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What It Means to Be Reformed (Standard Bearer series) (16)

A series of editorials in the Standard Bearer by Prof. Barrett Gritters (PRC Seminary), published in 2015-16.

What It Means to Be Reformed (1)

This article was first published in the Standard Bearer. For the original source link click here.

“What does it mean to be Reformed?” is a question I have asked catechism students for most of my ministry in order to help them become, so to speak, ecclesiastically self-aware. After all, they are members of Protestant Reformed Churches, and catechism serves to prepare them to become mature, confessing members of these churches.

The word Protestant in “Protestant Reformed Churches in America” is not as significant as the word Reformed. “Protestant” refers mainly to the PRCA’s origins in 1924/25. For a time we were protesting Christian Reformed Churches. Eventually, after the protests were unsuccessful, we took to ourselves the name Protestant Reformed Churches in America. Today, most would explain our use of the word Protestant as “not Roman Catholic,” indicating our origins in the Reformation. Which is appropriate. In addition, our name is Protestant Reformed Churches, not church. But the more important word in our name is “Reformed.” What does it mean to be Reformed?

The year 2015 is the ninetieth year of the existence of the PRCA and thus an opportune time to reflect on our name and identity as a church of Jesus Christ in the world. For those who have newly joined our denomination—although most have been catechized prior to joining— this may be a brief refresher course. Young Protestant Reformed members reading this may find out that their pastor’s explanation of Reformed in catechism was not merely his personal opinion. And, for those who do not know what “Protestant Reformed” is, this is an opportunity for the PRC to offer a positive and public witness. We are, and we want to be, fully and genuinely Reformed.

We are glad to identify ourselves as Reformed. Some do not know the term, or know only a caricature of it. But others are embarrassed to claim this as part of their identity. Or, it may be considered sinful pride to label one’s self as anything other than “Christian.” Witness the modern trend of removing denominational affiliation from church signs. New churches are adopting names that say nothing about what they stand for, like “The River,” “The Link,” “Encounter,” “Movement,” “Pulse,” “Beat.” Or the names tell only place— “(Your-town-here) Community Church.” Possibly these names tell more about the churches than first glance would indicate—they do not want you to know what they stand for; or, they want to be known as trendy. I have always encouraged our churches who construct new signs by the road to put the place—Hudsonville, Redlands, Wingham—in smaller print than the denominational identity—Protestant Reformed Church. Not because that’s essential, but because it indicates a desire to be transparent, as well as unashamed of who we are (which is not the same as being proud).

If some are embarrassed to be known as Reformed, there is, on the other side of things, a resurgence in the number of Christians who are eager to be identified as Reformed. The population of self-identified Calvinists is swelling. Those who read books and blogs are familiar with the “young, restless and Reformed,” or the “New Calvinists.” There is something very encouraging about a renewed interest in and commitment to the sovereignty of God and the “doctrines of grace,” as the five points of Calvinism are sometimes called. We pray that the faith that gives all glory to God for salvation will continue to spread. Yet being a Calvinist is more than confessing the doctrines of grace, and commitment to being Reformed involves more than embracing God’s sovereignty.

We are Protestant Reformed Churches.

For us, to be Reformed is to be biblical. It is simply to be Christian. Identifying as Reformed is not an attempt to be something other than what Christ calls His church to be. But since hundreds of groups, unfaithful to Jesus Christ and His Scripture, call themselves Christian, it is necessary to distinguish ourselves from them by our name. On the other hand, because many others are very similar to us in faith and life, yet not close enough to be united institutionally, we must distinguish ourselves from them as well. In the former group would be Roman Catholics. In the latter, many other Reformed or Presbyterian churches.

In the past, when a distinctive confession of faith was valued, churches understood the need for a distinctive name—a kind of flag they hoisted on their ship. Thus Baptists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Methodists, and all the other church groups were plainly identified in their faith and life by their name. Our name is Reformed.

Holding convictions and announcing them in a name is not smug arrogance. It is not sectarianism. Holding convictions about faith and life and announcing them in a name is a desire to be faithful to God and His Word, and transparent to those who may want to join our churches. It’s also a recognition that the ecclesiastical landscape is strewn with churches that are not true churches any longer, because in their history they lost a conviction that Christ is truth, lost the boldness to broadcast their faith, lost a sense of who they were historically, and lost the realization that churches are destroyed under the judgment of God for lack of knowledge. True, churches can be destroyed in God’s judgment for other things as well, like pride in the truth without loving the truth. Or pride in a name without loving what the name represents. But that’s a story for a later article. Here the point needs to be made that convictions and transparency about those convictions are vital.

Things Christians used to die for are less important to some than what university logo shows on their car window, or what political party they advertise on their license plate. The things Christians used to live for are sometimes dismissed with a shrug, or a sneer. Pretty soon the church becomes little more than a human institution for satisfying one’s social appetite.

Not to hold convictions and publicize them in a name may well indicate the sentiment that one form of Christianity is as good as any other. And that’s one step away from becoming a false church. I pray this does not sound arrogant.

I pray that all Christians— especially those who are called Reformed Christians—have strong convictions about what it means to be Christian, and advertise those convictions. The Protestant Reformed Churches and our ecclesiastical family in the world believe that true Christianity is most faithfully represented in Reformed Christianity. If not, honesty requires that we join some other church communion.

But who has the right to declare what is Reformed Christianity? Is there somewhere an authoritative definition of Reformed?

I think everyone would agree that the designation “Reformed” came from the time of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century when large groups of believers separated themselves from the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, reforming the church. These were designated Protestants. And when Calvinists among them distinguished themselves from Lutherans and Anabaptists, these Calvinists were called Reformed. In England, Scotland, and Wales these Calvinists were called Presbyterians, identifying themselves more by their church government than their history. But on the mainland of Europe they were called Reformed.

In the early seventeenth century, the Reformed were distinguished from Arminians by the Canons of Dordt.

In the Netherlands the Gereformeerde Kerken (GKN) separated in 1834 from the Hervormde Kerk (the larger state church). In 1886 another group separated itself from the Hervormde Kerk. All of these claimed to be, and wanted to be Reformed, over against a departure from the Reformed faith.

Among the Dutch immigrants that came to America in the nineteenth century, some who joined the Reformed Church in America soon determined that they could not belong to that denomination and formed a new Reformed denomination— the Christian Reformed Church. In 1924 the Protestant Reformed came out from the Christian Reformed. Out of the same CRC, fifty years later, came the Orthodox CRC and the Christian Reformation Church, claiming to be truly Reformed. In the 1990s, led primarily by the formation of Mid-America-Reformed Seminary (MARS) in NW Iowa, thousands more left the CRC, eventually forming the United Reformed Churches. These also claimed the name Reformed, but would not be identified as Christian Reformed.

To speak of our Presbyterian relatives from the UK, the fragmenting and fracturing of Presbyterianism into different denominations because of varying degrees of unfaithfulness to that name, means that the old proverb—“One Dutchman a church, two Dutchmen a denomination, three Dutchmen a schism”—is not so ethnic as one might think. There are as many or more Presbyterian denominations as (Dutch) Reformed.

And all lay claim to faithfulness to “Reformed Christianity.”

So men from most of these denominations have written books describing what they believe to be the heart and core of what it means to be Reformed. (The interested reader may ask for a short bibliography of 15 such books.)

In the editorials that follow, I will try to point out from history and tradition—and especially the official documents of Reformed churches—what is the best answer to this question: What does it mean to be Reformed? The matter may not be as black and white as one would like it to be. But it is not so subjective as one might think, and certainly not mere personal opinion.

For most of my ministry as I taught catechism to the young adults, I identified three main areas that they needed to concentrate on as they thought of themselves as members of a Reformed church and as Reformed believers. Almost weekly I reminded them of three words—Covenantal, Calvinistic, and Confessional—and then asked them to give voice to what each of these words means. For mature Reformed Christians, in order to be more careful as well as more comprehensive, it would be good to add two other elements (also starting with “C” if only for memory’s sake): Reformed believers put a strong emphasis onChurch, and have a distinctive view of the Christian Life.

Covenant. We start with Covenant. The reality of covenant friendship with the triune God whom we love because He first loved us, is the heart of the Christian and Reformed faith.

Calvinism. That covenant relationship must be understood properly—Calvinistically. How and why God entered into friendship with a people, and whether that relationship can ever end, are answered by the Calvinistic doctrines of the sovereignty, efficacy, and particularity of grace; and the unconditional character of double predestination.

Church. Those whom God befriends will join themselves to a true Church. Reformed believers are not individualistic in thinking or living, but ecclesiastical because Christ is (Eph. 1:21-23). To be Reformed is to understand church membership, the church’s worship, her government, her discipline, and more.

Confessional. A Reformed church is Confessional. That is, she adopts and teaches creeds as official and binding expressions of the faith of the Scripture. An integral part of her church life is using these confessions. Inseparably involved with being confessional is that she has a sense of, and deep appreciation for, history and tradition.

Christian life. At this date in church history, it is also necessary to say that Reformed believers and Reformed churches have a unique perspective on the Christian life. Especially some New Calvinists, and all neo-Calvinists, have a view of the Christian life that is not historically Reformed.

God helping, we will explain each of these five elements in at least one editorial in the coming months.

We are Reformed Christians. To God alone be glory.

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What It Means to be Reformed (2): COVENANTAL

This article first appeared in the March 1, 2015 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.91, #11).

What It Means to be Reformed (2): COVENANTAL

This 90th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformed Churches (1925-2015) is good opportunity to remind ourselves who we are, to reflect with joy that God has preserved us as a denomination, and to express humble gratitude for what God has given us. It also makes us plead (paraphrasing but slightly, Psalter #27): “O God, preserve us; for in Thee alone our trust has stood.” And exclaim: “The lines are fallen unto us in places large and fair; a goodly heritage is ours, marked out with gracious care.” Grace has brought us where we are; grace will sustain us, if God will be pleased to do so.

To be and remain Reformed is what the PRCs want. This is my conviction and must be the conviction of all her confessing members. Membership in a church with the name “Reformed” means understanding and agreeing with what the name designates.

I ended last editorial saying that, although there are many opinions of what it means to be Reformed, these editorials will assert that to be Reformed is to be covenantal, Calvinistic, confessional, church-focused, and have a definite and particular view of the Christian life. Without any one of these, a church may have important elements of a Reformed identity, but cannot legitimately take for herself the name Reformed. Especially in these days when so many want to be known as Reformed only because they believe the five points of Calvinism, it is important to identify Reformed more carefully and more comprehensively.

The heart of it all

Central to understanding what it means to be Reformed is God’s covenant of grace. The heart that pumps with life in a Reformed church is the reality—both the teaching and the living—of God’s everlasting covenant.

We start with covenant and we end with covenant.

And not merely because covenant has been at the center of PRC history and doctrinal development, although it certainly has. The existence of the PRC and the history of the PRC are related to the defense of and development of the doctrine of the covenant. For many in Reformed churches, to say “Protestant Reformed Churches,” is to say “covenant.” We are happy with that.

But we start and end with covenant because the Christian faith does. Christianity itself is covenantal. To say “Christian” must make a Reformed person say “Covenant.” To say “Christian” without saying “Covenant” is to misunderstand the very essence of Christianity.

The everlasting covenant of grace is God’s living bond of friendship and love between Him and His elect people in Jesus Christ—embracing also their children—established and sealed with inviolable promises. The covenant is not children, even though it is necessary to emphasize that God’s covenant embraces also the elect children of believers. The covenant is not promise, even though covenant is not covenant without rich and beautiful promises. Nor can we say covenant without saying, “unconditional,” a hallmark adjective of PRC doctrine, which will be explained under the heading “Calvinistic,” since God’s covenant must be understood as gracious. But God’s covenant is a bond of friendship and love. It is the revelation outside of Himself of the covenant life He lives within Himself as the God of Trinity, in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit fellowship in love.

At the heart of the Christian faith and experience is God’s embrace of an undeserving people, His drawing them to Himself in love by His own Son, His declaration to them, “I am the LORD thy God and ye are my people,” and His binding Himself to them with the oath: “I love you eternally; I will never break my covenant.” God’s covenant friends then by grace respond, “We belong to Thee, body and soul, in life and in death; we love Thee and delight in Thee.”

Christianity—Reformed Christianity—is personal, experiential, comforting, delightful.

Living the covenant

It is not permissible, although it is possible, for Reformed Christians to defend covenant doctrine, battle against covenant heresies, explain everything theological in terms of covenant, but not live covenantally. To be Reformed is not only to confess the gracious covenant, but to live the life of the covenant. To be a friend of God. To speak with and embrace Him. To listen to His Words of love to us. To walk with Him in the cool of the day. To delight in His presence.

