Of Sacred Cows and Secret Societies

At the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA), in 1857, there were three great reasons given for separating from the Reformed Church in America (RCA): the RCA sang hymns instead psalms, the RCA did not send children to Christian schools, and the RCA tolerated membership in secret societies or “the lodge.” The CRC adopted reports in 1900 and again as late as 1977 reaffirming that position. Cracks in that position are beginning to show, however, and not just in the CRC.

In an issue of The Banner, in her column “The RCA: Our Closest Friend,” Gayla R. Postma suggests “[i]ssues like that [psalmody, Christian schools, and Freemasonry-rsc] may seem trivial today.” Such language might be expected in the denominational magazine of the CRC, a denomination which is steaming full-speed toward the safe, mainline harbor of the RCA. It is a little more surprising, however, to see a theologically conservative magazine, which seeks to serve the United Reformed Churches in North America (a break-away from the CRC) and the Canadian Reformed Churches, doing the same thing.

In the Autumn of 2009, the Christian Renewal (hereafter CR), a small magazine aimed mainly at the socially conservative Dutch Reformed, Doyewwerdian, and neo-Kuyperian communities in Canada, published a strongly-worded critique of Westminster Seminary California’s issue of EVANGELIUM on Christian education. The essence of the critique was that WSC wasn’t consistent (some of the articles were “right” but some were not right enough) and didn’t defend Christian schools correctly. Fortunately, not every Dutchman in Canada is buying what the CR is selling.

In the next issue, however, the CR published an editorial defense of the critique and described the piece in terms of “friendly wounds.” Proverbs 27:6 does say that the “wounds of a friend” are “faithful” (as opposed to false greetings from enemies) but friendship suggests that a critic is seeking our best interests. Whether that is true in this case is not for me to know but the review did not reek of charity. Rather, as Wes Bredenhof wrote, “the criticism expressed in Christian Renewal arose from as uncharitable a reading as one could possibly give.”

In light of the CR‘s pointed defense of this particular approach to Christian schooling, it was a little surprising to see them ignoring another, arguably more important position in Dutch Reformed history in North America: the rejection of Freemasonry as a competing cultic (religious, worship-related) loyalty. In the most recent (Nov 25, 2009) issue of the CR, appears part 2 of an obituary for the Rev Edwin Elliott, long time editor of the Christian Observer and devoted member of the Masonic Lodge. On his death, the Christian Observer published an extensive record of his remarkable involvement with an array of Masonic organizations.

Given the rejection of Freemasonry by confessional Reformed Christians this reader was more than a little surprised to see not only an article celebrating the life of Rev. Mr Elliott but a large photograph showing him in Masonic dress! When I looked into the “The Lodge” in the late 1980s it became clear very quickly that it teaches religious views and requires religious loyalties that are in direct competition with the teaching of our Lord. Every Freemason, at the most basic level, takes oaths that are forbidden by God’s Word. The extensive religious indoctrination of Masons, who progress beyond basic lodge membership, is even more patently contrary to the Reformed faith. In 1942 the OPC said:

…the evidence is overwhelming. There is no room for any reasonable doubt as to Masonry’s being a religion. Not only do the symbols, rites and temples of this order point unmistakably to it as a religion, but a great many Masonic authors of note emphatically declare it to be just that.

The Masonic Monitor says (quoted in the OPC report):

“So broad is the religion of Masonry, and so carefully are all sectarian tenets excluded from the system, that the Christian, the Jew, and the Mohammedan, in all their numberless sects and divisions, may and do harmoniously combine in its moral and intellectual work, with the Buddhist, the Parsee, the Confucian, and the worshiper of Deity under every form” (p. 285).

For these reasons and others the PCA and the OPC (see also this report) have expressly taken positions that forbid membership in Freemasonry.

So, just to keep score, according to the CR it is unforgivable to defend Christian schooling incorrectly but it is permissable to be a Freemason. Which of these issues cuts closer to the heart of the Reformed faith: denying the uniqueness of Christ (by virtue of membership in the Lodge) or defending Christian schooling imperfectly?

While we are at it we should wonder about the CR‘s stance on the other ground for the formation of the CRC: Psalmody. Where is the CR on hymnody vs psalmody? Is the CR a vocal advocate for the recovery of genuine Reformed worship? I do not recall the CR beating the drum, as it were, for the recovery of psalm-singing in the Reformed churches.

Finally, this episode illustrates why Darryl Hart is exactly right when he argues that we need to analyze such such issues by using the categories “confessional” and “non-confessional” rather than “liberal” v. “conservative.” Here’s a clear case where “conservative” just isn’t enough.

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*The Christian Observer reports:

Edwin Elliott, Jr., was born into a family whose roots in Masonry go back several generations to his Scots ancestors in the Elliott Clan, and Masonry was a very important part of his life beginning in his youth. Edwin’s Masonic affiliations, honors, and degrees are many and varied, and include:

  • Manasseh Lodge No. 182, A.F. and A.M., raised a Master Mason on 24 April 1970.
  • Royal Arch Mason — Manassas Chapter #81
  • Knights Templar — Piedmont Commandery #26
  • Member of the Royal Order of Scotland
  • Received his DeMolay Majority in 1968
  • Received John Dove Award from Grand Royal Arch Chapter in December 2008
  • Founded Prince William Chapter Order of DeMolay and was first Master Councilor
  • Received Active Legion of Honor from DeMolay International in July 2005 — highest honor awarded by DeMolay
  • Orange Lodge — Charter member Patrick Henry Loyal Orange Lodge #1105
  • Sovereign Order of Knights Preceptor
  • Grand Guardian Council of Job’s Daughters
  • Charter member and Past Sovereign Master of the C.A. Sinclair Council Allied Masonic Degrees — Council #412
  • Order of the Amaranth — Destiny Court #14
  • White Shrine of Jerusalem — Dogwood #3
  • Knight Masons — VA Council #72 and #12
  • Washington & Lee York Rite — #93
  • Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priests — Nova Vita Tabernacle #73
  • Order of the Eastern Star — Wimodausis #106
  • Red Cross of Constantine — Shenandoah Conclave
  • Received John Dove Award in 2004 or 2005
  • Past Grand Prelate — Grand Commandery Knights Templar Virginia
  • Grand Chaplain — Royal Arch Masons
  • Charter member and Past Sovereign Master of the C. A. Sinclair Council AMD #412

The Secret of Knowing God’s Will

The single most pressing question I hear is: “How can I know God’s will?” Prospective seminary students want to know whether they should attend seminary. Couples want to know whether they should get married. Ministers want to know whether to take a call. The problem of knowing God’s will plagued my Christian life for years. Who knows how many books have been written (and that will be written) to try to answer this question? The good news is that the secret of knowing God’s will is right in front of us.

In this context, by “God’s will” I mean, “What God wants me to do in this particular situation.” There are essentially three ways by which people have tried to discern God’s will for their lives. Let’s call the first and most widely used approach the “pietist-mystical view” (PMV). The PMV appeals to 1 Kings 19:12 and the “still, small voice” (AV) or, as the ESV translates them, “a low whisper.” The PMV expects to replicate the prophetic revelation and seeks to know God’s “will” in any circumstance through everything from impressions to intuitions to claims of direct revelation. This approach to the will of God is virtually universal among evangelicals today. It was among the first things I learned as an evangelical in the mid-1970s in volumes such as Rosalind Rinker’s Conversational Prayer.

A second approach is the “mechanical view” (MV). The crassest version of this approach is simply letting the Bible fall open and taking the words before one as the indication of God’s moral will for a particular circumstance.  Another version of the MV is the post-canonical appropriation of the “fleece.” (Judges 6:37). The Christian determines that if the Lord, in his providence, does p that will mean q.

The third way is the confessional Reformation approach to understanding God’s moral will. However inconsistent particular Protestants have been in practice (and they have been), our theologies and confessions have distinguished clearly between the mind of God and the human mind and between two aspects of the divine will. We have also taught clearly how post-canonical Christians, i.e. those who do not live in the canonical history of redemption, may know God’s moral will.

