The Work of the Pastor, (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2001), p. 12.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Church of Christ (I)

Reorienting Regarding the Church

I will probably return sometime in the future to my comments about the deleterious effects of so-called Christian Feminism in the Christian Church. Recently, as well as in the past, I have heard stories of women who refuse to follow their husband’s leading because the congregation wasn’t glitzy enough or the pastor’s sermons weren’t joyful or to their liking. By and large, these are instances of wives going on “strike” and refusing to attend a solidly biblical church because it didn’t suit their feminist ideals. In those cases it is fruitless to talk about biblical submission.

Of course, evangelical churches have effectively discouraged biblical submission even though they may pay lip service to it—may. There are two other reasons why I’ve decided to change topics: one negative and the other positive. Negatively, I simply became thoroughly dismayed with what was supposed to past for exegesis from John Smed’s article. If this is what is passing for exegesis in the PCA today, we’re in deep trouble. Fortunately, I know that Rev. Smed’s excursion into eisegesis and tendentious writing is not the norm in the PCA.

Positively, it is high time that we went back and reflected positively on what we believe regarding the Christian Church. It has been said—probably correctly—that with the advent of the so-called New Perspective on Paul—which, by the way, isn’t really new—and the Federal Vision there has a been a doctrinal paradigm shift away from soteriology to ecclesiology. There is, therefore, a new trajectory. Those who are really “hip” these days prefer to use the moniker “ecclesial.” It just sounds so erudite, giving credence that you are not stuck in the rut of tradition. So, we are, today, concerned with matters ecclesial and—as an extension of that—“missional.” Missions are truly an extension of our understanding of the Church of Christ, so if our ecclesiology is off or distorted, our missiology will be off course as well.

My approach in these writings is to allow us to be guided by an article on the nature and character of the Church written by Herman Bavinck that appeared in his popular dogmatics, Magnalia Dei.[1] The sub-title of this work is—translated—“Instruction in the Christian Religion According to the Reformed Confession.”[2] There is an English translation that bears the name Our Reasonable Faith that contains his thoughts on the doctrine of the Church. There are two advantages here: First, since volume four of the Reformed Dogmatics has not yet appeared in English this affords us access to the man’s works. Second, since this is the translation of his popular dogmatics it is condensed and “easified.” Moreover, Bavinck worked long and hard to accomplish a union between his church (the Separatists [Dutch: Afgescheidenen]) and Abraham Kuyper’s Doleantie. The union occurred in 1892. Doctrinally and practically he was immersed in workings of the Church; he was a churchman.

I write these articles because I’m convinced that factors such as the mega-church, church-growth, Emergent Conversation, the Federal Vision, and the New Perspective on Paul have all contributed—albeit negatively—to a rather gross misunderstanding of the nature and character of the Church. The modern Church is abysmally ignorant of this doctrine and if we are to make any progress at all in reaching the lost (home missions), equipping the saints, and preaching Christ in foreign missions we had better get our act together first.

A Good Starting Place

I’m going to take my time here because we need to build a solid foundation before we move on to discuss other matters. In addition, I’m going to begin outside of the Westminster Standards, which is currently my theological tradition,[3] and look at what is perhaps a lesser known, but very important Reformed confession: the Belgic Confession.[4] In particular, we will focus in the first few issues on the Articles 27-29 of the B.C. At the same time, I want to point out that even though de Brès was dependent—indeed, at times almost quoting Calvin verbatim—of Calvin in the formulation of much of what he wrote, he did so without slavishly repeating all that Calvin taught on the subject.

Lest I come of the oft-repeated charge of elevating a confessional document to the status of Scripture, allow me to present what the B.C. teaches in Article 7—which is no different than other Reformed confessions. That article is entitled, “The Sufficiency of Holy Scripture.” Here is what it says,

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us s written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise that we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that he doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statues, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule which the apostles have taught us, saying, Prove the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house.[5]

In a very short expanse of space the B.C. captures what has been the essence of Reformed and Presbyterian confession regarding the Scriptures throughout the centuries. It is rather amazing—and disappointing—that those who ought to know better resort to flinging epithets at the heads of those who want to hold on to our Reformed tradition as if we—in any way—desire to elevate the confessions to the level of infallibility. That is such a cheap shot and yet it is often repeated, especially in our current context. So for all the skeptics and nay-sayers, read and re-read Article 8 because quite frankly I am more than just a little tired of the screed.