Of course, one cannot live covenantally without knowing covenant truth. One cannot embrace a God he does not understand, or listen to a God whose embrace of him he thinks is, for example, deserved. So my saying that covenant must be lived is not saying that covenant need not be explained—by thorough and precise doctrine. It is saying, however, that it is possible to know all about the covenant without truly knowing God and, thus, that without living as God’s friend one cannot call himself truly Reformed.

Illustrating covenant

To confess, defend and fight about the doctrine of the covenant without living covenant life would be like a married man spending his life on the road, speaking at conferences about the beauty and truth of marriage, without coming home to love, embrace, and fellowship with his wife. He may speak ever so eloquently, even moving married people to tears by his explanation of God’s good gift of marriage, but if he does not draw near to, embrace, converse with, and live intimately with his wife, he does not know marriage.

That is an apt illustration because it is biblical. “I am married to you,” God said to Israel (Jer. 3:14; see also Ezek. 16, especially v. 8). In Ephesians 5, after Paul described marriage in quite the detail, he concluded with the startling remark, “But I am speaking of Christ and the church.” The relationship between God and His people in Christ is best illustrated by a good, Christian marriage. The covenant relationship (really a redundancy) between God and His people, first revealed in paradise of Genesis, finds its goal and climax in the marriage supper of the Lamb, the paradise of Revelation and eternity.

A marriage is a bond. I am bound to my wife, for life. In a Christian marriage is delight, fellowship, conversation, intimacy. Marriage is not a promise, even though a man is bound to his wife by oaths he swears at the wedding. Marriage is not children, even though in most marriages there are children. Marriage is a living bond of friendship and love. So is God’s covenant.

Proving covenant

That covenant is the heart of the Reformed faith and of Christianity itself is biblical. The Bible itself is comprised of Old Covenant and New Covenant. A legitimate way to think of and even translate the word testament in “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is covenant. The entire Word of God to His people is in the framework of covenant. For the first four thousand years, God’s way of speaking to and living with His people was the “shadowy” way of types and pictures, designed for an immature church, but all pointing to Jesus Christ. God’s way of speaking to and living with His people, for the past two thousand years, is new—that is, without all the old forms and shadows of the first dispensation. But whether old or new, God has always spoken to and lived among His people as their covenant friend. Whether old or new, it is all covenant.

So God’s relationship with the crown of His creation—Adam—the one in the image of the Creator, was a “friendly” relationship, until sin interrupted that intimate fellowship, which immediately brings the promise of the sending of God’s own Son to restore and elevate that friendship to the highest level. But all through the old covenant, this is the testimony of the Word. God was the friend of Noah. Enoch walked with God. Both Testaments identify Abraham as the “friend of God.” And when God’s people became a multitude, He preserved His friendly relationship by erecting His tabernacle-house in the middle of the multitude, from which house He spoke to them and lived with them. “Come, visit Me. I am your God; ye are My people.” Friendship. Intimate secrets (Ps. 25:14). Love. Covenant.

When God’s friends violated that relationship by loving and communing with other gods, the prophets put that sin in terms of violating a marriage—adultery. “I am married to you!” objected God through Jeremiah. To the prophet Hosea God said, “Marry a woman known for her unfaithfulness; she will be unfaithful to you; but by this painful experience you will be able to convey to My people what their idolatry is essentially—a violation of a marriage friendship.”

And when God—true to the promises of His covenant—would graciously maintain the relationship with undeserving people, He sent His own Son. Not only would Jehovah-Salvation pay for our sins. God would have Him known as “God with us” (Matt. 1:23), the one who “tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). If nothing else testifies that the heart of the Christian faith is covenant as friendship, it is the stunning and humbling reality that God did not spare His own Son from death, and that His own Son willingly and lovingly laid down His life for His friends.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends…. …I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends… (John 15:13-15).

If anything makes a Reformed believer happy that he may number himself among those who rightly call themselves Reformed, it is this reality. God is my Friend through Jesus Christ. I love Him. He loves me. Me. Undeserving me. Gracious friendship. Gracious covenant. This is Reformed.

Confessional truth

It may be said that at the time of the writing of the Reformed confessions the doctrine of the covenant was not developed as it is today. That may be true. Explicit definitions of covenant may be lacking. Fully worked-out doctrine of the covenant explicitly as friendship, pictured by marriage—a gracious and everlasting relationship of love—you will not find.

But no one may say that our Reformed fathers did not know covenant.

The greatest statement, in my estimation, that shows that our Reformed fathers understood the Christian faith—the Reformed faith—as essentially friendship and love, a statement that will likely never be improved upon, is the opening statement of the Heidelberg Catechism. That experiential, comforting, personal, most favored of all the Reformed creeds, begins with a statement that could hardly be described better than “covenantal.”

Read it again, and think of it in the terms we have been describing. And rejoice that you may call yourself Reformed, and by that simply mean “Christian.”

What is thy only comfort in life and death?

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.  

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What It Means to be Reformed (3): COVENANTAL - Implications

This article first appeared in the March 1, 2015 issue of The Standard Bearer.

What It Means To Be Reformed (3): COVENANTAL—Implications

From God’s covenant flows everything!

If God’s covenant is the heart of the Christian faith and life, as well as the heart of what it means to be Reformed, one would expect that from this central truth come many other truths. As a matter of fact, from the covenant comes everything. This first “C” in our five identifying characteristics of a Reformed church leads to everything else in the Christian and Reformed faith. In the effort to clarify what is Reformed, we can say “covenant” is the heading under which all else is subsumed, in the same way that “theology” is the heading under which all the other chapters of Reformed doctrine are subsumed. Thus, everything about being Reformed is an implication of covenant.

Yet there are four rather direct implications of covenant that ought to be mentioned (before moving on to the next “C”) in our efforts to identify comprehensively as well as succinctly what it means to be a Reformed church. Characteristic of Reformed churches that understand the covenant is an emphasis on 1) covenantal worship, 2) the Christian Sabbath, 3) covenant children of believers, and 4) the defense of God-honoring marriage. Each of these is a direct application of our Reformed covenantal identity.

Covenantal Worship

We begin with worship because worship is the supreme activity of God’s friends as they relate to Him. Worship is the friends of God coming into the presence of God in order to fellowship with God. The matter of proper worship is also a hallmark of the Reformed faith. That, God willing, we will treat under the “C” of “Church.” Here, we treat the more basic truth that the covenant friends of God will worship God, will live in His presence as Adam and Eve did when God first created them for fellowship. We speak mostly of the public, communal worship of the congregation.

The Reformed Christian wants to worship. He does not come to God because of a command as much as because of a desire. He does not worship because it is required as much as because it is the happiest activity of his life: “With joy and gladness in my soul, I hear the call to prayer. Let us go up to God’s own house and bow before Him there” (Psalm 122 versified). Worship is part of a believer’s new nature, which is why it is not first a command that produces worship, but regeneration—he lives the life of his Friend. Commanding a Christian to worship is something like commanding a human to breathe. God (re-)made us for fellowship with and worship of Himself! Our joy, comfort, and satisfaction are in Him and before His face. We mean it when we say, “The loving kindness of my God is more than life to me.” And, “O Lord, my God, most earnestly my heart would seek Thy face, Within Thy holy house once more, To see Thy glorious grace. Apart from Thee I long and thirst, And nought can satisfy…” (Psalm 63 versified).

As we saw last time, since marriage is the best illustration of covenant, a Christian wife in a good marriage understands the believer’s longing to be in God’s presence. If her marriage is healthy, no one needs to command her to be with her man. If the biblical doctrine of covenant actually lives in us, it is love for God and not a command that will carry us to church on Sunday. A good dose of self-analysis is in order for all believers—why do I attend church?

Worship as an implication of covenant means also that the activity of worship is conversation, and joy in one another’s company, not entertainment. God speaks; His covenant friends respond. God is central and His voice is prominent, but the believers’ voices are heard, too. Which means that the common distinction between “worship/ praise” and “preaching” is improper. Mention “worship” today and most think praise bands and singing, but usually not preaching. By “worship” we mean the meeting of the covenant people with God in which they both speak and sing but also hear.

But preaching has prominence because in preaching it is God who is speaking (I Thess. 2:13). That is, pride of place is given to preaching that is careful exposition and application of God’s Word. We want to be “more ready to hear than to give the sacrifice of fools,” and to “let our words be few” (Eccl. 5:1, 2). Even when we speak, sing, and pray in response to God’s speech, as good conversations go, God’s voice must remain prominent. And I wonder, very cautiously, whether our sinful tendency is always to get that balance wrong in both the reality of covenant life with God, and in the covenant’s best illustration of marriage. Think about it. That’s humbling, and I do not mean for wives.

If Reformed worship must make sure that conversation is emphasized, it is just as important to emphasize that God must determine the subject of conversation. Reformed sermons are not about what makes us happy or gives us a pleasant and satisfying life, but about the great works God has performed (compare Psalm 77:11ff., and Acts 2:11). The subject of preaching and the center of conversation is Jesus Christ, because Christ is God’s greatest work! Jesus Christ is our covenant God’s mighty hand and stretched out arm that gave us redemption and covenant salvation. He is the covenant’s Mediator and Head. Access to God is through Him. Who is so great a God as our God?

The Heidelberg Catechism points in this direction, and not subtly either. The student of the Catechism must not be distracted by its beautiful explanation of proper worship, but first focus on the bigger picture of worship itself. The very structure of this Reformed creed is covenantal: how we, created in the image of our Father, now fallen out of fellowship with God, are miserable (the First Part). How we, by grace and through faith in Christ can be restored to the fellowship of the One to whom we belong (the Second Part). And how we may respond to this gracious reconciliation and restoration (the Third Part). A covenantal framework. Now the response of redeemed believers (the Third Part) is striking: “Love the One who loved us!” This is what obedience to the commandments is: love Him! “And then speak to Him in prayer.” The conclusion of the Catechism is exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s all covenant!

Although we emphasize public worship, not to be forgotten is the Reformed tradition of daily, covenantal, family and personal worship, which flow out of the public worship of God. Threatened in every generation, but more so today by the busyness of society, regular family and private worship are also inevitable expressions of Reformed believers’ love for their Friend.

The Covenantal Sabbath

The second great implication of covenant and fellowship is Sabbath observance. The covenantal Sabbath. Reformed churches have long maintained the Sabbath as a “perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages,” as “one day in seven…to be kept holy unto him” (Westminster Confession of Faith XXI:7).

Sabbath observance, even tenacious defense of Sabbath observance, is not narrow Puritanism, but Reformed. The Reformed faith has always seen the importance of preserving the entire first day of the week for this covenantal worship and rest. This is the teaching of our Presbyterian relatives in their Westminster standards, and of our Heidelberg Catechism in LD 38. Sabbath observance then is not legalism, but gratitude, as its placement in the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us. We call the Sabbath a delight (Is. 58:13) because God designed the day for our time of special fellowship with Him. Lose the day and we damage our friendship. Keep the day and we grow in our marriage-relationship with Him.

Too many Reformed churches have shot themselves in the foot (heart, really) by calling attention to the Catechism’s “all the days of my life ceasing from my evil works,” in order to eliminate the weekly Sabbath.1 God forbid! Reformed churches keep the weekly Sabbath as the token of the eternal Sabbath, and as a day in which, as we remember both our good creation (Ex. 20:11) and our gracious redemption (Deut. 5:15), we find strength to live the rest of the week, yielding ourselves to the Lord and beginning already in this life the eternal Sabbath (HC 38). Sabbath rest, covenant friendship. A day together in God’s courts is better than a thousand….

The Church’s Covenant Youth

Third, how beautiful the Reformed teaching that the arms of God’s covenant love reach around believers’ children too! Thus, Reformed churches have not only put the sign of the covenant upon the infants (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 27), but also devoted their lives and energy to these baptized, covenant children in amazing ways. It is genuinely and uniquely Reformed to lavish attention on the covenant seed. Not because we believe God loves all the children of believers. We know well enough that God’s covenant embrace of children is limited to “as many as the Lord our God shall call” from among them (Acts 2:39). But we lavish attention on them in obedience to God’s command to leave a spiritual inheritance to our children and their children (Prov. 13:22) and to teach them in the way that they should go (Prov. 22:6). Then we leave it to the Lord to reveal to us if some of the precious sons and daughters are not truly His. But Reformed believers treat their children as God’s children.

Although I mention infant baptism almost in passing because of the nature of these editorials, infant baptism is not of passing importance. The Reformed creeds demand infant baptism. To be Reformed is to require members of the church to baptize their infants. This is a friendly but sharp message to those churches or seminaries who befriend Calvinistic Baptists to such a degree that they forget the great chasm between Reformed and those who refuse to be “baby sprinklers,” as one man pejoratively referred to me recently. It must be said, even if some take offense at it: with a proper definition of “Reformed,” the name “Reformed Baptist” is an oxymoron. Reformed churches understand the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant.