The most basic distinction regarding God’s moral will is that taught in Deuteronomy 29:29, between the “revealed things” and the “secret things.” The latter are those things that belong to the divine decree (i.e. the decretive will) and to providence. We do not know whom God has elected. We do not know what God’s providence holds. We cannot presume to interpret God’s providence (Job 38). We do not know why the Tower in Siloam fell (Luke 13:4). We do not know who will come to faith. Apart from the ordinary providence of God, we do not know what will happen tomorrow (Matt 6:34). God has not promised to reveal those things. They are and shall remain secret. These things are necessarily hidden because God’s ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa 55:8–9). He is the infinite, incomprehensible, immutable (Nu 23:19; Heb 6:17), eternal Creator and we are finite, mutable (changeable) creatures.

The first part of the secret of knowing God’s will is knowing the difference between that which has been revealed and that which remains secret. According to Deuteronomy 29:29, God has revealed some things, chiefly his moral or preceptive will. These have been given to us and “belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The last clause is the clue that explains the distinction. If we want to know what God wants us to do, it is summarized, in Mosaic terms, in the phrase, “all the words of this law (Torah).” In other words, God has revealed his moral will. It is no secret.

God’s Will Hidden and Revealed

According to Deuteronomy 29:29, believers are to trust in, rely upon, listen to, and obey that which God has revealed rather than seeking that which He has not revealed. In the history of salvation, seeking what God has not revealed was considered idolatry and sin. Perhaps the classic example of this sin is that of Saul turning to the witch (the ESV has “medium”) of En-dor (1 Sam 28:7). They both knew it was wrong and criminal (under the Israelite civil law) and what is most ironic is that it was completely unnecessary. Saul’s first sin, in this instance, was that he did not obey the explicit revelation of God! (1 Sam 28:18). Like Saul, many of us have turned away from the explicit revelation of God’s moral will in favor of alternative sources of guidance.Â

One reason why we are tempted to act like Saul is Americans are conditioned to believe that there is a “secret” for everything and they seem to conclude that God’s moral will must also be a secret and that there must be a method for unlocking the secret. Many scholars have observed that American evangelicalism has similarities to gnosticism, i.e. the quest for secret knowledge. One of the fastest ways to entrepreneurial success in American evangelicalism is to peddle heretofore unknown secrets. Mormonism is founded on alleged new revelation that disclosed things hitherto secret and marginalizes Christ as God’s final Word. The Millerites offered a new revelation about the end times. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a new revelation that replicates ancient Christological heresies. The Church of Christian Science has a new “revelation” that replicates ancient Gnostic heresies. Bob Schuller and Joel Osteen offer the secrets of a happy life. Word-Faith preachers offer the secrets of health and wealth. Radical dispensationalists offer the secret of which biblical books are really canonical for this dispensation. The list seems endless.

Another reason is that we do not know the history of salvation and the pattern of revelation there. One effect of dispensationalism on American evangelicalism has been to divide wrongly the Word of God. For most American evangelicals, anything that happened in redemption prior to the incarnation is hazy at best and usually irrelevant except for an occasional “character study.” Everything that happened prior to Jesus’ birth is relegated to the “Old Testament” (even though Paul and the writer to the Hebrews use that phrase to refer specifically to the period from Sinai to the cross).

In truth there was a consistent pattern in the history of redemption. We see it in Noah. God delivered His church through the flood and then He revealed Himself by way of explanation. We can see this pattern in the exodus (Ex 14). The Lord delivered His people and then He gave them a canonical revelation explaining that redemption (the Gospel) and laying down His moral will for those whom He had redeemed (the Law).

Indeed, this pattern was reproduced all throughout the history of redemption. With the advent of our Lord himself incarnate came “the Word” “in the flesh.” We beheld his glory. Moses (not Abraham) was the type and shadow but Christ was the reality. As Geerhardus Vos pointed out long ago, when John says “true” or “truth” he means something like, “the in-breaking of the final reality in the person of Christ.” Christ is the revelation of God to us and he brought with him redemption and revelation. Following his ascension, another great act of redemption, God the Spirit came upon the apostolic church in a unique and powerful way to explain authoritatively, definitively, and finally the saving acts of God in Christ. This is the pattern then: sovereign, gracious redemption and definitive, canonical revelation. The revelation is as canonical and inviolable as the acts of redemption are unrepeatable.

A third reason why American evangelicals have been confused about the moral will of God is because they have rarely observed the basic biblical (and Reformational) distinction between those words in Scripture that are in the indicative mood, that narrate the great story of redemption, that announce the Good News of salvation, and those words that are in the imperative mood that demand perfect righteousness, that seek to drive impenitent sinners to Christ, and that norm the Christian life.

The Apostle Paul made this very distinction in Galatians 3:10. When Scripture says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law,” that is in the imperative mood. It is a demand for perfect, personal, and perpetual righteousness. It is not the announcement of Good News. In contrast, however, when Jesus announced, “God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life,” that is in the indicative mood. It is an announcement of the Good News that salvation has been accomplished for us by someone else and that salvation is received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Because of the general modern failure to make this distinction, many evangelicals have turned the narratives of salvation into an imperative. Instead of receiving the good news that God graciously, sovereignly, without our aid, redeemed us out of Egypt, through the Red Sea (on dry ground), American evangelicals have turned the gospel narratives into law: “Be like Moses” or “Don’t be like Aaron.” One consequence of the failure to distinguish Law and Gospel is that we have tried to find ourselves in the narratives of redemption but in exactly the wrong way. Instead of being recipients we have tried to become actors in the story. We fail to observe the distinction between the canonical history of redemption and post-canonical history. Hence much of the story of modern evangelicalism is of the attempt to replicate the apostolic church, apostolic phenomena in the post-apostolic era.

Put Down the Canon Opener

Modern evangelicals often assume that the line between post-canonical and canonical life is blurry or non-existent. It is widely assumed that we are in the exact same place in history as the prophets and apostles and that we can, if we have enough faith, replicate the same phenomena that occurred in redemptive history. In other words, for many evangelicals, we live in “redemptive history.” Anyone who challenges this biblicist paradigm is said to be “spiritually dead” or “unregenerate” or “dead orthodox.”

Confessional Reformed piety has not been been able to satisfy the pietists or the Anabaptists before them. Thomas Muntzer accused the confessional Protestants of dead orthodoxy in the 16th century. The dividing line was the question whether there is a bright line between canonical history and post-canonical history.

Reformed folk have tended to respect that bright line. None of us has been taken up into the Third Heaven (2 Cor 12:2). We have not seen the risen Christ (Acts 26:13). We do not receive direct revelations from Christ (1 Cor 14:30). We generally do not have healing services (Acts 5:15-16; 8:7) or raise the dead (Acts 9:40-41; 20:11) literally nor do we put people to death (see Acts 5) nor do we teleport about (Acts 8:39).

Respect for the bright line between canonical and post-canonical history does not mean that we believe that the Spirit is no longer active. He most certainly is. Whether what he has promised to do and does interests anyone is another question (see part 4 of this series), but we certainly understand him to be active. We understand him to operate through the preaching of the Word (Rom. 10) and we understand him to operate through the holy sacraments (Matt 28:20; 1 Cor 11; Luke 22; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5).

One great difference between Reformed and modern evangelical piety is the word “mediated.” We understand God’s presence and operation in the church to be “mediated” through the Word and sacraments. Like the 16th-century Anabaptists the modern evangelicals reject or are suspicious of the idea of mediated presence or mediated revelation.

Since the early part of the 18th century Americans have been deeply suspicious of all forms of authority. It was not long ago that US Senators were elected by state representatives. Gradually what was once a representative republic is turning into a giant town meeting. That’s because we are a revolutionary, egalitarian people. Whatever social benefits there may be to this way of thinking, it is not the way of the kingdom of God. This is another very good reason to distinguish between the civil and spiritual spheres. The culture outside the church is one thing, and the culture of the church is another. The confusion of the two, particularly to baptize the prevailing anti-authority, autonomous spirit of modernity, threatens to do great damage to the church of Christ.

The prevailing American cultural resistance to mediation means that we want to know for ourselves, directly. We do not want anyone to tell us. This is one reason why Pentecostalism and charismatic and other forms of pietist mysticism have flourished in the modern period in the USA. Who needs a preacher when the Spirit is giving everyone apostolic power and revelation? It feeds our cultural prejudices and it leaves unchallenged many cultural assumptions. Those traditions (revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, Pentecostalism) that stress the immediate encounter with the risen Christ flourish here because they are most like the prevailing culture.

The Subjective and the Objective

Prior to the modern period the predominant question in the West was, “What has God said?” There were different answers to this question. Rome pointed to the church as the source of revelation and the Protestants pointed to Scripture as read by the church. Both pointed to an extrinsic authority. In the modern period the place of authority moved to within us. We became the measure of all things. Perhaps the greatest question of the modern period (since c. 1650) has been, “Has God said?”