One statement in Article 8 applies directly to the topic of ecclesiology that seems to be lost on the modern Church and that is the statement regarding “the whole manner of worship which God requires of us.” A segment of the modern Church seems to employ the “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” mentality if not the “what-do-the-people-demand?” one. At the other end of the spectrum are those who choose to ignore what their particular church accepts as right and good. Two examples will suffice: First, in Westminster Larger Catechism 156 we are asked: Is the Word of God to be read by all? The answer is: Although all are not to be permitted to read the Word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families…” That’s crystal clear, isn’t it? And yet, there are some PCA churches who totally disregard this and have female members of the “whatever team”—fill in the blank—read the scriptures in the worship service and have no twinges of conscience about what they have vowed to uphold. There’s something dreadfully wrong with a pastor or church planter that has such an attitude about what he’s vowed publicly.

Second, in the PCA Book of Church Order we are told that we are to ordain Deacons (cf. BCO 24-6-10). There are some in the PCA, however, who don’t and won’t. In my own Presbytery we spun, danced, contorted, twisted, and whatever else it took to allow a transfer to take this exception. We’re really nice guys and don’t want anyone mad at us. After all, we’re pastors and pastors are supposed to be nice to everyone all the time. Besides, it’s a public vote for all to see.

I’m convinced that part of the reason some won’t ordain Deacons is that they want to appease the Christian feminists, who just wouldn’t understand why we do what we do and they’re not prepared to take the requisite time to teach them what Scripture says, so they bend to the cultural pressure—smiling and being nice in the process, of course—, failing to realize that you can only bend so far before you break. If you don’t like what the BCO says then take the requisite steps to get it changed. In the meantime, however, adhere to what is there.

The evangelical Church, which is by and large spiritually bankrupt, has long since practically abandoned believing much of anything at all about a proper manner of the worship of God taken from Scripture, but that’s an entirely different subject. What is essential to note, however, is that worship is an integral part of ecclesiology and missiology. R. Kent Hughes has written, “You can never have a Christian mind without reading the Scriptures regularly because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.”[6] Isn’t that patently and obviously true? And yet the Christian Church in general is abysmally ignorant of the Scriptures in our time. The Emergent Conversation is, if possible, worse than its mega-church nemesis. What concerns me more, however, is that I am aware of certain PCA church plants that have not bothered to teach their congregations what it means to be Presbyterian.

Look, if you’re planting a church and people begin to attend that are either estranged from the gospel or have never heard it, then that’s fine. That’s where you are; that’s where they are. It is what it is. You have to begin somewhere. If at the end of three or more years, however, they still don’t have a clue what it is to be Presbyterian and the church planter still refuses to “spill the beans” and tell them the truth for fear that they will walk away, then, once again, something is dreadfully wrong. Sinclair Ferguson wrote a blurb on the front jacket of William Still’s The Work of the Pastor that reads this way: “Every minister should read this book once a year-at least!” It is excellent advice and here’s why.

Still begins by saying that the “end of all pastoral work must never be forgotten—that its ultimate aim is to lead God’s people to offer themselves up to Him in total devotion of worship and service. Many who are called pastors, having lost the end in view, or never having seen it, become pedlars of various sorts of wares, gulling the people and leading them into their own power. And when they fail to gather a clientele for their own brand of merchandise they uptail and away, for they are not really interested in the flock of God; they were using them only as a means of their own aggrandisement, to boost their ego and indulge their desire for power.”[7]