The lavishing of care on covenant seed starts in the covenant home and family where mothers are “keepers at home” (Titus 2:5) and fathers come home to make their household a refuge from the wicked world and a happy dwelling of love and peace. Teaching and playing and conversation and discipline—the ordered but happy home life of covenant fellowship.

Covenant life with children continues in the Christian day school, God permitting, where Christian parents band together to do their best with the rearing of God’s children. The covenant demands good rearing; the covenant demands that we do our utmost for these children of whom we parents are stewards. Where it is feasible, therefore, Reformed covenant communities have established institutions where trained Reformed teachers stand in the place of Reformed parents to teach Reformed children covenant life in the church and world. With mammoth and costly efforts, the covenant people exert themselves to think and work together for the covenant seed.

Although these Christian schools are parental and not parochial, the church does more than passively observe these parental covenant efforts. The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Art. 21) has consistories actively “seeing to it” that there are good Christian schools in which parents have their children instructed according to the demands of the covenant.

But the church does not end her efforts in the home and school. Reformed churches understand the glorious history of officebearers, especially pastors, giving catechism instruction to the covenant youth, from kindergarten until their confession of faith, and perhaps beyond. So important is this focus on the children that when our Reformed Church Order mandates Church Visitation (Art. 44), the church visitors must “take heed whether the…consistory… properly promote[s]…the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth” (emphasis mine).

The Covenant of Marriage

Finally, a Reformed church will be a church that defends the precious institution of marriage. If marriage is the preeminent biblical illustration of God’s covenant with His elect, what better way for the covenant seed to learn about covenant than by observing good marriages! If one were an enemy of God’s church, one of the main bulwarks he would assail— with mortar after mortar and one battering ram after another— would be the bulwark of Christian marriage. Thus, the institution we must earnestly defend is the institution of marriage.

No one can write such words in AD 2015 without feeling a great sense of sadness, and a good deal of righteous anger, that the devil has made such headway in his battle against the covenant by ruining so many marriages. No one can think about the importance of marriages for the covenant seed without his heart breaking for the dear children whose parents have either divorced or are not living in love and peace. God hates putting away. For the sake of a “godly seed” God made two to be one (Mal. 2:15). Nor may any be deaf to the righteous anger in God’s voice through Malachi as He rebukes Israel for the wickedness of their “marriage problems.”

By a wonder of grace, may God preserve these children. I would give all my possessions to see one particular miracle performed today. And my choice of miracles would not be a blind man receiving his sight or a crippled child made to walk, even though such miracles would bring me tears of joy. I would give my right arm if doing so would preserve one child from the terrible damage done when their churchgoing parents allow their marriages to deteriorate and die.

But we must not desire to give our right arms. Reformed believers must give their entire life and all their energy, working and praying that God preserve our marriages. We must preach and preach, and teach and teach, and then preach and teach some more, the biblical doctrine of marriage—preach that God “hates putting away;” preach that, even if marriage is only temporal, it is still one of the most important temporal institutions God created in the beginning for the preservation of His covenant people.

May our merciful and good God spare Reformed churches, in their generations, by preserving in them good marriages. By leading young people to marry only in the Lord (I Cor. 7:39), to walk in marriage only with those with whom they are agreed (Amos 3:3), and to live chastely and temperately whether in holy wedlock or in single life (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 41). And may our gracious God forgive (and correct) what sins He may be judging in churches where the covenant perhaps is accurately taught but not truly lived, one of the most flagrant ways to offend the covenant God.

1 Right along with this is an appeal to an old claim that there has always been a diversity of opinion between a “Continental” and a “Puritan” view of Sabbath-keeping.

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What It Means To Be Reformed (4): CALVINISTIC

This article was first published in the April 1, 2015 issue of The Standard Bearer.

What It Means To Be Reformed (4): CALVINISTIC

Introduction

What it means to be Reformed, as we have seen so far, is to believe heartily the biblical doctrine of the covenant, to confess that truth openly, and to live it with greatest joy. Covenant! This is Reformed. And Christian.

In this 90th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (1925-2015), we are reflecting on the heritage God has given to us as a Reformed denomination. There are many things that we could say about the PRCA but, being Reformed Christians, what we want most to say is that we love, defend, and embrace covenant theology.

In the previous two editorials, we explained the doctrine of the covenant: God’s living bond of friendship and life between Him and His elect people in Jesus Christ—embracing also their children—established and sealed with inviolable promises. We also saw four very direct and important implications of this teaching: for worship, for the Sabbath, for believer’s children and, emphatically, for Christian marriage.

Calvinism

The next of the five “Cs”—Calvinism— is not an implication of the doctrine of the covenant. It is the biblical way of understanding the truth of the covenant. The biblical truth of the covenant is known when the covenant is understood Calvinistically. That is, the wonderful love-relationship between God and His people is established and maintained by sovereign grace. Understood in its most elemental form, Calvinism (in its doctrine of salvation) is the teaching that salvation is by sovereign, irresistible, unconditional, efficacious grace—if you will forgive the four redundancies. Grace is grace, as water is wet. But because errors have crept into the teaching of grace, redundancies sadly are necessary to emphasize that grace is truly grace. But it is almost like saying that “water is powerful wet stuff.”

The Protestant Reformed Churches have expressed this Calvinistic view of the covenant in this way: First, the covenant is established and maintained by God with His elect and with them alone, unconditionally. Second, if God establishes His covenant with an elect believer, he will remain a friend of God everlastingly. That is, God “will not sever His covenant-bonds” (a versification of Psalm 105), and believers cannot sever them.1 By this manner of phrasing it, the PRC is determined to confess God’s covenant in harmony with the truths known as Calvinism.

The Five Points of Calvinism

To most Christians, Calvinism is defined by five essential doctrines. These doctrines are sometimes called the “doctrines of grace,” more often the “Five Points of Calvinism.” As I will show next time, to be Calvinistic is to embrace much more than the “Five Points,” but one may not claim to be Calvinist without embracing these five points, even though vigorous but vain efforts are often made to do just that.2 To be Calvinist is to believe and confess Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Preservation (or Perseverance) of the Saints. These five points are often remembered by the acronym TULIP.

Applied to the doctrine of the covenant, these five points can be put in this way.

Total Depravity: Those with whom God lives in loving fellowship have nothing in themselves to merit His love—they are, by nature, fully and completely depraved, “so corrupt” that they are “incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 8). That is, God’s love for His friends is not earned or deserved, for when God looked down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there were any that did seek God… there was not one (Ps. 14:2, 3). By Adam’s fall into sin, man forfeited all his excellent gifts and “entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections” (Canons 3/4:1).

The overall Scripture is consistent with the clear teaching of Romans 7:18 and Romans 8:7: “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” Natural man cannot do good and has no desire to do good. He is “dead in sin and in bondage thereto” (Canons 3/4:3). In the estimation of God, no works done by an unbeliever are good. For a work to be good in God’s eyes, its source must be faith, its motive love, and its goal God’s glory (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32). And with regard to the “natural light” an unbeliever yet has, he is not able to use it rightly “even in things natural and civil” (Canons 3/4:4). Those whom God chooses to befriend have nothing in them that deserves it.

Unconditional Election: Viewing the mass of fallen humanity in eternity, God graciously chose some of them to make them the bride of His Son, and predestined their eternal state to be glory in His heavenly home (Canons I:7). The reason for choosing some and not others was not that He foresaw that these would distinguish themselves to be worthy of His love and favor. So we see that the doctrine of total depravity sets the stage for the teaching of Unconditional Election. The election of God’s beloved friends and bride must be unconditional (Canons I:9). It was a determination to give unworthy sinners to Christ (Eph. 1:1, 4, 10; Eph. 2:10), to be saved by Him, to make them holy (Eph. 1:4) by the worth and power of “the beloved” (Eph. 1:6). So when Romans 8:29 teaches that God predestined those whom God “foreknew,” this is not to be understood to mean that God foreknew something about them. The text does not say that. Rather, God knew them; that is, He loved them. That is real, biblical knowledge (see Gen. 4:1, 25; Amos 3:2; Matt. 7:23; II Tim. 2:19). God chose His covenant friends unconditionally.

Limited Atonement: For these elect and for these alone God sent Jesus Christ to make atonement. “It was the will of God that Christ… should…redeem…all those, and those only, who were…chosen to salvation” (Canons II:8). Christ laid down His life “for his sheep” (John 10:11, 15). God sent His Son to save “His people” (Matt. 1:21), to redeem His elect friends. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). There are those who are not His sheep (John 10:25-28). Jesus did not die for them.

Thus, the “all” for whom Christ gave His life a ransom (I Tim. 2:6) is not every man who ever lived. And the “all” whom God wills to be saved (I Tim 2:4) is not every man head-for-head (any more than the “all men” in Luke 21:17 means every man head-for-head). The “all men” expressions in the New Testament usually mean all kinds of men—a way of speaking sorely needed for the new but immature Jewish Christians, who wrongly supposed only one kind of man could be saved—a Jew. And the “world” that God loves (John 3:16), is not every man who ever lived, but the world viewed organically.3 Even the “any” in the phrase “the Lord…is not willing that any should perish” (II Pet. 3:9) is not a reference to every man, but to God’s elect, the “us” in the earlier part of the verse. Christ’s death, and God’s will to save through that death, are both restricted, or limited, to those whom God has chosen unconditionally to be saved. God’s purpose in Christ’s death “proceeds from everlasting love towards the elect” (Canons II:9).

Especially here—both with the definite and limited nature of the atonement as well as with the limited intent of the atonement—so many are offended. Because of their unwillingness to accept this point, many call themselves Four Point Calvinists (a contradiction in terms, like “a four-sided pentagon” or a “goalie-less hockey team”). Especially here Calvinism must be inflexible.

In the end, we maintain the Calvinistic teaching of Limited Atonement, not merely because some or even many texts prove it, but because of the entire biblical witness to the sovereignty of God in covenant salvation.

Irresistible Grace teaches that God comes sweetly but powerfully to His chosen but lifeless friends and gives them life. The grace that brings them out of darkness into light, from the grave into life, is such a power that it cannot be resisted. When God determines to accomplish His good pleasure in a man, he can only surrender. When God calls, none can refuse, any more than Lazarus could have determined to stay in the grave when Jesus said, “Come forth!” Because grace is power (I Cor. 15:10), when God comes to men He “powerfully illuminates their minds,…opens the closed and softens the hardened heart,…infuses new qualities into the will…[and] renders [that will] good, obedient, and pliable” (Canons 3/4:11). Not that any object of His grace wants to resist, for God makes them “willing in the day of his power” (Ps. 110:3).

Preservation of the Saints: In these redeemed elect, God “preserves… the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing.” And though we at times fall and fall deeply, God “certainly and effectually renews [us] to repentance” and will not allow us “totally [to] fall from faith and grace” (Canons V:7, 8). Jesus’ friends “shall never perish” (John 10:28). He is faithful to His promises. God’s “counsel cannot be changed, nor His promise fail, neither can the call according to His purpose be revoked…” (Canons V:8).

“Once saved always saved” may be one way to express this fifth point, but that may tend to a flippant attitude. When God’s grace preserves His friends, it works in them perseverance in holy living. No one can separate us from the love of God in Christ. None can pluck us out of the Father’s hand, indeed. But because of grace God’s people actively persevere in faith and holiness. Although no one is dragged, kicking and screaming, to heaven, neither does anyone come to glory without a struggle to live in holy obedience to his Father.

The Five Points are “Reformed”

It is surprising to me that so many Calvinists would defend the Five Points by appealing everywhere, it seems, except to their real and authoritative source—the Canons of Dordt.4 No one may defend the Five Points by appealing merely to Calvin; just as no one may try to undermine one of the Five Points by quoting Calvin. The authoritative definition and explanation of the “doctrines of grace,” for Reformed Christians, is the officially adopted creed called the Canons of Dordt.

There is sometimes discussion as to the source of the acronym “TULIP.” Some have pointed out that reference to the phrase “Five Points of Calvinism” can be found only as far back as the early 1900s. Thus, the Five Points are said to be a novelty. But a Reformed Christian has very little interest in the origin of the acronym. He knows that, although these teachings are indeed what Calvin himself taught, the origin of the “Five Points” as five distinct but inseparable expressions of biblical truth is the “Great Synod,” the Synod of Dordrecht. This international gathering of Reformed churches, meeting in the Netherlands in 1618 and 1619 to defend Reformed truth against the heresy of the Arminians, adopted the “Canons of Dordt.” These canons (a set of binding rules or standards) were laid out in five major “heads,” in the order U-L-T-I-P.