One reaction to the religious doubt and outright skepticism of the modern period has been to do an “end run” around the crisis via direct, unmediated access to the divine mind (rationalism) or to direct, unmediated divine revelation (mysticism) or to immediate experience of the transcendent. The pietist knows that the Christian faith is true because “He walks with me and He talks with me.” In principle, and too often in practice, the pietist simply gives up the historicity of the faith in favor of a subjective encounter with the risen Christ or with the transcendent.

The reaction to the subjective turn is to deny subjectivity in the faith altogether. This denial is a sort of intellectualism. The historic Christian faith is propositional and it is historical and anyone, as they say on public radio, “who says otherwise is itching for a fight.” Nevertheless, is that all there is? Is there any confirmation of the faith beyond what I read on the page in holy Scripture or what I hear in the sermon or eat at the table or see at the baptismal font?

“Beyond” is not the best word. This gets us back to the end-run approach. Better we should say “through.” Reformed folk believe that the Spirit operates through the Word and sacraments. Through the Gospel the Spirit works to make dead sinners alive (Eph. 2). Through faith the Spirit creates existential union with the risen Christ. By virtue of that union, the Spirit creates and fosters communion between the risen Christ and his people.

The psalms are replete with reflection upon the communion between Christ and his people. Consider just one example of Psalm 51:6, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” This is a high point in one of the most touching, personal, heartfelt, and intimate prayers in all of Scripture. This is a sinner crying out for the grace of forgiveness and a restored sense of God’s presence.

In Scripture and Christian experience we see seasons where one’s sense of the presence of God waxes and wanes (WCF 18.4). Psalm 21 is evidently the witness of a believer (David, according to the superscription) who is enjoying a rich experience of God’s presence. “For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.” This presence, which results in joy and peace, is in stark contrast to the presence he describes a few verses later, the presence of judgment and condemnation.

Reformed theology understands that the Spirit operates through the Word by illuminating that Word, by casting light on it, by making clearer what was obscure. Of course, Westminster Confession 1.7 reminds us “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves….” The Spirit does help us to understand what is necessary to know for faith and life. Paul speaks of this illumination when he speaks of “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…. (Eph 1:18)”

The Reformed tradition has written about this aspect of the faith at great length. William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, William Ames, John Owen are just a few of the well-known English writers who have written about these aspects of Christian faith and life. A number of Dutch Reformed writers (e.g. Gijsbertus Voetius and Wilhelmus a Brakel) addressed these same sorts of questions.

What we do not want to do is to give in either to religious subjectivism or intellectualism. Calvin says in his commentary on Acts 16:14–15,

But we must note the expression that the heart of Lydia was opened so that she paid attention to the external voice of a teacher. For as preaching on its own is nothing else but a dead letter, so, on the other hand, we must beware lest a false imagination, or the semblance of secret illumination, leads us away from the Word upon which faith depends, and on which it rests. For in order to increase the grace of the Spirit, many invent for themselves vague inspirations so that no use is left for the external Word. But the Scripture does not allow such a separation to be made, for it unites the ministry of men with the secret inspiration of the Spirit. If the mind of Lydia had not been opened, the preaching of Paul would have been mere words; yet God inspires her not only with the mere revelations but with reverence for His Word, so that the voice of a man, which otherwise would have vanished into thin air, penetrates a mind that has received the gift of heavenly light.

Therefore let us hear no more of the fanatics who make the excuse of the Spirit to reject external teaching. For we must preserve the balance which Luke established here, that we obtain nothing from the hearing of the Word alone, without the grace of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is conferred on us not that He may produce contempt of the Word, but rather to instill confidence in it in our minds and write it on our hearts.

The Struggle for Wisdom

We like the idea of special, individualized messages from God about our particular circumstance or question. We do not much like the idea of struggling in prayer and thought over what is the wisest course. But as important as the Reformed doctrine of illumination is, when it comes to making decisions, Scripture probably says more about “wisdom” than it does about illumination.

Remember, there is an entire section of holy Scripture that we describe as the “wisdom literature.” The most frequently OT term for “wisdom” (chokmah) occurs (I think) 113 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. To return to the verse we looked at last time, it is linked closely to the illuminating work of the Spirit: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom (chokmah) in the secret heart” (Ps 51:6; 51:8 MT).

Frequently wisdom denotes a particular (usually God-given) skill such as building or some other craft (Ex 31:6; 1 Kings 7:14). When it comes to making decisions we might think of wisdom as the God-given skill of applying the moral law of God to particular issues. Solomon had this sort of wisdom (1 Kings 10:23). He had a unique, God-given insight into the nature of things. He was clear minded. He had a firm grasp on reality. He paid attention. He learned. All of these things are aspects of wisdom. In Luke 2:40 we read that Jesus was endowed with wisdom (sophia). There is a worldly (unbelieving) “wisdom” which we might call either rationalism or empiricism. Those forms of “wisdom” make the human intellect or human sense experience the arbiter of all truth. Paul rejected this sort of pseudo wisdom (1 Cor 1:19-22; 3:19 etc). God’s salvation of his people in Christ seems foolish to the wise of “this age,” but Christ is God’s wisdom, i.e. the perfect and appropriate and even surprising saving act at just the right moment (1 Cor 1:24; Eph 3:10).

Paul prayed that the Colossians might have wisdom:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:9-10).

When Paul says “spiritual,” he does not mean “ethereal” or “immaterial” but rather he means, “that which comes from the Spirit.” It is not necessarily immediate, however. There is an objective standard of wisdom: the revealed will of God. The fruit of it is not that we know what God has not revealed publicly in his Word but that we live congruently to and in obedience to the revealed moral will of God. This bears fruit (James 3:17). This brings knowledge.

We often think that we have to know secrets before we can obey. Scripture teaches the exact opposite. John Frame very wisely said once in class that genuine wisdom begins with obedience. Only when we have obeyed the Lord (or at least tried to make a beginning of obedience) do we see and realize the wisdom of God’s Word as distinct from what we think is good or proper. It is counter-intuitive but it’s true nonetheless. That’s the difference between theory and practice. There are some skills that have to be learned through practice. The skill of swinging a golf club just so takes a great deal of repetition, discipline, and training. One can study video and books, and a grasp of the theory of a golf swing is essential, but so is practice. The satisfying “ping” of club meeting ball perfectly is the result of skill which, in turn, is the result of submission to the nature of the game. That’s a sort of wisdom.

If we want to know the moral will of God, we need a public revelation, which we have. We need illumination of that will, which the Spirit gives. We need wisdom, i.e. skill in understanding that will, in knowing ourselves, and in reckoning with the circumstance to which it is to be applied.

Wisdom is essential in knowing God’s will. Getting wisdom is not easy. It takes practice. You will fail. You will struggle. If it were easy, everyone would have it and it seems obvious that not everyone has it! That’s why God gave us an entire collection of axioms, a book of Proverbs, to see what wisdom looks like in daily life. Wisdom may not be “sexy” and one might not be able to market it as the latest and greatest thing, but it’s God’s thing and it’s just the thing for those who would be godly.

Interpreting Providence

In 1381 Archbishop William Courtenay held a synod at the Blackfriars in London for the purpose of condemning the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe. After the condemnations had been adopted, as Synod was breaking up, there was an earthquake. Courtenay took the earthquake as a sign of divine approval but Wycliffe took it as a sign of divine displeasure!

Thus we see the inherent difficulty in interpreting providence. Like all forms of natural revelation the meaning of providence is often in the eye of the beholder. Defenders of the Reformation sometime like to say, “God raised up Martin Luther.” So he did. Unless, however, we are Manicheans we must also say that God raised up Ignatius of Loyola. The fact that God “raised up” both neither proves nor disproves the correctness of Loyola or Luther.

Despite the hazards of interpreting providence Christians persist in trying to interpret providence as a way of finding “God’s will for my life.” It’s true that, in the history of redemption, people put out fleeces and cast lots (for good and ill) as a way of determining God’s will. Again I go back to the bright line between canonical, redemptive history and post-canonical history. Those episodes were not given as a sort of church order manual for post-canonical church life. They illustrate the power of God in delivering and guiding his people in the outworking of his saving purposes. We are not apostles and prophets.