Still reminds us that even when you’re dealing with the “cultured despiser” or the “biblically ignorant” there must not be a difference made between “a teaching evangelism” and “doctrinal preaching.”[8] The way that this works out in the practice is like this: “All this suggests that if a man declares the whole counsel of the Word of God contained in the Bible, then he must be both teaching and preaching. I suggest to you that such a thorough, radical ministry is so little known today that most people, even in the evangelical church, have not the faintest idea of its effects and fruits.”[9]

But what if your congregation is comprised primarily of those who have just come to faith? Well, the simple answer is that you feed them off the Word of God and not a bunch of culturally hip claptrap and boondoggle. Still warns that “we must not make the disastrous error of going on preaching what is called the simple Gospel, isolating a few mere facts, wonderful as they are, until the last man-jack is known to have been converted.”[10] Allow me to comment on this briefly. Hardly a Presbytery meeting goes by that I don’t hear one of my colleagues ask a candidate, “How would you preach this sermon to a congregation that is more than 50% non-believers?” That has become such a wearisome question. It gives the impression that they understand ministry and really care for the lost while the rest of us incompetent dolts and boobs only care about ramming heavy doses of doctrine down the throats of people.

It’s quite conceivable that you could have a congregation of 50% non-believers although I truthfully believed that’s a stretch. But what if after a year or two under the preaching the percentage is relatively the same? What does that say about your preaching the whole counsel of God to them? What is our calling as pastors? “It is to feed sheep on such truth that men are called to churches and congregation, whatever they may think they are called to do. If you think that you are called to keep a largely worldly organisation, miscalled a church, going, with infinitesimal doses of innocuous sub-Christian drugs or stimulants, then the only help I can give you is to advise you to give up the hope of the ministry and go and be a street scavenger; a far healthier and more godly job, keeping the streets tidy, than cluttering the church with a lot of worldly claptrap in the delusion that you are doing a job for God. The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland. You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness.”[11]

Part of the problem today, therefore, is a lack of courage. When I was in seminary, Al Martin spoke at one of our preaching classes and he said words to this effect: If as a pastor you are affected by either the smiles or the frowns of the members of your congregation, then it’s time to hang up the old ecclesiastical jock. Still concurs and writes, “Courage is the greatest lack today. If all men in the ministry acted upon what they know we would have a far better ministry.”[12] At one point he wrote these words to his congregation: “I despair of some who come to our church and who read our literature, because what they hear and read is only one item of their spiritual diet. Indeed, they eat very little of anything but like children play with their food. That is why they are so thin.”[13] They are culpable for part of their spiritual malnutrition, but some pastors are also culpable for fearing them and the possibility that they will walk away if we preach the truth of the complete Gospel. In other words, “too many today pin their faith for fruitful evangelism on harping for ever on a few Gospel facts isolated from the broad and full context of the whole Bible.”[14]

Those of us who are PCA have freely said that we believe the Bible is infallible and the Westminster Standards are a reliable summary of what Scripture teaches. Now all that remains for us is to have the conviction of our vows and the courage to preach coram Deo. To do that, however, you need to be a man. Next time, Lord willing, we’ll begin to take a look at Belgic Confession articles 27-29.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Magnalia Dei, (Kok: Kampen 1909).

[2] Onderwijzing in de christelijke religie naar gereformeerde belijdenis.

[3] For thirteen years I was a pastor in the Reformed Churches in both Holland and Canada that used the Three Forms of Unity: the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort.

[4] The chief author of the Belgic Confession was Guido de Brès, who was a preacher in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and who died a martyr at the hands of the Roman Catholics in 1567. The B.C. dates from 1561. The Synod of Dordrecht (1618/1619) adopted the B.C. as one of the doctrinal standards of the Reformed Churches to which all office-bearers were required to subscribe.

[5] Ecumenical and Reformed Creeds and Confessions, (Classroom Edition), Mid-America Reformed Seminary, (Hospers, IA: Siouxland Press, 20045), pp. 19-20. Emphases in the original.

[6] R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 20012), p. 77. Italics his.

[7] William Still, The Work of the Pastor, (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 20012), pp. 1-2.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid., 6.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 9-10. Italics mine.

[12] Ibid., 12.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 7.