If a man is Reformed, he will know and understand the doctrines explained in this beautiful creed. Even if, in the providence of God, some Reformed Christians or churches have not officially embraced this creed—as our Presbyterian brothers or our German friends—they will still express assent to the truths contained in the Canons, and heartily agree with the errors rejected by the fathers of Dordt.

We are happy to call these five doctrines of grace “The Five Points of Calvinism.” They are certainly the doctrines of John Calvin. To be more historically accurate, we might better call them the “Five Points of Dordt.”

More than the Five Points

But Calvinism is much more than the Five Points, even as being Reformed is far more than the doctrines of grace. Properly understood, Calvinism is a particular way of worship, a unique form of church government, an antithetical (holy) way of life, and more. We will have something to say about all these in the later articles in this series. But before we go on to the “Implications” of Calvinism, some important things must be said about Calvinism’s “solas” as they apply to the doctrine of a gracious covenant. April 15, God willing.


1 The covenant can be “broken” in the sense of “violated,” but man can never sever the bond that God creates when He creates that bond.

2 For two recent examples of this, see Kenneth J. Stewart, 10 Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011); and Oliver D. Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).

3 As Arthur W. Pink so clearly shows in the appendix of his The Sovereignty of God.

4 Yet this is what happened in the recent book of essays, by various authors, in honor of R.C. Sproul, After Darkness, Light: Distinctives of Reformed Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003). An otherwise promising book according to its title and chapter headings—the five points of Calvinism and the five “solas” of the Reformation are the topics—the book is written with scarcely a mention of the Reformed creeds, much less the Canons. The one happy exception is W. Robert Godfrey’s “Unconditional Election.” 

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What It Means To Be Reformed (6) Calvinistic: Implications (1)

This article first appeared in the May 1, 2015 issue of The Standard Bearer.

What It Means To Be Reformed (6) Calvinistic: Implications (1)

Introduction

Since summarizing what it means to be Reformed is really summarizing what it means to be Christian, we are necessarily brief in this series of editorials. So far, we have said that to be Reformed is 1) to embrace the beautiful truth of God’s gracious covenant of friendship, and 2) that this covenant is to be understood Calvinistically. That is, the “doctrines of grace,” or the “Five Points of Calvinism,” and the “Five Solas” of the Reformation are the necessary and controlling biblical framework for understanding the covenant.

In this article, I want to point out the implications of this Calvinistic understanding of the covenant, and start with how Calvinism is misunderstood.

What Calvinism does not imply

Foes of Calvinism portray a very negative image of Calvinism. For them, some pretty ugly stuff tags along with being Calvinistic.1 What is some of that ugly stuff?

Calvinism is anti-missions.

This is an old charge, tied especially to Calvinism’s teaching of unconditional, double predestination and limited atonement. If you believe that God has chosen only some who will infallibly be saved, and rejected others who cannot be saved; and if Jesus has died only for these elect—so the charge goes— there is no sense in doing missions. It’s a theological Que sera, sera.

The charge is not legitimate; not historically; not theologically. Faithful Calvinists have always done missions. Calvinists are still busy doing missions, always striving to be more faithful, of course. Rather than hindering missions, Calvinism itself drives Calvinist missions. Exactly because they believe that God’s elect are in the world and in darkness, Calvinists send missionaries. And exactly because they believe that these elect are brought to saving faith by preaching, Calvinists want gospel-preaching central and primary in missions. That is, “word” may not take a backseat to “deeds” as the main tool in missions. Calvinists are not motivated by horror that some may go lost for whom Christ died—Arminianism; but by the eagerness to be used by God to gather His elect. It’s not the drive to save as many as possibly can be saved by appealing to their free wills—Arminianism; but the commitment to be what God wills believers to be—the witnesses whom the Holy Spirit uses irresistibly to draw His elect.

The fathers at Dordt were aware of the criticism that “Calvinism is fatalistic about salvation; Calvinism cannot urge churches to preach to all nations; Calvinism relegates preaching to an optional thing because God will surely save whom God elects.” So in every head of doctrine, the Canons confess conviction of the importance of promiscuous gospel preaching.2

If Calvinistic (Reformed) churches are missions-lazy, one of two things—and perhaps three—must be true. Either the churches misunderstand Calvinism, turning it into hyper-Calvinism or a kind of fatalism (“God doesn’t need our help to save His elect”), or the churches are Calvinists in their brains but not in their hearts. A third, albeit we pray remote, possibility is that they do not take seriously what they read in the Canons. Let all Reformed churches examine themselves here.

Calvinism is anti-personal responsibility.

The charge goes like this: If God is sovereign in salvation, drawing His elect in a way they cannot resist, and preserving them so that none of them can ever be lost, well, who will feel any responsibility to struggle toward godliness, to battle the old man, to be godly? After all, if we’re going to be saved we’re going to be saved. Or, the charge is that too much emphasis is put on God’s sovereignty and not enough on man’s responsibility. If, as Calvinists teach, man has no free will, how can he be responsible anyway?3 Or, the charge is based on what some think Calvinists say: “Since we are saved by grace without works, we must not emphasize works.” That is, Calvinists so strongly deny working for salvation that they forget about working after salvation.

Calvinism is not careless in the matter of man’s responsibility. In fact, we are convinced that Calvinism’s doctrines of grace promote personal responsibility more biblically and faithfully than any other system of doctrine. Arminianism motivates man by fear—fear that he may go lost, fear that God will reject him because he did not do enough, did not persevere. God gave him grace to be saved; now it is his responsibility to use that grace to become saved and to continue in salvation. If he does not, he will perish. Calvinism is altogether different. As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, working responsibly comes after we know our gracious salvation, and because we know it. First, good works are inevitable for one united to Christ. Second, the doctrines of Calvinism promote personal responsibility and godly living most powerfully when they teach the motive for it. God’s salvation is pure grace, nothing deserved. God loves me, a fully corrupt and absolutely undeserving sinner. But He loves me. He always will. And that knowledge, not fear, is what drives a Christian to “responsible” and godly living. The mainspring of the Christian life is not fear, but gratitude for covenant-salvation given of mere grace.

If a Calvinistic or Reformed minister fails to preach godly living in obedience to all the commandments, fails to preach the imperatives of the gospel, fails to warn of wrath to come for impenitent sinners, fails to admonish believers unto new obedience—one of three things, and maybe all of them, are true. Either he has lost his balance, over-reacting to works-righteousness, thinking it weak to “preach works”; or he has not understood yet the weight and full significance of God’s call, “Be ye holy, for I am holy”; or, God forbid, the preacher has not personally tasted the gracious salvation that drives a saved sinner to say, “I am a friend of God and will give my life to serve my covenant Friend.” Let all Reformed preachers examine themselves in the light of Dordt’s concluding exhortation to “all their brethren in the gospel.” A practical antinomianism is as deadly as an antinomianism officially adopted. Perhaps more.

Calvinism is a religion for the head, but not for the heart, of doctrine not of love.

If this charge were true, it would be one of the most damning indictments of Calvinism possible. Since Reformed Christianity—and covenant theology—is about the great love and friendship of God, a Calvinism not about love is not Christianity. If it could be shown that Calvinism in some way minimizes God’s love or downplays it in order to make a louder sound of God’s sovereignty, Calvinism’s reputation would deservedly suffer.

This accusation is not new either. A century ago a Scottish Presbyterian criticized Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty because in it “love is subordinated to sovereignty, instead of sovereignty to love.”4 In his Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, Roger E. Olson claims that the “true divide at the heart of the Calvinist-Arminian split is not predestination versus free will but the guiding picture of God: he is primarily viewed as either (1) majestic, powerful, and controlling or (2) loving, good, and merciful.”5

But a Calvinist refuses to be hung on the horns of that dilemma— viewing God either as majestic and controlling or loving and merciful. If an opponent of the Reformed faith would judge Calvinism honestly— by her creeds rather than by opinions of selected Reformed au thors—he would know better than to say what Olson claims. Read the creeds. See the starting point of the Heidelberg Catechism, with its language of love: faithful Savior, precious blood, not my own, heavenly Father, assurance of eternal life. Then study the Canons’ explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism, and notice the same starting point of this official statement of what it means to be Reformed. Immediately after showing that God would have done no injustice to man by leaving all men to perish, the fathers speak of the love of God! “But in this the love of God was manifested, that he sent his only begotten Son into the world, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Even the opening article of the Belgic Confession, whose approach is more systematic, concludes with the confession that the one and only God is “good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.” And if an Arminian wants to know about the Calvinist’s view of God’s power, majesty, and control (indeed, we emphasize them!) we would urge him to read our beautiful confession of them in Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and Article 13 of the Belgic Confession.

What Calvinism implies

But these accusations are also answered by a positive confession of what Calvinism means, and by the genuine life that Calvinists seek to live because of their Calvinism.

Humble and reverent worship.

The Calvinist’s life starts in the presence of His God and Father who loves him—the gracious God who saved him from the hell he deserves; the wise Father who cares for him in a fallen world; the merciful God who saved him, always the undeserving sinner. In the presence of this God, the worship of his lips has its source in the new heart that was given him, unasked, to replace his natural heart of stone. He casts his crown before God’s throne, giving praise to his covenant Friend-sovereign, “Not unto us, O Lord of heaven, but unto thee be glory given.” Nothing in his worship praises man, or calls attention to man, because God is to be praised in the assembly of the saints. Nothing in his worship is frivolous or petty, because the God whom he worships is the Sovereign of heaven and earth. Everything in his worship aims at that climactic final sola, To God Alone Be the Glory.

If one’s Calvinism does not show itself in an eagerness to worship in the presence of God, he must examine his Calvinism. If what bubbles out of a Calvinist is more of a “believe this doctrine, and if you don’t you must not be a Christian,” than a “believe this doctrine to the eternal comfort of your soul and join me in giving glory to our good God,” then his Calvinism is suspect. Genuine Calvinism, as genuine Christianity, loves and lives to give glory to God.

Humble assurance.

Because God is good, He promises never to leave or forsake His people. No one can pluck them out of His hand. Never.

Where the Arminians expressed uncertainty, and still do, Calvinists express confident faith. The fifth head of the Canons works so masterfully to express this doctrine of preservation, and our assurance of that wonder-work, that one never tires of reading it. I cannot express in words strong enough that Reformed believers ought to master the Canons of Dordt (the Rejection of Errors as well) to the great comfort of their souls and the honor of God.

If they do, and believe this truth heartily, this knowledge of preservation will be “the real source of… filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering, and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God.” Knowledge of this benefit is “an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works…” (Canons V:12). Assurance of preservation is “so far from…rendering believers carnally secure” (V:12) that in fact it is the real source of godliness. It does not produce in them “licentiousness, or a disregard to piety,” but it “renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord.” (V:13).

Humble living among others.

Calvinists, whose Calvinism has reached their hearts, will live humbly toward others. If any adherent of Christianity should be humble, it should be the Calvinist. God chose him unconditionally. Nothing in him merits God’s love. Christ died for unworthy sinners, of whom he is chief, and will preserve him when he is least deserving of it. So it is impossible that his attitude toward others be condescending. He listens to His Lord who called him to love his enemies, bless them that curse him, do good to them that hate him, and pray for them which despitefully use him and persecute him (Matt. 5:44). As Paul did to unbelieving Agrippa, he expresses a sincere desire that these enemies become Christians (Acts 26:28, 29).

Let the fathers of Dordt guide us again: “…They, to whom so great and so gracious a blessing is communicated… are bound to acknowledge it with humble and grateful hearts, and…not curiously to pry into the severity and justice of God’s judgments displayed to others, to whom this grace is not given” (III/IV:7).

How much damage has been done to the cause of the true gospel by Calvinists living in pride over against non-Christians, or non- Reformed Christians! I am tempted to say, as much damage as the defectors to Arminianism who formerly professed Calvinism; but we let God be judge of that.

Calvinists, true to their theology, learn at the feet of the publican: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” At the feet of the apostle of grace: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” And at the feet of Jesus Himself: “Learn of me.”


1 Roger E. Olson’s 2014 Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011) is one of these. There are others. Laurence Vance describes the baggage he believes comes with Calvinism: “Nothing will deaden a church or put a young man out of the ministry any more than an adherence to Calvinism. Nothing will foster pride and indifference as will an affection for Calvinism. Nothing will destroy holiness and spirituality as an attachment to Calvinism.” The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola, FL: Vance Publications, 1991, viii). These are charges very similar to those the Synod of Dordt addressed in their “Conclusions.”