Could we cast lots today? Well, I suppose, if there were two equally qualified candidates for church office and the elders cast prayerfully lots or drew straws to see which one should serve, I would not object but now we are simply looking at some ordinary mechanism for making a morally good choice. That’s a matter of indifference. No one would reasonably lay claim for direct divine guidance in such a case.

The truth is, as I’ve already shown from Scripture, we do not always know why God does what he does. We might have a partial explanation after the fact, in some cases, but in some cases (perhaps many) we will likely never know. Why do good, godly people become terribly ill and suffer while evil and ungodly people seem to get off scot free? It’s a fallen world and the consequences of sin are equally terrible and distressing. Can we always discern some lesson we were to learn from some episode? Probably not.

The goodness of God’s providence and the wisdom of his actions is not contingent upon our understanding. God’s acts are good despite the fact that we cannot always understand them. Whatever Jerry Falwell or others might have said or thought, the truth is that no one knows why God permitted those evil acts on 9/11 or why he permitted the extraordinary degree of evil that occurred in the 20th century. We do know God, however. We know him in Christ. We know him in his gospel promises and in his moral law. That’s enough. We do not have to go behind the revealed things to justify God. He is just in all he does whether we accept and recognize and explain it or not.

Much of contemporary evangelical piety (and too much contemporary Reformed piety) is taken up with the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE—see Recovering the Reformed Confession for more on these two phenomena). In their own ways each is an attempt to know God and His will apart from his ordained means. The result is a two-sided tyranny.

The first aspect of this tyranny is the fear that “I have not heard the still, small voice of God.” This leads to paralysis. It also leads to doubt. The logic is ruthless:

1. God still speaks outside of Scripture and gives direct guidance and revelation to Christians.

2. Christian X has not received such guidance and revelation.

3. Christian X is either a) not really a Christian or b) does not have sufficient faith or lacks the power of the Spirit, etc.

Whatever the cause, the outcome of the logic is unhappy, but what if the problem is not the second premise but the first? What if the first premise is flawed? Well, of course, that is what this whole series has been arguing. In fact we do not live in the canonical period, in redemptive history. The Red Sea has been parted. The tomb is empty. The canon is closed. We’ve seen how the Spirit operates through the Word and the sacraments, how he illumines the Word and how he gives wisdom to those who ask but perhaps you’re still in bondage because you’re waiting for the still, small voice? Quoth Bob Newhart: “Stop it!”

What if God’s will for your life was already revealed? Would that not be grand? Would it not be wonderful if you were not trapped in a circle waiting for God to speak but never really knowing if He has “spoken”? After all, how do you know if God has spoken directly to you? Is it an intuition? A hunch? Why does He seem to “speak” to others but not to me? Are there two classes of Christians? (those who receive special, extra-biblical revelations and those who do not?)

There are other questions the answers to which help relieve the crisis. Why is it that what God says so often sounds like what my revelation-receiving friend already thought? It’s remarkable how often God seems to agree with my revelation-receiving, still-small-voice hearing friend. As we read the whole of 1 Corinthians we see that Paul was quite opposed to the idea of two-classes of Christians. This is the problem with all forms of the “second blessing” theology. It necessarily creates two classes of Christians and yet it’s exactly contrary to Paul’s whole argument. All of us are members of the one body. Further, we are all members of the one body, part of the one loaf of bread, as it were, in the post-canonical period.

God has revealed himself in His Word. His will for your life is revealed. I can tell you what it is right now: trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor (Matt 5).

“But wait!” you cry. “Should I take this job or that job? What’s God’s perfect will for me?”

I will tell you God’s perfect will: Trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor. Take any job you want, within the will of God revealed in Scripture, as dictated by wisdom and circumstances. Certain jobs are out on the basis of moral considerations. Any job that requires theft, murder, idolatry, covetousness, sexual immorality, gluttony etc. In other words the will of God forbids you from becoming, among other things, a bank robber. I do not need an extra-biblical revelation to know this. It’s in God’s Word.

Then there’s wisdom. If you’re not good with your hands, perhaps you shouldn’t be a tradesman. If you’re not good with numbers you probably shouldn’t go into business or banking. You do not need a special revelation from God to know those things. You really do not.

This gets to the second aspect of the dark side of the QIRC/QIRE: the tyranny of the prophet. This aspect of things has been described in the wake/fallout of the Kansas City prophets debacle (late 1980s–early 90s) but it’s worth repeating. There’s little moral difference between someone telling us “God’s will” on the basis of the “small, still voice” or because he’s a “prophet.” In both cases, post-apostolic, ordinary Christians, who do not have the apostolic power, are claiming to know directly, apart from Scripture, by divine revelation what God thinks about this or that thing not mentioned in Scripture.

Such claims are the stuff of tyranny. Who knows if it’s true?

“What if it is true? Well, since I’m not getting any revelations, I guess I better do what the prophet says!”

Or not.

Of course these self-anointed lower or upper case prophets aren’t any such thing. The truth is that they are simply re-describing ordinary human experience in extraordinary, apostolic, canonical terms. They may do so out of the best of motives. They may really believe that God is speaking to them directly or they may have an earpiece with a helper feeding them information. Either way it really does not matter.

One glorious consequence of the biblical and Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura is that we do not have to pay attention either to the upper or lower case prophets. We are free in Christ. This argument goes back to the Reformed rejection of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists replied by calling us “dead orthodox.” Fine. Whatever. Bluntly, if being “led by the Spirit” means running around Europe claiming revelations and starting revolutions (see Münster) then we can live without that, thank you very much.

Of course “keeping in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:22) has nothing to do with that sort of fanaticism. It means producing the fruit of the Spirit and we know what that is because God revealed it to everyone in Galatians 5! You do not need a special gift to read God’s Word, trust it, and obey it. We are free in Christ to obey God’s publicly revealed will and we are free to ignore the spurious claims of all sorts of prophets. We are not missing out. They do not have anything we need. What we need is the moral will of God which is plainly revealed in the Word. What we need is the work of the Spirit to illumine that Word to us and to give us wisdom, and the self-appointed prophets do not have anything to do with that. You and I are free from the tyranny of human opinion because we are bound to the Word of God.

The Program-Driven Church

One link led to another and I happened recently upon the website of a large NAPARC congregation. As I often do I looked to see who the pastor was. That link led me to a list of “pastoral staff” who coordinate a breathtaking number of programs.

My first reaction was to blame the senior minister and elders. “How could they facilitate this incredible tangle of programs? Where is the gospel? Where are the sacraments? Where is discipline in the life of the church?”

Then it occurred to me that this welter of programs probably was not invented wholly by the minister and elders. To be sure, it often happens as the “staff” grows the number of programs tends to grow. People have to justify their existence and the bureaucratic imperative kicks in. “What is this person doing? Why are we paying them?” “Oh well, they’ve just come up with this exciting new idea that will really bring _____ (fill in the blank) back to church.”

Just as likely, however, the programs are a response to pressure from the congregation and the community. One of the questions pastors get most often is, “Do you have a program for such and such?” The answer to this is more or less binary: “Why yes we do!” or “Well, no, I’m sorry we don’t.” If the pastor can meet market demand then he may gain a customer. If he fails to satisfy market demand, the customer will go to the service provider down the street.

Pity the pastor. What is he to do? Can he educate someone, who has been conditioned by 50 years of modern evangelicalism, over the phone, about the centrality of Word, prayer, and sacrament to the life of the church? Can he do a mini-bible study right there on the phone for the 400th time, explaining that,

We’ve made a principled decision not to become a ‘programmed’ church. We’re convinced that Jesus and his Apostles instituted a very simple three-fold program: 1) preach the Word when it’s fashionable and when it isn’t; 2) Administer the holy sacraments to the edification of the congregation; 3) administer discipline. He even had a name for his program and a name for his institution. He called the program ‘the Keys of the Kingdom.’ He called his institution: the ‘Kingdom of God’ or sometimes ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ and sometimes he just called it ‘the church.’ So, that’s what we do. We meet for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day morning. The service is oriented around the Word, prayer, and the sacraments. We have catechism instruction for the youth and for grown-ups. We go home to eat (and sometimes we share a meal together between services). We come back again on the Lord’s Day evening for another public service where we open the Word again and pray. That’s our program.