2 See I:1-4, 16; II:5; III/IV:6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 17; V:7, 10, 14, 15; and note carefully how the Canons begin. It is a truism to say that this emphasis of the Canons is consistent with the teaching of the Reformed creeds that they intend to explain and expand upon—the Heidelberg (21:54; 25:65; 48:123) and the Belgic Confession (Arts. 2, 24, 31, 33, 35). But the fathers at Dordt made the point to emphasize what the Reformed faith confessed.

3 Roger E. Olson says, “I don’t give a flip about free will, except…to preserve human responsibility.” Against Calvinism, 23.

4 James Orr (1844-1913), quoted in Olson, Against Calvinism, 31.

5 Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006, 73.

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What It Means to Be Reformed (7): CALVINISTIC—Implications (2)

This article was first published in the May 15, 2015 issue of The Standard Bearer.

What It Means to Be Reformed (7): CALVINISTIC—Implications (2)

There is one more implication of Calvinism that deserves treatment on its own. Last time we saw that Calvinism’s doctrines of grace, genuinely embraced, will lead to humility—humble worship, humble assurance, and humble treatment of others. That is, proud worship, proud assurance, and haughty treatment of others may be traced back to a counterfeit Calvinism. We also saw that genuine Calvinism leads to those Christian graces of godly living, and not to what opponents of Calvinism charge.

Being militant

Calvinism is also militant. In fact, militancy is not so much an implication of Calvinism as it is an essential aspect of it. If a Christian is a Calvinist, he is a warrior for truth. This does not surprise anyone who knows even a little bit about Calvinism.

To be militant is to be polemical.1 Polemics is the activity of exposing, opposing, resisting, and ultimately (by the power and grace of God) eliminating error—error of teaching, or error of conduct. Polemics is being militant.

Reformed Christians must be willing to fight for the truth of God—His name and reputation, His works, and centrally His work in Jesus Christ to save His covenant people. Answer the questions: How did God save His people? How today does He accomplish that wonder-work? Why does He save them? The answer to those questions is truth. And for that truth, Reformed Christians are willing to fight. Lies about God’s work must be exposed. Spades must be called spades. And if Pelagianism is again resurrected out of hell in 2015, we must be willing to call it so, to expose and eliminate it, just as our fathers did at Dordt 400 years ago.

Being Militant is being Reformed

Not pugnacious or contentious, the Reformers nevertheless were soldiers, “willing to endure hardships” for the gospel (II Tim. 2:3). If there is a truism in our definition of Reformed, it would be: “Reformed is militancy.” Militancy against the errors of Roman Catholicism is the origin of Reformed. Exposing Roman Catholic error, Calvin said, “I have gained some advantage if I have stripped these asses of their lion’s skin.”2 Luther’s humble but defiant, “Here I stand, I cannot and will not recant,” let loose the avalanche that created our wonderful Protestant and Reformed heritage.

The five solas themselves are more than a hint that the Reformation was militant. The fathers were not content to say, “Christ.” Everyone said “Christ.” But as soon as they said, “Christ alone!” the battle was joined, as they themselves knew it would be. Not permitted merely to say “grace,” they said “grace alone!” which became fighting words. It was easy to confess “salvation is by faith.” Roman Catholicism confessed that. But when the trumpet blasted, “Salvation by faith alone, without works!” the fathers had to soldier on, even to death.

With some reluctance, I must refrain from putting together a string of pearls from Reformers who expressed determination to be militant, because our determined purpose is to define “Reformed” from ecclesiastical documents rather than from individuals. When the Reformed churchmen assembled in synods and classes, their deliberations led them to declare the mandate to the churches: Be militant!

The Three Forms of Unity are themselves models of fighting for truth. In each creed of the three, truth is confessed over against error. False doctrines are exposed, and sometimes given fairly harsh monikers—like “gross errors,” “injurious errors,” “damnable errors.” Who today, writing in church magazines, will label errors “false doctrines” or “the lie,” much less these descriptors from the confessions? The Heidelberg Catechism, committed to living peaceably as much as possible (Rom. 12:18), nevertheless warns sharply about those who “boast of him in words, yet in deeds…deny Jesus the only deliverer and Savior.” It has sharp polemics in Lord’s Day 30—naming the popish mass an “accursed idolatry.” The Belgic Confession manifests the wisdom of a Reformed confession when its primary emphasis is the positive confession, “this we believe.” But the reader cannot miss its regular and emphatic interjections of the Reformation’s solas—in almost every article. Solas are polemical! Then, when militancy was needed most—when the Reformed faith itself was assaulted by the Remonstrants—the Canons of Dordt became intensely militant. To give but a few examples, they compare Arminianism to Pelagianism, a “destructive poison” and a “proud heresy” brought “again out of hell.” These Reformed fathers also spelled out carefully their “Rejection of Errors” after each head of doctrine. These rejections should not be omitted in the instruction given to the youth when they learn the five points of Calvinism in the Canons. The youth need to learn militancy.

The example of the Reformed creeds is strengthened by the mandate of the Reformed Church Order of Dordt. Professors of theology have the solemn duty to “vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors” (Art. 18). Every minister and every elder, by taking his office, commits “to ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings” (Art. 55). And, most powerfully, the Church Order obliges every officebearer to sign the unmistakably clear Formula of Subscription.3 The Formula calls for a kind of warfare against theological error that is better read directly than described here. Consistories could consider reading and studying the document once per year in their meetings. Simple honesty requires any man to study this document carefully before he accepts a nomination to church office.

The example of Presbyterian confessions is much the same. And as to Presbyterian mandate, when the Westminster divines gave their churches instructions for examining future ministers of the gospel, their Form of Church-Government requires inquiry into the man’s “ability to defend the orthodox doctrine…against all unsound and erroneous opinions…” and “his zeal and faithfulness in maintaining the truth of the gospel…against error and schism.”4

Calvinism is militant against… The main purpose of calling attention to Calvinism’s militancy, however, is to show what Calvinism must oppose regarding the doctrines of grace. False doctrines have always dogged Calvinism’s confession of grace—particular, sovereign, irresistible grace. The false doctrine is some form of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, or Arminianism, which in the end are more or less subtle forms of the same error. They deny particular, sovereign, irresistible grace. Calvinism is not friendly with those who are “revisionist Reformed,” a deceitful term used by those who want to appear Reformed, but are fatally compromising the doctrines of grace.

Calvinism is a foe of those who, rather than openly adopt Arminianism, would instead “ameliorate Calvinism,” which is another way of describing a fatal compromise of the doctrines of Dordt. What these pseudo-Reformed are doing is akin to the fathers at Dordt, at the end of their six months of work (November to May), patting the Remonstrants’ backs, calling them “evangelical brothers,” and sending them away with a benevolent: “We’ll just agree to disagree, but we can expect to work together at future synods and especially on the mission field, because we both preach essentially the same evangelical gospel.”5

…Also against common grace and the well-meant offer

The PRC’s opposition to the doctrine of common grace and its concomitant “well-meant offer” is explained by her Calvinism. Her Calvinism compelled her to oppose the teaching that God’s grace and love were in some way common. Her Calvinism drove her to become militant when the doctrine of common grace asserted that natural man was not actually totally depraved, but only corrupt in every part of him—there was still some good in every part also. Her Calvinism explains her fierce opposition to the doctrine that God desires all men to be saved and that the preaching of the gospel must express that desire.

I trust that all young people in the PRC are taught that the five points of Calvinism stand behind her rejection of the well-meant gospel offer. This is how I taught them when I was in the pastorate:

First, the well-meant offer threatens the doctrine of Total Depravity, because the well-meant offer implies the ability of those to whom the offer comes to accept the offer. Accepting the offer is a good work, which good work an unsaved man cannot perform if total depravity is true. When it is claimed that grace (common grace?) and not their own natural ability, enables men to accept the offer, we ask: Why then do not all men who receive this common grace accept the offer? (For it is obvious that not all accept it.) The answer cannot be “the grace given them,” because others had the same grace and did not accept the offer. The only logical answer is: man’s own willingness to use that common grace. To teenagers in catechism it is not hard to understand that this is a compromise of total depravity (as well as a creative invention of another kind of grace that is resistible; see below.)

Second, the well-meant offer threatens the doctrine of Unconditional Election. Unconditional election is the teaching that God chose, in love, and chose to love some and only some.6 Calvinism teaches God’s exclusive, loving choice of some, His determination in that love to save only some, His decree to give only those to Christ to be saved by Him. The well-meant offer of the gospel is an expression of the love of God for all who hear the gospel, the desire of God to save more than He gave to Jesus to be saved.

Third, it threatens the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Calvinism teaches that the death of Christ was an offering made for the elect alone—an offering intended for the elect alone.7 The well-meant offer of the gospel makes salvation available to all. Of course, Reformed men who teach the well-meant offer of the gospel attempt to maintain the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement, but the attempts all end in a quagmire of nuances and qualifications, in complicated explanations and appeals to distinctions that few can understand; and finally lead many of them to “revisionist Calvinism” which is not Calvinism.8

Fourth, the well-meant offer threatens the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. If grace is manifested in the well-meant offer of the gospel, then that grace is a resistible grace.9 The explanation by defenders of the “well-meant offer”? There are two kinds of grace—an irresistible saving grace and a resistible common grace. Then the young people must harmonize what cannot be harmonized: the fourth point of Calvinism that God’s saving grace is irresistible; and the preaching of the gospel of salvation as a grace that is resistible. I am thankful that I am not called to attempt that.10

…Militant against a conditional covenant

Calvinism also explains our opposition to a conditional covenant.11 Teaching the doctrine of an unconditional covenant is necessary to do justice to the biblical teaching of a completely gracious salvation. Grace from beginning to end is the only explanation of a man’s salvation. And, since having a covenant relationship with God is being God’s friend—and therefore, is being saved!—being in the covenant is explained by nothing else than grace. It cannot be explained by a man fulfilling conditions.

Yes, faith is the only way to enjoy this covenant friendship—but faith, remember, that is the gracious gift of God to His elect alone. God provides faith graciously, to His elect. As the Canons say, faith is election’s fruit (Canons I:9). Thus, even the God-mandated way of covenant salvation is His own gift of grace, inseparably tied to the doctrine of election.

That is how we understand Calvinism. Unrevised . Un-“ameliorated.” Reformed.


1 In 2012, from the issues of June 1 through September 15, I wrote a series of SB editorials entitled “Polemics: Fighting Words.” There, I described carefully what polemics is. Here, the emphasis is more that being polemical, or militant, is an essential aspect of being Reformed and being Calvinist.

2 Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.19.37.

3 Arts. 53, 54; the Formula itself can be found on page 141 in the back of The Psalter, or at prca.org.

4 Found in paragraphs 2 and 6 under “The Rules for Examination are these.” Emphasis mine. Westminister Confession of Faith, Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1976, 413.

5 Disturbingly, Michael Horton’s friendly “Forward” in Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism (as well as Olson’s friendly “Forward” in Horton’s For Calvinism) shows nothing of the spirit of Dordt when the fathers summarily dismissed and deposed the Arminians in 1619. Horton’s claim that it would be “reckless” of him to accuse Olson of Pelagianism is obvious, but it begs the question of what a Reformed Christian must think of Pelagianism’s transmogrified offspring, Arminianism. It is also of a very different spirit than what most Dutch Reformed young people learned in generations past in the Christian High School’s “Ref-Doc” class when they read B.K. Kuiper’s description of it in his widely-used The Church in History. Read Kuiper’s clear denunciation of Arminianism in chapter 33, under the heading, “Departures from historic Protestantism.” (The Church in History was first published in 1951 by the National Union of Christian Schools, later called Christian Schools International.)

6 Deuteronomy 7:7, 8 not only teaches that election is unconditional, but shows the close connection between election and God’s love. His choosing is a choosing in love.

7 Since Dordt, it is common to distinguish between the sufficiency of the atonement, which the Canons describe as infinite and unlimited; and the efficiency of the atonement, which the Canons teaches is limited to God’s elect. But the “revisionist Reformed” are now using that sufficiency doctrine to teach that God’s intentions in the death of Christ extended beyond the elect. A clear reading of Canons II:8 shows the impossibility of this.

8 Roger E. Olson, self-described Arminian, says that “Limited Atonement” is the Achilles’ heel of Calvinists, because it “makes it impossible reasonably (!) to make a well-meant offer of the gospel of salvation to everyone indiscriminately.” (Against Calvinism, 137; also 60, 61) This educated Arminian cannot understand the nuances of the “well-meant offer” Calvinists.

9 Remember, the “well-meant offer” was presented as proof of the doctrine of common grace by the CRC Synod of 1924—the gospel offer was presented as proof of a common grace.