That’s a difficult conversation to have. More than likely the person on the other end of the phone (or email) will say, “Oh, well, I was looking for such and such a group. I was in one a few years ago and I really loved it. I need one of those. Thanks for your time. We’ll keep looking.” After a few of those sorts of calls, the pressure to conform grows. The pressure mounts as the elders begin to press the pastor to “get some new people in here.”

There are pastors who know better. They know what the marks of the visible church are, what the means of grace are, what the keys of the kingdom are, and what the elements of worship are. The demand for programs, like the constant drip of water that wears a groove into a rock, wears down even the most resolute pastor. Perhaps a new, more “business oriented” elder is elected. Perhaps a newer, “more exciting,” or “more relevant” congregation gets planted down the street and before long families begin to drift to the new program-driven congregation.

Some of those pastors who know better would like to do better. They remember the zeal they once had to preach the gospel, the joy they had studying and praying over their Greek and Hebrew bibles (time which is now spent managing a growing staff) as they prepared to bring the Word. They had hoped to minister the Word to people, to see them grow in grace and glorify God by doing things his way but few seemed to want that.

Those pastors with a conscience are troubled. They’re afraid of what might happen if they begin to rock the boat. No one wants to preside over a Scottish Revival. Some stifle the pangs of conscience by telling themselves that they will begin a reformation just as soon as we get another Reformed elder but somehow the conditions never seem to be just right.

Other pastors have simply accepted the “program-driven” model as the only one available. These cats openly measure themselves by “buildings, bodies, and budgets” and they are unashamed. The entrepreneur might have taken a modest small to mid-sized congregation and “grown” it into a large and influential congregation. If it were a business, he might sell it and start again with a new one. Perhaps they’ve heard someone tell of an “ordinary means” model of ministry but it sounds exotic and they’ve never seen it. They see themselves as CEOs or as “Ranchers” and they have no idea how a “Word and sacrament” ministry could possibly function in a go-go 24/7 wired world.

Finally, to the engine of the program-driven church: the congregation. Not always, but often the congregation is just as culpable for turning the church into a mall. They want what they have (perhaps implicitly) demanded and it seems that they’ve demanded “the mall.” After all, the mall is where they get their needs met. The mall forms their culture. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. It works. The mall has a food court, a cinema, and all the right shops. Why can’t the church be like that? What’s wrong with it?

The main thing wrong with it is that the mall is the Kingdom of Me and My Choices. The Church is the Kingdom of Christ and his grace. They’re two different kingdoms. The Kingdom of Christ is totalitarian. It is not a democracy. It is not egalitarian. It is not market-driven. It comes from heaven and enters history by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through the unlikely means of the preaching of the Gospel, the announcement of Good News, that something has been done for me, apart from me and that I benefit from all of that by hearing and believing. The Kingdom is not about my choosing but about being chosen. It’s not about my sovereignty but about God’s. There’s no food court but just a holy meal where God the Son feeds his people with his own body and blood unto eternal life.

What to do? For those who know better they should pray for courage and for wisdom. Reformation has to begin somewhere. They need to begin teaching the elders what the church is, what ministry is, what the means of grace are, what the marks of the church are, and the purpose for which Christ has instituted his church. Then they have to begin teaching their congregations. Going slowly, being patient and careful of the well being of the sheep is essential to any Reformation. Yet there must be a certain resoluteness about this business. As reformation begins and programs diminish (they must decrease, Christ must increase!) some sheep will leave and find more attractive pastures with more and better programs. Know from the beginning that you will not “keep” them all. That’s okay.

Your most fundamental conviction must be that the church is Christ’s kingdom, that it belongs to him, that he bought it with his blood (Acts 20:28). As long as you know for whom it is you work, you’ll be okay. If you’re seeking Christ’s glory and the salvation of his people, you’ll be fine–even if a Scottish Revival does break out. If you’re seeking something else, then perhaps you’re in the wrong line of work?

The Great Recession, Idols, and the Gospel

One of the patterns that some economists have noted, in connection with the “Great Recession” we are experiencing, is that consumer spending continued to grow with very few pauses since 1980. At the same time, the savings rate dropped. Baby boomers (those born between 1946–1960) had come of age in the era of the credit card. Gone were Mom and Dad’s staid Diners Card. In came a plethora of cards and soon there were “Platinum” cards by which to measure one’s credit and affluence. Buy now, pay later. Cash wasn’t king. Credit was king. Gradually from the 1950s it seems that we moved from being a savings-based economy to a credit-based economy. That move probably reached it’s apex in the Clinton-Bush years when credit card companies were throwing cards at consumers and, of course, lenders began throwing mortgages at people and then packaging them into “derivatives” to be sold in bulk to investors (backed by a AAA Moody’s rating).

Like everything in this world, credit has a natural market. Sometime after 2004, the credit market began to hit its limit. The mortgage-backed securities turned out to have been backed by overpriced mortgages (fueled by record-low interest rates) and, finally, the housing market began to tumble as interest rates rose on the adjustable mortgages. Home values plummeted (because of falling demand) and suddenly millions of home owners were “upside down” in their houses–and banks owned loans against these severely devalued assets.

We’ll leave it to the economists to sort out exactly what happened and how to deal with it on the macro level (though I’m not sure that borrowing unimaginable sums against future earnings will solve the problem). Our interest here should be the degree to which Christians participated in the culture of credit. Could it be that our problem was not just an idol of the heart but an idol of the credit card?

Isn’t it true that during a couple of ostensibly “conservative” administrations that, in fact, we Americans were anything but conservative fiscally? I’m not speaking of tax cuts but of personal spending. We came to believe in easy money and high rates of return. I remember hearing someone once say, “You’re only getting 15 percent on your IRA?” That sounds pretty funny in a time when Treasuries are offering almost zero percent interest.

Did you know that, in Reformation Geneva, purportedly the birth place of free market capitalism, that interest rates were strictly regulated? It’s true that the introduction of interest rates was a change in policy. Patristic writers generally discouraged lending money at interest and medieval canon law forbade it. The Reformation did allow the charging of moderate rates of interest but usury or unjust rates of interest were forbidden strictly and were a matter of moral and ecclesiastical censure.

This is not an attack on free markets. Generally, as a matter of natural law or creational pattern, markets do a better job of promoting freedom than command economies. In recent decades, however, it has not always been easy to tell the difference between a “free-market” economy and an economy grounded in a spending frenzy. Consider that, when the bad news of the current crisis began to settle in, one of the first responses by some was to say, “We have to get people spending again.” Repeatedly politicians have yelled at bankers to begin “lending again” even if those banks are insolvent, i.e. out of balance so that further lending would only cause them to close their doors.

The prosperity that began in the 1980s continued more or less unabated until the recent crash. There were pauses along the way, but not even 9/11 stopped the momentum. Some writers speculated that we might have defeated the historic economic patterns. We knew how the economy worked. We had a system. We had overcome nature. Except that, as it turns out, the prosperity of the recent decades was largely fueled by credit–credit that assumes sufficient future wealth or growth in assets to be able to repay the debt. But consumer spending has outpaced growth in earnings. Remarkably, we have spent our Gross Domestic Product for the foreseeable future. (Savings have risen more sharply in the last few months than at any time since the 1950s. That’s extraordinary because, as many have noted for years, savings had dropped to record low levels.)

The spiritual question we must ask is what drove us all to the frenzy of spending that just ended? This frenzy was not only matter for “the culture” out there somewhere. The culture of spending was in the church. Why have “health and wealth” and “prosperity gospel” preachers flourished at the very same time our credit cards went gold and then platinum? Why was it that those middle-class suburban preachers whose attendance prospered in the same period were those who gave us relatively easy lists of do’s and don’ts instead of God’s impossible lists of do’s and don’ts? It was no coincidence that the phenomenon of the “mega church” occurred during this same period. It was no coincidence that, during the great prosperity of the last quarter century, in some segments of “evangelical” theology, we manufactured a manageable “God” who does not control the future and who is contingent upon our sovereign free choices.

Even Reformed theology, piety, and practice has not been immune from the effects of the prosperity gospel. While Robert Tilton and Joel Osteen were preaching happiness and prosperity–“$29.95, send now before midnight”–some ostensibly Reformed writers were pointing to a coming earthly “golden age” when things would just get better and better. Some of them predicted a coming crash, out of which would rise, phoenix-like, a golden age. It almost seemed that, despite the warnings by some bunkered down and hunkered down prophets of doom, when Y2K didn’t get us and then even 9/11 didn’t bring it about, we were invincible. It was no accident that, in this time period, Reformed congregations were convulsed by a controversy over the doctrine of justification. Are we really so sinful that righteousness with God is purely by the unearned favor of God or may we play a small but necessary part in being right with God?

The prosperity “gospel” of “better every day and every way” or the anti-Reformation message of righteousness “by grace, through faith and works” found a home in too many congregations where the old message of guilt, grace, and gratitude (the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563) gave way to messages about personal fulfillment and happy marriages or social transformation.

Could it be that we no longer defined ourselves as God’s fallen image-bearers redeemed by His unmerited favor alone, through faith alone in Christ alone who obeyed, died, and rose for us? It seems so. Who wants to talk about sin and salvation when the local clothier has Armani suits on sale? Who needs grace and a bloody Savior when AmEx just extended one’s credit limit to $50,000 enabling a down payment toward the purchase of that vacation home in the Bahamas? Who needs a resurrection when the plastic surgeon is offering monthly payments?

No one knows the future. It may be that, after the current “Great Recession” (or worse) America may again bounce back economically. We’ve had stock market crashes before. The Great Depression lasted 12 years (and, according to Amity Shales, was probably worsened by government spending). But whatever transpires, Christians, those who say they believe in a Creator, a creation, a fall, a holy Redeemer, grace, and life hereafter, should be chastened by the recent crash. We should take stock not only of our retirement accounts but also of our spiritual well-being. We should recognize to what degree we participated in the orgy of spending and why. We should admit that we have been too much “of this world” and not merely in it fulfilling honorable vocations to the glory of God and the well being of others. Contemporary evangelicalism (if there remains any such thing) is a creature of the culture of spending and credit. Now is the time to recognize that fact and repent of it.

We seem to have forgotten a simple but profound Christian truth that we cannot serve both God and mammon at the same time. Jesus said:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also ((Matt 6:19–21).

Jesus didn’t divorce the idols of the heart from the idol of the coin. Our idolatry of prosperity, of what others think of us, is reflected in our economic behavior. There is no question whether we have idols of the heart and mind. We manufacture them constantly. If we’re going to address the idols of our hearts, then we can start with the idols easy credit, big money, and never-ending earthly utopias.

The good news is that Jesus obeyed, died, and rose for the justification of idolaters, even for those who sold CDOs and for those who spent themselves into oblivion. He died for sinners and he still receives them freely. The banks may not be lending and the credit markets may be frozen, but grace is always free and life in Christ leads us to define ourselves not by the color of our credit card but by the immutable truth of the law and the gospel.

Weeds in the Astro Turf

We live in the desert. It’s not the sort of cactus-filled desert where Snoopy’s brother Spike lives (that’s east of us a few hours) but it’s desert nonetheless. That means that water is at a premium and people respond by using rocks and “xeroscape” gardening. Others use artificial turf. The other day, on a regular walk through the neighborhood, we noticed a fascinating phenomenon.

If there was one place where one might to expect not to see weeds it would be in a yard with no grass, in a yard covered with artificial turf. Nevertheless, as we walked past one of these astro-yards, there it was: a weed had grown up underneath the turf, found a seam, and popped through. On the same walk we saw artificial snow that, at first glance, looked remarkably like the real thing.

These two things are symbolic of a couple of things. First, if there is any place in North America where reality seems to be suspended, it’s Southern California. This may be the world’s capital for plastic surgery. It’s not unusual to meet people who are rather older than their face suggests. It’s not unusual to see senior citizens on bicycles and roller blades. The weather is usually so pleasant here that the effects of the fall seem to suspended.

Reality, however, can only be suspended for so long. The weed in the artificial turf illustrates that. Eventually even the best plastic surgery begins to show a little wear or, after repeated “touch ups” people become so stretched and plumped that they no longer look human. The reality is that this a fallen world and no matter how pleasant the weather (right now it’s 68F and sunny) or no matter how pristine the artificial garden, sin and the effects of sin find a way to show through.

The fall is a reality. We can cover its effects temporarily or we can treat them medically but covering and treatment doesn’t change the basic reality. The effects of sin are pervasive and profound. We used to live in a garden that didn’t need artificial turf. We used to live in a perfect, weed-free garden. We didn’t need medical treatment. Most importantly we were right with God and enjoyed unbroken fellowship with him. Before us, had we kept the covenant of works with God, lay the prospect of a sort of consummate communion that can’t be described easily. We did not keep that covenant, however. We chose weeds, surgery, and death over eternal communion with God.

As much as we should keep before us the reality of sin and its consequences we need an equally firm grip on the reality of the covenant of grace and salvation in Jesus. The incarnation is just as real as sin and the power of his divinity and righteousness for us is more powerful than the power of sin. As certainly as we chose to disobey, so surely did Jesus chose to obey. He felt all the effects of the fall and with the weight of our sin upon him he lived his entire life in the garden of God. He prayed, he  sweat, and resisted the devil in utter obedience to his Father.

The power and effect of sin is great but the power and effect of grace is greater. Our Savior Jesus had the power of an indestructible life and he demonstrated that power on the cross, in the tomb, and in his resurrection. May the Father grant us grace to see reality for what it is but also to live this year in union with the risen Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit.

For the sake of Christ’s obedient, life-long, suffering in our place, God has made a covenant of grace with and for sinners. All who trust in the risen Christ, by God’s unmerited favor, through faith alone, receive the benefits of his righteousness and life. For now we continue to live in a world where weeds appear in the astro turf but that is no longer the end of the story. It’s not just a sad, broken world any longer for those who are united to Christ by faith. It is a world to which has been promised not only salvation but cosmic renewal at the return of the Son of God. In place of a weeds and our broken promises there shall be a new heavens and a new earth.

Are Church Members Free Agents?

One of the biggest developments of the modern era of sports is the rise of the “free agent.” Under “free agency” an athlete is bound to a team only for a short period at the end of which he becomes a “free agent” and a sort of commodity on the open market in a given league. As a result most players move about freely during their careers playing for several teams. Free agency has been with us long enough that it is now a question as to which uniform a player will wear when he enters the hall of fame.

American evangelicals, however, could teach professional athletes a thing or two about free agency. They have been roaming from church to church a lot longer than ball players have been switching teams. This relative churchless-ness or serial membership is the product of a radical egalitarian modernist self-identity, doctrine of the church, and view of the Christian life. As Nathan Hatch noted in The Democratization of American Christianity,

the driving spirit of much of American Christianity has been the revolutionary American spirit of autonomy and leveling. Every man a pope. Every family a congregation.

For confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations this poses a significant problem. It is another manifestation of the problem of Christ and culture. American Christianity and particularly American evangelicalism is too often the child of the post-Revolutionary culture. This fact explains the almost incredible explosion of sects and denominations in the modern period. It was not Protestantism per se that fragmented the church into a million autonomous pieces. It was the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit.

The crisis for confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations is intensified by the fact that we fundamentally reject the notion that members of the congregation are, once they have been baptized or made profession of faith, free agents. Those baptized as members of the covenant of grace are members of the church. They are raised in the covenant of grace. They are catechized and they are expected to make profession of faith in due time and if they refuse they face discipline, i.e. they are placed under the law again with the hope and prayer that God the Spirit will use the law to create in one an appropriate awareness of one’s sin and misery and need for a Savior and with that a living trust in and union with Christ.

Just as covenant children are not free agents so also those who make profession of faith, whether as baptized members or adult converts, also renounce their free agency when they join a Reformed congregation. When a Christian makes profession of faith in a Reformed congregation he takes four vows:

  1. First, do you declare that you love the Lord, and that you desire to serve him according to his Word–to forsake the world, to put to death your old nature, and to lead a godly life?
  2. Second, do you openly accept God’s covenant promise, which has been signified and sealed to you in your baptism, and do you humbly confess that you are sinful and that you seek life not in yourselves but only in Jesus Christ your Savior?
  3. Third, do you sincerely believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testaments, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and taught in this Christian church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, and do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this profession?
  4. Fourth, do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?

The first vow asks whether one is a Christian inwardly, whether one is repentant. The second vow asks whether one is believing, whether one has moved beyond mere external membership in the covenant of grace to appropriate for oneself the substance of the covenant of grace (i.e. Christ and his promises) by free divine acceptance, through faith alone (sola gratia et sola fide). The second vow presupposes that the catechumen is a baptized member of the congregation. In the case of mature converts the language is slightly different, but in either case the question is whether the candidate for membership professes a personal faith in the living Savior and in the triune God in whose name he or she was baptized.