10 The reader will recognize the unmistakable similarity between “well-meant offer” theology and Arminian doctrine. The difference is the name given to this second kind of ‘grace.’ In Arminianism the grace is called “prevenient grace,” and among professed Calvinists it is called “common grace.”

11 And, our opposition to the conditional covenant’s recently adopted family member, the Federal Vision. Not everyone in the “conditional covenant” family is fond of the appearance of this “relative” doctrine—and declare it to be an illegitimate intruder in the family. The PRC have argued not only that the Federal Vision is essentially Arminianism, but also that it is a necessary offspring of conditional covenant theology. For a thorough treatment of the doctrine, see David J. Engelsma, Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root, Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2012.

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What It Means To Be Reformed (5): Calvinism's Solas

This article first appeared in the April 15, 2015 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.91, #14).

More than the Five Points

Calvinism is more than the “TULIP” of the Five Points.

Identification with Calvin’s thought is at least an embrace of the Five Points. Real Calvinism is not “Four Point Calvinism” in which one denies, for example, limited atonement.

Real Calvinism is also a genuine embrace of the Five Points. That needs to be said with an exclamation point, because a flurry of books have been published recently to explain Calvinism, but accomplish only to explain away Calvinism. Those who outrightly reject Calvinism are honest. But these new books are deceptive. An example of this is a recent book entitled The Joy of Calvinism.1 The short book includes four main chapters about God’s love, but begins with a lengthy “Detour” (the author invites you to “feel free to skip it entirely”) that effectively guts Calvinism’s doctrines of grace. It “challenges most people’s conception of Calvinism in a pretty fundamental way.” The Ph.D. author cavalierly says that “Calvinism does not deny that we have free will,” provocatively claims that “Calvinism does not say we are totally depraved,” and foolishly blurts out that, according to Calvinism, God loves the reprobate and the Canons of Dordt teach this, without as much as a word from the Canons themselves to show this.2 Beware counterfeit Calvinism.

Real Calvinism embraces unashamedly the Five Points. However, it is more than the Five Points. The “more” includes many subjects that will come out in future editorials, God willing. But the “more” here is still with regard to the doctrines of grace, the biblical teaching of salvation. It is the five solas of the Reformation.

The five solas

Sola, in Latin, means “only” or “alone.” The adjective sola is attached to the four nouns: Christ, faith, grace, and God’s glory. In Latin: Solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria. By using these phrases, the Reformed faith teaches that salvation is the work of Christ alone, through faith alone, by grace alone, to the glory of God alone. The fifth sola—sola Scriptura—teaches that the authority for what we believe and how we live is Scripture alone.3 Over against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism—which also confess Christ, grace, faith, and glory to God—Calvinism teaches that salvation comes from Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone.

The Five Points of Calvinism themselves have this “alone” or “sola” characteristic, as the adjectives in four of the points show: Election is unconditional; the atonement is limited; depravity is total; grace is irresistible. Each adjective makes a point similar to what the solas make. The Canons of Dordt are emphatic about this. But it is worth explaining these solas in a separate editorial to emphasize this fundamental dimension of being Reformed. Reformed churches were and are faithful to the Bible’s exclusive claims. To be Reformed is to be distinctive, antithetical, exclusive.

More than Calvin, too

To say that the five solas are “Reformed” rather than that they are “Calvinist” (they are the five solas of the Reformation, not the five solas of Calvin) gives opportunity to remind ourselves that, although the Reformed faith owes a great debt to Calvin, our debt is not, to invent a phrase, “sola to Calvin.” The human instruments whom God used to hand down to us the Christian tradition we call “Reformed” were many more than Calvin.

Reformed Christians rightly lionize Calvin. We thank God for this man and his defense and propagation of the true Christian religion. Our debt to his tireless and faithful efforts is no little one. But ‘lionizing’ Calvin must not allow us to forget other worthies in the ‘pride.’ Reformed believers ought to grant lion-status to Calvin’s contemporaries—Zwingli and a Lasco, Vermigli and Bucer, Bullinger and Knox. In the same ‘pride’ ought to be placed Calvin’s followers, who clarified and developed the Reformed faith—Beza, Ursinus and Oliveanus, Voetius and Gomarus, and many more. Calvin himself would have given recognition to a different cloud of witnesses, on whose shoulders he stood, and on account of whose blood the faith of the fathers was living still in his day—Augustine, Gottschalk, Wycliff, Huss, Luther and more.

But attaching a man’s name to a movement is not the way of wisdom. Truly, we ought not embrace the label Calvinist any more than the PRCs want to be known as “Hoeksemists,” the Canadian Reformed “Schilderists,” or the OPCs “Machenists.” Calvin himself did not want his name so used. It was not, in his day, except by his Lutheran opponents. Calvin recoiled at the designation “Calvinism,” and not because of modesty, but because the Christian faith is not of a man, and the truth they embraced was not new.

Yet, the label has stuck. So we use it without shame, even if with some slight regret. But far better for us is the label “Reformed” (by which, remember, we simply mean the Christian faith). And Reformed is the designation that is attached to the five solas. Briefly explained, they are:

Solus Christus

The only sola in the nominative (nominative makes the phrase the subject of some sentence), solus Christus makes Christ the sole subject of our salvation.4 Christ saves. Christ alone saves. Jesus Christ is the only Mediator and Intercessor for His people.

Roman Catholic doctrine held forth many mediators. The poor believers were directed to find their salvation from the saints. My childhood Roman Catholic neighbors had St. Christopher hanging from their rear-view mirror to intercede for them in their travels to grandmother’s house. The Reformed fathers taught what eighth grade catechism students know: we do not seek our “salvation and welfare of (from) saints.” And “we ought not to seek, neither can find salvation in any other” than Christ. For “one of these two things must be true, that either Jesus is not a complete Savior; or that they, who by a true faith receive this Savior, must find all things in Him necessary to their salvation” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 11). The Belgic Confession says: “We believe…[that it is not] necessary to seek or invent any other means of being reconciled to God, than this only sacrifice, once offered, by which believers are made perfect forever.”5 “For any to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy” (Art. 22).

The Reformed creeds teach biblical truth: “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5). “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Sola fide

This phrase means “by faith alone.”6 That is, we are saved, or justified, through faith and nothing more than faith. Righteousness is imputed to sinners through the instrument of faith, nothing added. Roman Catholicism, and modern heresies arising even from churches with the name “Reformed,” teach that righteousness comes through faith and…(something else). The Reformation responded, “by faith alone, and not through my works or through the law.” Faith is the “alone instrument” uniting a man with Christ, who is our righteousness. Only faith embraces Jesus, in whom is all our salvation. No will of man, no work of man, no goodness of man, explains our righteous standing before God.

“We justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works” (Belgic Confession, Art. 22). Then the creed sharpens the point: “To speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.” According to Martin Luther, this is the article by which the church stands or falls. Calvin said it is “the main hinge on which religion turns.” The fathers of Westminster followed suit by confessing that “Faith…is the alone instrument of justification.”

To tie the first two solas together, the Reformed faith teaches that Christ alone saves, through faith alone.

Sola gratia

Important as is the confession, “faith alone,” it serves a truth of higher rank. That truth is sola gratia, or, by grace alone. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. All the salvation that Christ provides through faith, must come by this unmerited favor alone.

Now see how faith is the servant of grace. Since faith is God’s gift,7 faith is not a work of man. And since all of salvation comes though this gift of faith, we can say, “All of salvation is of grace! Salvation is not to be explained by anything in me. I am a debtor! What I am and shall receive is undeserved. It is all of grace and of grace alone.”

Connecting faith and grace in this way is the teaching of Romans 4:16. Read the context, from verse 1, to see Paul’s grand teaching of justification (salvation) by faith, and his powerful argument against the heresy of justification (salvation) by works. Paul concludes by connecting faith and grace: “therefore it (the promise to Abraham) is of faith, that it might be by grace.” Why did the promise come to Abraham “of faith,” and not of works? In order that the promise might come to Abraham “by grace.”

This, too, the Reformed confessions teach. Everything of salvation is sola gratia, that is, “mere grace.” “…We are delivered from our misery, merely of grace” (HC, LD 32). “Righteousness and salvation, are…merely of grace” (HC, LD 7). “God…only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ” (HC, LD 23). Election, the deepest source of my salvation, is out of “mere grace” (Canons I:7).

Soli Deo Gloria

So that we may always say, “To God alone be the glory!”

To put these four solas together is not difficult: Christ alone saves through faith alone for the sake of grace alone, in order that all glory may be given to God alone! If any of salvation—even the tiniest bit—comes from outside of Christ, or if Christ comes to man through any other instrument than His free gift of faith, or on account of any merit in man, then the glory of that tiniest bit of salvation goes to man and not to God. Against that “gross blasphemy” Reformed believers fight with all their might.

Canons I:7 teaches gracious salvation, beginning in salvation’s source—sovereign election: “for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of His glorious grace….” The fathers in this ecumenical synod were looking at Scripture’s call to give all glory, in all things, to God and to God alone. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings…in Christ…according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace” (Eph. 1:3-6). And the book of Romans does nothing if it does not teach that everything revolves around God’s glory. The heart of the reprobate’s sin is a refusal to give glory to God (Rom. 1:23). Sin is a coming “short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Paul teaches that if Abraham’s justification were by works, he would be able to glory in himself (Rom. 4:2); but Abraham “was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom. 4:20). Paul’s conclusion of the doctrinal section of the epistle, where all the doctrines of sovereign grace are taught is, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”(Rom. 11:36). And Paul’s own Spirit inspired exclamation point of the epistle, his very last words before the final “Amen,” are: “To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever” (Rom. 16:27).

No one else saves but Christ! Nothing but grace and faith explain our salvation in Christ! For none but God may receive the glory!

This is exclusive, for false teachings must be excluded. This is antithetical, for truth must be defended over against the lie. This is distinctive, for biblical truth must be known and confessed clearly, sharply, distinctly. There may be no doubt as to Who is worthy of praise. All of it. This is Reformed.


1 Greg Forster, The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). The book is endorsed by some professors from conservative Presbyterian seminaries, whose positive endorsements make one wonder whether they are themselves denying the fundamentals of the Reformed faith or whether they even read the book.

2 Forster, 30, 35, 39. Forster frames the latter point cleverly, “Does God love the lost?”, but does make clear that the “lost” are those whom God “has not chosen to save,” that is, the reprobate.

3 This fifth sola will be treated later when we consider the source of authority in the Reformed Church: sola scriptura.

4 Because there is no definitive, or authoritative, statement of the five solas (as there is for the Five Points of Calvinism in the Canons of Dordt) and I have found no original sources for these statements, we may guess here as to the reason for the nominative. If any reader can point out a good study of the origin and history of these five solas we will gladly publicize that.

5 Article 21; and see the powerful statements in Articles 22 and 23.

6 At times sola fide was written per solam fidem, which means essentially the same: “through faith alone.”

7 Ephesians 2:8 and Philippians 1:29; and Canons II:7 teaches that we “are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God.” 

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What It Means to Be Reformed (8) - The Church: My Chief Joy

This article first appeared in the October 1, 2015 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.92, No.1) and was written by one of the editors, Prof. Barry Gritters.

 

What It Means to Be Reformed (8): The Church: My Chief Joy

Introduction

For some Christians these days it’s almost trendy to claim a Reformed identity. But being Reformed takes more than claiming “I am Reformed,” just as being a Christian does not come from saying “I am Christian.” Being trendy is not what we are about. All of us who have “Reformed” in the name of our church need to be concerned that we are indeed Reformed.

In these editorials1 I have suggested that to summarize accurately what it means to be a Reformed Christian, we must emphasize and be committed to five “C”s: Covenant, Calvinism, Church, Confessions, and a particular view of the Christian life. Formerly, when I taught the older catechism classes, I emphasized three “C”s. Each week I said to the young people, “To be Reformed means that we are Covenantal, Calvinistic, and Confessional,” and then asked the students carefully to explain what each of these meant. But to be more comprehensive, two other “C”s ought to be added—Church and Christian life—because without a proper view of and emphasis on these, one’s identity as Reformed is incomplete, if not suspect. In this editorial I begin to explain the “C” of “Church.”

Love for the Church

A Reformed believer loves the church. I love the church.

I love the church, the bride and body of Jesus Christ. I love the particular church where my family has its membership in Hudsonville, Michigan, USA. I love that visible, instituted church, in her offices and members, her worship and government, her work and missions. I love the denomination that my particular church is part of—the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. I also love the true church of Jesus Christ wherever she shows herself in the world.