The third vow means that, as a member of a Reformed congregation, one subscribes the Reformed faith. There is no “mere Christianity” in a Reformed congregation nor should there be two tiers of members, those who profess only the Creed and those who actually profess the Reformed faith. The faith taught in “this Christian church” is that revealed in God’s Word and confessed by the Reformed churches in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards.

There are three aspects to true faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. In effect these questions ask the candidate to profess that he or she knows the faith, agrees to the truth of the faith, and believes the faith personally and heartily.

Then there is the fourth vow. This is the one that, from my experience as a pastor, many do not seem to grasp fully. Consider it again:

…do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

To married folk who used traditional wedding vows, this language might ring a bell. It is not far from “love, honor, and obey….” There are two parts: to submit and submit. First the candidate promises before God and the church to submit to the government of the church generally, i.e. to submit to the leadership exercised graciously and lovingly by the elders and pastors. In the second part of the vow the candidate promises to submit in the specific case of church discipline.

It is to these two parts of the vow four that we now turn.

Submission

As a people Americans are a stubbornly independent lot. This nation began with a revolution and that spirit continues to animate us in ways of which we are not always conscious. As valuable as that independent spirit might be for civil politics it needs to be questioned in the life of the visible church. One expression of our independent spirit is our reluctance to bow the neck and submit to church authority, under God’s Word. Church growth experts counsel churches not to advertise their denominational membership because it is a “turn off” to American Christians, who like to think that each congregation is utterly autonomous and independent from all others and under the control of the congregation itself.

Against this cultural backdrop comes the fourth vow of membership taken in most confessional Reformed churches says:

…do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?

There are two parts to this vow: submit and submit. The first part is general the second is specific. The first part is relatively easy and the second part is relatively more difficult because it is more specific. The first part of the vow requires members to submit generally to the government of the church. The second requires members to submit in the case they are particularly called to repentance and faith for a specific sin. This is when the church has “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

This vow, of course, is the one that is most often forgotten. Folk take membership courses, read the catechisms and confessions and are usually impressed. They often unite with Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the flush of enthusiasm for the new found freedom of sola scriptura and sola gratia and sola fide. For some new members it is the first time they have ever been a part of a historic Protestant church. For others it is the first time they have been part of an organized congregation, and for others membership in a Reformed congregation means freedom from oppressive moralism and legalism in the Christian life (“don’t touch,” “don’t taste”). Sometimes people unite with confessional Reformed congregations on the rebound from bad relationships with other congregations.

In these sorts of cases candidates for membership do not always stop to consider the implications of the fourth vow. The first thing to understand about vow four is that the church only acts ministerially. That is, according to the Protestant understanding of the Bible, Christ has endowed the visible institutional church with real authority but that authority is limited by the Word of God and that authority is not magisterial but ministerial.

The church saying something does not make it so. The church only speaks according to the Word of God and only has authority insofar as she speaks truly from the Word. The church only recognizes what is. Thus, in the case of church discipline, the when a consistory (the assembly of elders and ministers in a local congregation) makes a judgment that one has left the faith and is impenitent (refusing to repent and believe) an announces that fact in the sentence of excommunication, the church saying so does not make it so. The church binds and looses but only ministerially, only in recognizing what is and in submission to and recognition of the teaching of God’s Word.

Nevertheless, Christ, the head of the church, has instituted real offices, to be filled with actual, sinful human beings, who must interpret and apply God’s Word, as confessed by the Reformed churches, to particular situations. Those offices are endowed with authority to make ministerial pronouncements about what God’s Word says. In other words, Christ is the head of the church but he administers his kingdom through subordinates: ministers, and elders.

Therefore, it is impossible for a member to say, “Well, I’m following Christ but I will not submit to the admonition of the elders and ministers” if those officers are acting according to God’s Word as confessed by the churches. If they come to one and admonish one to repent of adultery and the sinner refuses, the latter cannot plead, “But God brought us together.” One may not plead one’s bad interpretation of providence over against the clear teaching of God’s Word: “You shall not commit adultery.” To refuse the admonition of the consistory in this case is to refuse Christ himself. This is true when the minister preaches the law and the gospel and calls people to repentance and faith. These words are Christ’s words. To refuse them is to refuse the Christ who gave them.

When members finish the a new members class or when catechumens finish their instruction and appear before the elders and minister(s) to make profession of faith, they are entering into a binding relationship that removes their free agency.

Does this mean the the believer has no liberty whatever? Not at all. It has already been mentioned that the authority of the church is limited by God’s Word. The church cannot require one to do anything contrary to the Word and, as touching worship, the church may not ask or require anything of anyone that is not expressly or implicitly commanded in God’s Word.

This is one reason why we have multiple assemblies in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. If the elders overstep their boundaries the member has a right and even a duty to complain against that action first to the elders and then, if that fails, to a broader regional assembly and, if that fails, to a broader assembly. The process is difficult and often painful but it does work. If, however, an assembly (consistory, session, classis, presbytery, or synod/general assembly) is speaking according to God’s Word, members are bound to submit.

If for some reason, however, one chooses to leave a congregation for another, one’s options are limited. One may seek dismissal to another confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation. Asking for dismissal to a non-Reformed congregation or to a congregation that does not have the marks of a true church (Belgic Confession Art 29) is more complicated. Certainly one would want to sit down and discuss the particulars of the situation before taking action. In general terms, why would one who has made profession of faith in a Reformed congregation, who has said, “God’s Word as summarized in the the Reformed confession is my faith. I want to be united formally to this congregation and to be under the oversight of ministers and elders” later say, “I wish to be dismissed to the care of a congregation that denies the faith I professed when I joined the congregation?” If one’s views have changed and one no longer confess the Reformed faith then, frankly, one should be subject to patient, gracious instruction and admonition.

This also means that members should take care of their souls when they change employment or move house. Frequently it seems to be that economic considerations trump the spiritual so that Christians find themselves in a place with no congregation and no means to plant one. This is, to be sure, highly problematic. Would you move to a community where there was no oxygen? Would you move to a community where there was no food? Of course not! Why would you move to a place where there is no place to worship?

Nevertheless, Christians sometimes find themselves in difficult circumstances. Sometimes it is simply unavoidably necessary to move to a place where there is no confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation. Sometimes people become Reformed and then find themselves abandoned or they find themselves unable to find a confessional congregation. This is a grievous problem that requires pastoral wisdom and patience. Persons in such a state should consult with the nearest confessional Reformed or Presbyterian elders or minister to get advice as to what to do. It might require moving house and changing jobs or perhaps this is an opportunity to work and pray toward the planting (establishment) of a new confessional Reformed/Presbyterian congregation?

To conclude this part: the point of vow four is that, having married a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation, as it were, one is no longer free to play the field. Making profession of faith is not dating or courting. It is marriage. If a divorce is necessary there must be grounds (adultery or desertion) and those grounds must be manifest. This means profession of faith and union with a true congregation is a momentous and solemn act not to be taken lightly and not to be set aside without the most grave reasons. To simply walk away from that relationship, as with marriage, is to invite—indeed it is to require—admonition and even discipline by the congregation.

Questions and Answers

In the last part we consider some of the questions raised by the first two parts above.

David asks,

How are we to preform church discipline to believers (for their own spiritual good) when they are not members of our congregation or can simply start going to the church down the block?

Floating Christians cannot be disciplined. They have disciplined themselves by virtue of removing themselves from true congregations (Belgic Confession articles 28–29) and from the ordinary ministry of the means of grace. If Cyprian, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Standards are correct, that “outside of the church there is [ordinarily] no salvation” then these floating, nominal Christians are placing themselves in spiritual jeopardy. How can one claim to be a member of Christ without being a member of his body the church and how can one claim to be a member of the invisible church without being a member of the visible church where believers (members of the church considered as the church invisible) are found?

Sean asks,

Is there any consideration that the elders of a church have to be worthy of being submitted to? And should they abuse their posts, they abdicate their authority? Aside from gross sexual sin, I rarely see elders brought under discipline or called to account for incompetent and slothful leadership?

There is at least one false premise in the question. The first question is not whether the elders are “worthy” of submission. The first question is whether a congregation has the marks of a true church. Is the “pure gospel” preached? Is there a “pure administration” of the sacraments? Is discipline exercised? These functions are discharged by sinful officers. If those officers have disqualified themselves by gross sin, they should find themselves under discipline and removed from office. If we predicate our submission to elders and ministers on the degree of their sanctity we shall have accepted the Donatist view that the efficacy of ministry of the church is dependent upon the personal qualities of the minister. This is contrary to Philippians 1:15–17.