I don’t love her weaknesses, faults, and imperfections (and there are plenty); but I love her even when I see these flaws, and pray for God to correct her errors and strengthen her in holiness. My love for the church is not as extensive as it should be either; but each year when I travel and see more faithful churches throughout the world, that love broadens. My love for the church is not as strong as it should be; but it grows stronger every year, and I am thankful for that grace of God. By God’s grace, my love for the church is “above my chief joy” (Ps. 137:6).

A Reformed member’s love for the church reflects a profound reality: Christ, who loves the church with a profound love, lives in the believer. That is, Christ creates that love in the believer when Christ Himself comes to live in him. Christ said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), and now Christ in us responds: “Build her!” Christ says, “I love her well” (Psalter #368, from Ps. 132); and Christ in us says, “We also love her!” Our love grows when we read Christ’s word in Ephesians that God exalted Him over all things to, or for the sake of, the church (Eph. 1:22, 23). “From heaven he came and sought her.” Now, in heaven, He governs all things for the church’s sake! As Ephesians teaches ecclesiology—the church’s blessedness, election, redemption, unity, holiness—it reaches one of its pinnacles when chapter four explains why Christ gave gifts to men: for the edifying of the church. The entire Scripture teaches the importance of the church, ending in Revelation’s letters to the seven churches. And if there remains any question whether a Christian ought to love the church above his chief joy, the question will fade when he understands that, when Christ returns, He does so in order to marry this church and love her forever (Rev. 19:7ff.; Rev. 21:2).

Reformation History

A Reformed believer’s love for the church also shows that he knows something about history. “Reformed” is defined by history (as I hope to show in the editorials on Reformed being defined as “Confessional”), and Reformation history is history of the church. What is often forgotten is that Reformation history is as much about ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) as it is about soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). The Reformers took issue with the Roman Catholic Church, not only because Rome corrupted the doctrines of salvation (“Calvinism”) but also because Rome wrongly defined the church. What is the church? How should she be governed and what should her worship be like? Rome and the Reformers disagreed. When the Reformers separated themselves from Rome, Rome herself declared that ecclesiology was the main issue.

The relationships between the doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of the church were clear to the Reformers as well. Among other connections, remember these: 1) Only the true church has the instruments by which God is pleased to work salvation. 2) Only the doctrine of a truly gracious salvation enables the church to worship as she should—reverently, humbly, gladly—that is, in the right way and with the right motives.

Reformation Confessions: Passion for the Church

When the Reformers wrote their creeds, they articulated their ecclesiology precisely. They also wrote in such a way as to make plain their passion for the church, even their willingness to die for the body of Christ. If we want to own the name Reformed, we will too.

A Reformed Christian confesses what the Belgic Confession does in Articles 27-29. What a beautiful confession of the church we Reformed Christians make!

We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church…[which] hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof…. This holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world…. No person…ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but…all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it. Out of [this church] is no salvation.

For the Reformers, joining the church was the only way in which they were truly “bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” Then, since “all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church,” the Reformed fathers spelled out very carefully for us how to identify the true church, so as to join her and not just any church. In addition, joining the true church meant that they “separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church.” And they understood the cost: “even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporeal punishment.” Guido DeBrés, the author of these words, did.

Our Heidelberg Catechism is just as beautiful, even if briefer. After it explains the essence of the church, it has us exclaim: “and I… am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof(!)” To confess that without an exclamation point is impossible for me!

Almost a century later, our Presbyterian brothers in Great Britain spelled out their confession of the church, echoing their relatives on the continent. “The visible church…is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”2 These Reformers also distinguished the true church from the false, called the people of God to join the true church, and emphasized the “special privileges” of the church: “of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages…of enjoying the communion of saints…and (for the elect) union and communion with [Christ] in grace and glory.”

To be Reformed is to confess and love Christ’s church.

The Reformers were but following the lead of the ancient church. When the earliest church fathers confessed their apostolic faith in “the twelve articles of faith,” they confessed the Trinity: God the Father and creation, God the Son and redemption, and God the Holy Spirit and sanctification. Listen carefully to your church’s confession next Sunday evening. Immediately after, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” comes, “I believe an holy catholic church,” because the central work of the Holy Spirit of Christ in the world is the creation, gathering, and preservation of the church. The Reformed accent on church is ancient Christianity.

The Reformers were not trumpeting “Kingdom, Kingdom, Kingdom!” as though kingdom (wrongly defined, increasingly today, as “Christianized culture”) is the main thing and church but one of many instruments—and probably not even the essential instrument—to bring about this more important “Kingdom!” Rather, when the Reformers prayed “Thy kingdom come” they were praying, “that is… preserve and increase thy church” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48).

Highest Regard for the Church

So, being Reformed is more than saying we are Reformed. And loving the church is more than mouthing those words. Reformed folk practice what they preach. If the church is above our chief joy, it will show. Highest regard for Christ’s body means:

We will commit ourselves and our generations to a high view of and an utmost respect for the church—not only the invisible church, but the visible church institute: my church and my denomination, for starters (assuming, of course, that “my church” has the marks of the true church). If we forget to speak well of that church, may our right hands forget their cunning. If, God forbid, we speak poorly of that church, may our tongues cleave to the roofs of our mouths.

Second, we will commit ourselves and our children to membership in the church. Reformed Christians do not float aimlessly from church to church; or endlessly sample churches smorgasbord-like, as though that will give them good ecclesiastical balance; or even sit in one church but without membership in it. We will find the church that manifests most clearly the marks of the true church in the world, attach ourselves to her officially, and never separate ourselves from her whatever the costs, personally or otherwise. And we will not easily transfer to another church when life in our church becomes difficult but will, for the sake of the generation learning from my example, stick it out and keep a long-term perspective.

Third, we will commit ourselves to living among the people of God who are members of the church— first of all the congregation of which we are members; then the people of God who are members of the denomination who confess like precious faith; and so too the church members who are closest to our denomination in confession and walk. We who love the church cannot be isolationists, loners. Faithful to the antithetical life, we sing: “No froward man or evil shall my companion be.” We also sing: “The faithful and the upright shall minister to me…” (Psalter #271). And we will live in such a way that we allow them to do so.

Fourth, we will commit ourselves and our families to a brave defense of the faith our church confesses, a life that harmonizes with that confession, and a humble submission to the authority of the elders of the church. More on those next time. In most of us, God planted that high regard for the church institute through the faithful, prayerful (and probably tearful) labor of our parents. They taught us to love the church, not by tedious exhortations: “Love the church!,” but by their humble example of heart-felt devotion to the church. Most Reformed believers who love the church have their parents to thank. Which points back to our explanation of “covenant.”

And ahead to “Christian life.” There was a day when the life of most Christians had its center in their church. I dare guess that today you will find most of their children where you would have found their parents—living in and for their church.


1 The editorials treating this subject can be found in the issues dated February 15, 2015 through May 15, 2015. 2 See Westminster Confession of Faith, 25-31, and Larger Catechism, 61-65.  

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What It Means to Be Reformed (9) - The Church: My Chief Joy (2)

This article first appeared in the October 15, 2015 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.92, #2) and was penned by Prof. B. Gritters, one of the editors.

What It Means To Be Reformed (9): The Church: My Chief Joy (2)

As a Reformed Christian, I love the church of Jesus Christ. And love for the church commits me, as it does all Reformed Christians, to devotion to the church. So much is devotion to God’s church a part of being Reformed that, if I did not love the church, my profession of being Reformed would be empty. We saw last time that this is the teaching of the Reformed creeds.

The True Church

A Reformed believer’s love for the church, however, is not a love for any church. His love is for the true church of Jesus Christ. Many years ago when my father declined what was probably a generous promotion that would have required him to move four hundred miles north to the state capital, it was not because there were no churches there. There would have been hundreds. Dad declined the promotion because he was devoted to our church, which he firmly believed manifested most clearly the marks of the true church. There was not one like it in Sacramento.

The advice of the Billy Graham Crusade to new converts that they “join the church of their choice” is not Reformed advice. Had Graham been Reformed, he would have given the advice of the Reformed creed: “[You] ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the church” (Art. 29). Just a year or two after the Belgic Confession professed that, the lesser-known but important Second Helvetic Confession expressed similar thoughts: “We do not acknowledge every church to be the true church which vaunts herself to be such.”1 Then, so the pattern of these creeds was, they taught what are the distinguishing marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the righteous exercise of church discipline. “Especially,” the Second Helvetic said, “the lawful and sincere preaching of the Word of God.”

The Reformed fathers wanted Reformed Christians not only to be devoted to the church, but to the true church. And they were convinced that this true church could be found by looking at these distinguishing marks.

The Pure Preaching of the Word of God

“Especially,” said the Second Helvetic. This mark is first. This mark controls the other marks. Under this mark are subordinated any other marks. If the Word is not preached purely, the sacraments cannot be administered properly nor church discipline exercised righteously. This mark is first, especially, because it indicates the presence of Jesus Christ in the church, and nothing indicates the genuineness of a church like the presence of Jesus there. So the Second Helvetic reasoned: the preaching leads to Christ, “who said in the Gospel: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give unto them eternal life. A stranger they do not follow, but they flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers’ (John 10:5, 27, 28).”

Pure preaching marks a true church, the Reformed faith says. Not just any preaching, because almost every church has preaching. But pure preaching, preaching faithful to Scripture. To hear the truth is to hear Christ. When Christ speaks, He does not speak the lie. “My sheep hear my voice.”

A believer who desires to be a member of a Reformed church, then, will examine the preaching of the church he considers joining. And he will not just listen to a few or even many sermons, but will look into the church’s official view of preaching, her attitude toward preaching, and her oversight of the preaching. He will also want carefully to scrutinize the preaching that takes place in the catechism room, examining the curriculum in all its dimensions. And he will want to know where and how future preachers are trained to preach. A church true to the Reformed tradition will be known by its pure preaching.

Proper Administration of the Sacraments

Second on the traditional (Reformed) list of the marks of a true church is proper administration of the sacraments. The Belgic Confession has “pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ.” The Second Helvetic refers to “the sacraments instituted by Christ, and delivered unto us by his apostles, using them in no other way than as they received them from the Lord.” The Westminster Confession has: “…ordinances administered…purely….” And: “only two sacraments ordained by Christ…neither of which may be dispensed by any but by a minister of the word, lawfully ordained.”

Reformed Christians consider it very important that the church they join not multiply sacraments, but limit them to the two the Lord instituted: Baptism and the Holy Supper. Nor may they embellish these two with man-made nonsense, so that the sign is obscured by the entertainment or unbiblical ritual. Simple, straightforward, as-instituted-by-Christ sacraments mark the true church. That is, sacraments that point to Jesus Christ and His gracious, sovereign salvation.

The Broader Perspective

But looking at these marks—and especially the second mark—more broadly, proper worship in its entirety may be viewed as a mark of the true church. Sacraments—a fundamental aspect of worship—are a part of the larger reality of worship. And preaching is the chief element—but an element—in worship. Jesus’ presence in any church is determined and known by the entire worship of the church, not only by whether the bare sacraments are administered properly or sermons speak truth, fundamental as these are. The totality of a church’s worship shows whether it is true to the Reformed faith.

Viewing these marks of the true church in connection with worship, broadly, fits with the Reformers’ major concern during the Reformation: pure doctrine must be preached in order that there be proper worship. Rome’s heretical doctrine also explains why Rome improperly administered the sacraments. But Rome’s heresy manifested itself in worship more extensively than we might imagine.

The Westminster Confession takes this perspective of the marks. These Presbyterian fathers said that a particular church is more or less pure (we would say, “manifests the marks of the true church”) “according as the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (emphasis added).

Application of this point is vital. Even as not just any preaching allows a church to identify as Reformed, even so not just any worship will allow that either. Worship only of a certain kind is Reformed worship. With songs of a certain kind. And activity limited to what God commands. What I want or what makes you feel good does not determine the kind of worship we offer God. Some kinds of worship are simply out of bounds if a church will have the identity Reformed.

To be blunt, it is as inappropriate for a Reformed church to advertise “9 a.m.: Traditional Worship, 11 a.m.: Contemporary Worship” as it would be to advertise “9 a.m.: Calvinism; 11 a.m.: Arminianism.” Worship is that important. Reformation history will not allow us to see it any other way. Five hundred years ago the danger was vestments, incense, candles, altars, images, kneeling, and homilies that were not sermons. Today, although some want to return to the errors of Rome’s worship, the more common danger is praise bands and loud music, pulsing lights, a hip speaker sitting on a stool to go with the hiphop music—in the service of what someone once called the “liturgy of scruff.”

God calls His people to “serve” Him “acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). Some worship is unacceptable to God. Worship’s acceptability by God has everything to do with “reverence and godly fear.” Why? “For our God is a consuming fire.” That reason is not to be criticized as “Old Testamentish,” because it is New, from Hebrews 12. Faith cannot be separated from the form in which it expresses itself in public worship. Every theology will have its corresponding (that is, matching) doxology.

This explains why Westminster has a Directory for Public Worship, the Church of Scotland her Book of Common Order, and why our Dutch Reformed fathers carried to church their ecclesiastically adopted kerkboekjes (little worship/ prayer books), which included what to sing and how to worship. Their good sense told them that worship is too important to be left to the whim of the (perhaps creative) minister, or even to the regular brainstorming of a worship committee. There is a “decency and order” (I Cor. 14:40) required in worship—a phrase to be applied not first of all to church government, as we often apply it (not improperly), but to public worship, as the context of I Corinthians 14 indicates.

Calvin’s Principles

Of course, cautions are in order. Such as: this is not to say that only one specific order of worship can be called Reformed and any other order must be labelled “un-Reformed.” But principles governed the worship of churches that used the name Reformed, and these principles made their worship look very similar from one church to another across Europe and in America. Even if Reformed churches were not always able to require “strict liturgical uniformity,” they were always convinced of the importance of a “common form and content” in their worship.2

Those who know Calvin will recognize the lead he has given to Reformed churches in their worship. Generally speaking, these are Calvin’s principles:

  • The sermon—the Word of God—is central. Nothing may squeeze out the sermon from having pride of place. For, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17; I Cor. 1:21).
  • Second, theological soundness is paramount. Feelings and emotion, aesthetics and beauty, must always be subordinate to sound doctrine. Know the truth. Be sanctified by the truth. Beware the lie. God’s name (His reputation, revealed in His works) must be protected above all (John 8:32, 44; 17:17; II Thess. 2:11).
  • Third, worship must serve unto edification. Not only must sermons be central, and theologically sound, they must be understood. Preachers must read the Word, give the sense, and cause the hearers to understand the reading (see Neh. 8:8). There can be no edification without understanding (I Cor. 14!).
  • Fourth, worship must be simple, uncomplicated, free from pomp and embellishments. “Omit,” Calvin said, “all theatrical pomp which dazzles the eyes of the simple and deadens their mind.” When the Reformed fathers in the creeds explained the second commandment, they said, “This means: do not include in the worship of God what God has not called to be there!” The command does not refer to furniture or wall-hangings (although pictures that are intended to teach are kept out), but to the assembled congregation’s activity. This determination to restrict worship to what God commands has led to worship that is beautiful for its simplicity, understandable even by children.
  • Full congregational participation is high on the list of governing principles. A Reformed church does not ask others to worship God for the people. Special numbers and choral presentations in public worship violate the principle the Reformers fought for when the Romish priests were worshipping and the layman only watching: the priesthood of every believer (I Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6). The church members will sing, Calvin said, contrary to the advice of Zwingli who thought music had too much power to move emotions. But she will sing wisely, which leads to the final principle.
  • Calvin’s central theme was Soli Deo Gloria—in worship as well as theology (which, remember, always are reflections of each other). To God alone be the glory. Among other things, this principle led Reformed churches to sing the Psalms in worship. It moved Calvin repeatedly to advise that church music never be “light or frivolous,” but always have “weight and majesty.”

Sound principles, all of them, in the quest for a true church. The principles are Reformed.  

Next time: A Reformed church is identified by its church discipline.


1 For an exposition of this important but lesser-known creed, we encourage you to follow Prof. R. Cammenga’s series of articles in the rubric “Believing and Confessing” beginning January 1, 2015.

2 These are the expressions Robin A. Leaver uses in his preface to Daniel Meeter’s fine treatment of the Dutch liturgy, Bless the Lord, O My Soul: The New-York Liturgy of the Dutch Reformed Church, 1767, Lanham, Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1998, viii. 

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What It Means to Be Reformed (10) - The Church: My Chief Joy (3)

This article first appeared in the November 15, 2015 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.92, #4) and was penned by Prof. B. Gritters, one of the editors.

What It Means to Be Reformed (10), The Church: My Chief Joy (3)

Am I Reformed? Is my church Reformed? These are important questions for those who identify as such. And these are the questions we have been answering in this series of editorials—partly because being Reformed is somewhat faddish these days, and many “New Calvinists” are not Reformed, even if they make that claim. It’s not that they are as fake as the “Siwss-Made” watch my brother bought for five dollars in Mexico when we were boys (no, in our excitement we did not notice the misspelling), a watch certainly not Swiss-made and hardly a watch. But taking the name “Reformed” carries with it a comprehensive responsibility, just as labeling a watch with a certain country of origin.

We may admit that “Reformed” cannot be reduced too simply to a couple of elements. Still, we have been identifying five essential elements of “Reformed.” As the English language permits, and for memory’s sake, each of them begins with “C.” A Reformed church is Covenantal, Calvinistic, Churchoriented, Confessional, and has a peculiar view of the Christian life. In this editorial we conclude “Church.”

The true church and her marks

The true church—Christ’s church, the Reformed fathers said— can be known by three identifying marks.

Last time we saw the importance of the first two marks (pure preaching and proper administration of the sacraments) and showed that because both preaching and sacraments are a part of the church’s worship, the true church may be identified by her worship. Worship was the major concern of the Reformation. Christ restored proper worship in His church, primarily by restoring truth in and giving priority to preaching; and secondarily by restoring the sacraments to their proper number and right administration.

But we also saw that the corruption of preaching and the sacraments was symptomatic of a deep and complete corruption of the whole of worship. Without being so fastidious as to reject all churches whose worship is not identical to ours, we can say that a truly Reformed church is identified not only by truth in sermons and properly administered sacraments, but by her entire liturgy, in all its elements and dimensions. The Reformers—especially the Calvinistic branch—determined a complete overhaul of the church’s worship.

Something similar may be said about discipline—it is part of a larger reality.

The third mark: “church discipline… punishing sin”

Not many churches exercise discipline these days. Exercising discipline on people is hard. Exercising discipline on myself is too. But if a church does not exercise discipline on her members—loving, corrective, purifying discipline—she may not call herself Reformed, any more than I may call myself Christian if I do not discipline myself. Both are difficult; both are extremely painful; but both are necessary for survival. The Head of the church mandates it.

So the Reformed Belgic Confession says, “The marks by which the true Church is known, are these… if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.” Here is not the place for an extended explanation of church discipline, but a number of important elements should be mentioned: 1) Impenitent sin is the reason for discipline, not all sin. A man who “will not renounce” his errors becomes the object of discipline (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31). 2) The “errors” for which one is disciplined are either embracing the lie or walking ungodly. “Doctrines or practices inconsistent” with the name Christian, is how the Catechism puts it. 3) Church discipline is proper discipline that pursues the impenitent until the sin is removed from the sinner or the sinner removed from the church. 4) Because discipline can still be improper if motivated wrongly, the church that is truly Reformed disciplines in love for the sinner, is interested in the purity of the church, is zealous for the glory of God, and is in constant and eager prayer that the lost sinner return—even after he has been cut off. All this the Reformed Church Order of Dordt teaches on the basis of Scripture (Matt. 18:15-18; I Cor. 5; II Thess. 3:14, 15; Titus 3:10; etc.).

Further, the Belgic Confession makes clear that mere discipline is not the mark, but biblical discipline, Christian discipline, discipline according to Christ’s will. For the Roman Catholic Church also exercised discipline, but was the false church, since she “persecute[d] those who live holily according to the Word of God, and [who] rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”

“While the pious snore….”

Is my church a Reformed church? If I never hear my elders announce a stage of discipline and call for the church’s prayer for an impenitent sinner; if the classis of which my church is part never reports that permission was given to such-and-such a member-church to proceed to the next step of discipline; if my congregation’s bulletin always reports only timidly that “So-and-so left our church to join ________ denomination”—while I know well that “so-and-so” left because he was living contrary to the Word and probably was dodging discipline, my church is either not Reformed or is losing its Reformed identity.

But if I, member of that church, never do anything about such failures— of congregation or classis— then not only is my church failing to be Reformed, but I must question my own commitment to the true church, my commitment to being Reformed.

At the time God was directing the Reformed fathers to formulate the Reformed confessions, a man named Heinrich Bullinger wrote his own personal confession of faith. Soon, the churches in many lands recognized it as biblical and sound, and adopted it as an official confession, called the “Second Helvetic Confession.” Sensitive as he must have been to abuse, Bullinger began the section on church discipline with a warning to the churches not to judge too quickly, not “to exclude, reject, or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected.” No extremism must be present in the Reformed camp. He cautioned against an unbridled and immature enthusiasm in discipline. “On the other hand,” Professor Bullinger warned, “we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the church.” Do not fail to exercise discipline!

When Christ lives in a church— Christ’s presence is the most basic way to know if the church is true—the church will not be sleeping. The true church, the Reformed church, will behave Christ-like in “putting away from among yourselves that wicked person,” (I Cor. 5), in counting some unto them “as an heathen man and a publican” (Matt. 18), as well as in “forgiving and comforting” the penitent, lest they be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (II Cor. 2).

Discipline is the third mark of the Reformed church. But, like the first two marks, it also is part of a larger picture.

Synecdoche: A part stands for the whole

In literature, one useful figure of speech has the writer referring to a whole by mentioning only a part of the whole. Or, refers to only a part by mentioning the whole. This way of speaking is called synecdoche. So a whole herd is called “100 head” and “Here come the suits” means “See the businessmen.”

In a certain respect, we may consider the mark of discipline as synecdoche—a part of a much larger picture, and the Reformed fathers meaning something broader than discipline when they describe it. The bigger picture is the government of the church, of which discipline is an essential part.

To illustrate, we may ask some easy questions. Who rules the church (and, thus, exercises discipline)? How is the church governed? Is the minister supreme ruler? Do the members have a voice in any part of the government (discipline) of the church? Do the members have a say in the appointment of officebearers? May they participate in, even object to, discipline? These questions alone make clear that, although discipline itself is the third mark of the church, discipline must not be considered too narrowly. Discipline implies the entire government of the church, as a suit implies a businessman, and a head a cow.

The Belgic Confession directs us here. And not only when it (apparently) is concluding the listing of the marks of the true church and says, “in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church (emphasis added).” That is, in summing up the marks, the Confession says, the mark by which the true church may be known is that Jesus Christ is her only Head (no pope may govern her), and all things managed according to Christ’s Word—that is church government.

Not only from that. The Belgic Confession is not finished describing the importance of church government in its positive statements. When it describes the false church, it starts by saying: “she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God.” How does the Roman Catholic church exercise power? On what basis does she rule? The Reformed fathers had their eye on how the church was governed.1

Principles, not details

Here, too, we must be careful not to be too rigorous in our application of this point. We do not write off as “un-Reformed” those whose church government is not identical to ours. We do not reject those (that’s the language of the PRC’s Church Order) whose usages differ from ours in non-essentials. Reformed principles, wisely applied in especially four areas, show a church is Reformed in her government. The four major sections of the Church Order of Dordt are: Offices, Assemblies, Worship,2 and Christian Discipline.

Although Reformed writers have gleaned different principles from Dordt’s Church Order and the Reformed Confessions, few would disagree that this is a proper summary of them:

1. Christ is the Only Head of the Church, who rules by His Word and Spirit.

2. Christ rules in His Church by biblically appointed officebearers.

3. Local congregations (“particular churches”) are autonomous, that is, self-ruling.

4. Every confessing member of the church, in the “office of all believers,” has the right to participate in the government of the church.

5. Local congregations freely join together in a federation (denomination) of churches, in order to manifest the unity of the holy catholic church of Christ.

A high view of Church

A Reformed man has a high view of the church. Which is not the same as going to church morning and evening every Sunday. It means that he regards the church and her offices, her formal worship, her official teaching, her requirement for membership, her determination to take all things seriously by discipline, as essential. He has a high view of the institutional church, her offices, her assemblies, her worship, and her government.

So we Reformed view Christianity not as mere personal piety and a personal relationship to Jesus (without which one cannot be a Christian), but as membership in the body of Jesus Christ. Active membership. Intelligent membership. Connected to other members and her officebearers and her life.

We also have high regard for the church’s history. But that comes next, when we will see that being Reformed is being “Confessional.” That is, the true church has deep roots. The Reformed church lives deeply and consciously in her history.


1 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XXX) approaches the subject of discipline in a similar manner when its section on “Church Censures” begins: “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of church-officers….” For our Presbyterian brethren, the bigger picture, of which discipline is a part, is proper, Presbyterian church government.

2 “Worship” is how I summarize the section entitled “Doctrine, sacraments, and other ceremonies.” The section begins by requiring officebearers to sign the Formula of Subscription. Thus, doctrine is first because no worship is acceptable without orthodox teaching. 

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