The validity of the preached gospel and the administration of the sacraments and the use of discipline is grounded in the promises attached to the gospel by God himself and the authority given to the church as an institution by the Lord himself.

If elders or ministers show themselves to be incompetent or sinful in the conduct of their office the laity have every right (and even duty) to complain against them to the session (consistory) and should that fail then the complaint should be laid against them to a broader (or, in presbyterian terms, higher) assemblies. If the assemblies of the church(es) do not agree, then perhaps you are using an unbiblical standard of judgment? If they agree, then you have served the church well.

Ben asks,

…how to do church discipline…since anyone under discipline can just pack up and move to another church. …Do you talk to other pastors in the area to try to get them on the same page before you have to put someone under discipline? Do you just rely on a strong ecclesiology, hoping that the Spirit will work in the hearts of those who might later come under discipline?

This is indeed the “sixty-four thousand dollar question.” I have faced this as a pastor many times. If people flee to a broad evangelical congregation there is not much probability that the leadership of that congregation will be much interested in hearing from the local “TR” (truly Reformed) congregation—at least I have not had much success in this area.

If, however, they flee to another Reformed/Presbyterian congregation then we have a right to expect that the other consistory (session) will cooperate with your efforts to corral a straying lamb. I’ve generally found other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian pastors and elders to be sympathetic and helpful. If, for some inexplicable reason, a congregation with which you have ecumenical relations is uncooperative then a complaint would be appropriate. If they are disregarding your discipline then perhaps they are disregarding the discipline of other Reformed congregations also?

In the former case, if someone has fled discipline, the only thing to do is to proceed with discipline as warranted by the case. I think your instincts are correct, to act in a churchly manner, and to trust in the Spirit to do his work as people are placed under the law with the hope that they will be driven back to Christ and his church.

E complains that

…I and many others are now darkening the door of Reformed churches precisely because we have shopped, “free agent” style, not for therapy, but for Truth. …PLEASE do not start mocking the “free agent” process that lead us out of the sewers of moralism and post-modernism bequeathed by Finney and subsequent ilk.

To which I reply:

I rejoice that your journey led you to a Reformed communion.

We cannot, however, assume that the assembly from which people have fled is equivalent to a rightly ordered church. Not every congregation that calls itself a “church” is actually a church. There are three marks of a true church: the pure preaching of the good news, the pure administration of the (two) holy sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and the use of church discipline. If a congregation from which someone flees lacks one or more of those marks then one has not become a “free agent” but rather a refugee looking for shelter. There is a great difference between a refugee and a free agent.

Our culture says we are free agents and the way many American Christians live their lives seems to suggest that it is easy and natural to be a free agent but it is not how Scripture speaks. The biblical conception of the church is one of a disciplined assembly of Christ-confessing believers, making use of those means instituted by the Lord, the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10), the sacraments (Matt 28:18–20), and church discipline (Matt 16 and 18).

Ours is a fluid age in which everything seems to be in flux but the Christian faith is not ever-changing. God’s Word is not ever-changing and the church is not ever-changing. Nothing symbolizes the permanence of our relation to the visible church than the sacrament of baptism: it is a ritual death (Col 2:11–12; Rom 6). It is an identification with Christ’s death, his circumcision and baptism, as it were, on the cross for us. To be circumcized/baptised is to be cut off from our old life and identified with a new life in Christ.

In a similar way, the Lord’s Supper testifies to our union and communion with Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit. The Supper is a solemn, joyful, deliberate communal meal not a drive-through for fast-food. The Supper presupposes a genuine relation, stable between believers (1 Cor 11).

It is not as if one could never move from one congregation to another. We have Christian liberty under God’s Word. Commitment is not tyranny. Nevertheless, we are not free to abandon the visible assembly that Christ established and to which he committed the ministry of his Word and sacraments. Freedom is not free agency.

On Being Truly Postmodern

There is a good deal of talk in contemporary evangelicalism about the rise, nature, and effect of so-called “postmodernism,” a movement in architecture, literature, philosophy, and religion associated with a circle of French writers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In some circles this movement is thought to be a threat to Christianity and some evangelicals advocate a return to the status quo ante. Other wings of evangelicalism, such as the emergent and emerging movements, see postmodernity as a boon to Christianity and seek to adapt Christianity to it.

This essay argues that, because of it’s core convictions reflected in its doctrines of revelation, God, man, creation, sin, Christ, imputation (federalism), predestination, and the church, confessional Reformed theology is not only, in some sense, postmodern, but more precisely, it is consistently anti-modernist.

In the biblical faith there is only one sovereign Creator and Redeemer: the Holy Trinity. Scripture says that, in the beginning, God spoke creation into existence, it teaches that all three persons of the Trinity were involved. The Father spoke, and nothing came into being that came into being except through God the Son, the Word (John 1), with the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the deep (Gen 1). This picture of the transcendent and triune God acting freely to create ex nihilo (from nothing) sets the pattern for God’s dealing with humanity in providence and redemption. God acts through his created agents (Exod 9:16) and with them (which Reformed theology describes as “concursus”) but never in dependence upon created agents. The Bible faith, confessed by the ancient church, is that the triune God made humans in his image. It is that image-bearing status that constitutes us as human. We confess that we freely rebelled against God, violating God’s law, introducing sin and death into the world. God the Son became incarnate as the Last Adam, obeyed, died, and was raised on the third day for our justification. In God’s joyous transaction, our sn was reckoned to Christ and his righteousness was credited to all who believe, to all whom God has given the grace of faith. Christ committed this faith for safekeeping, administration, and proclamation to a visible, institutional community, the church.

Christian Antiquity

This was conceptual framework within which the Christian church thought, taught, and acted from the ascension of Christ until the modern period. The great question that all Christians asked, and to which they gave different answers was: What has God said? The sovereign, authoritative self-revelation of God was an article of faith just as much as “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The Roman and Protestant communions developed different views of where God’s authoritative Word could be found, Rome says it can be found in two places: Scripture and tradition and Protestants says that it is found in Scripture alone (sola scriptura) which is read and confessed by the church. Both communions agreed, however, that God has spoken and that his revelation is normative.

Modernity

By the middle of the seventeenth century, however, that consensus began to break down. By the time the French philosopher Rene Descartes died (1650) an increasing number of the leading writers and thinkers in Europe were beginning to ask a different question: “Has God said?” Where the great debates in Christian antiquity had theological (about God, man, Christ, salvation, the church), the debates in the early modern period centered on whether one can know anything certainly and if so, where the locus of authority is. By the eighteenth century many had concluded that “man is the measure of all things,” that God, if he exists, is so utterly transcendent that he can neither know nor be known. Some turned to sense experience (empiricism) and others turned to what could be known through rational process (rationalism). Where God had been, in one way or another, at the center of pre-modern thought by the nineteenth century, humanity was the center of the intellectual universe. The leading thinkers and writers had issued a declaration of independence from all external authorities. The only religion that could be credited was the religion of morality or perhaps the religion of intense religious experience. From the Eighteenth century many evangelicals attempted to adapt the religion of intense, immediate experience of the divine (subjectivism) but humans remained autonomous, arbiters of what constituted the right sort of religious experience.

With the rise and dominance of the philosophy and religion of human autonomy (being a law unto one’s self) came a few corollaries beginning, as all theology always does, with the doctrine of God and including a doctrine of man, sin, Christ, salvation, and the church. The modern doctrine of God taught that God is the father of all humans in the same way without distinction. Christians have always taught that all humans are, as creatures, children of God but relative to righteousness with God and salvation there has always been a distinction between believers and unbelievers and between the elect and the non-elect. In the Enlightenment, such distinctions were erased. Where Christianity taught that humans are sinful because of the fall, modernity taught universal human goodness and even perfectibility and denied the doctrine of sin. Throughout modernity, the new “liberal” creed was actually quite illiberal. Those who adopted the modernist creed of the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and human perfectibility were quite intolerant of any dissent from the new orthodoxy and, by the early 20th century, the modernists had succeeded in driving those who still believed the old creed from positions of authority or influence in academia.

The hubris of modernity, the notion that man is the measure of all things, that he understands (or can understand) how the world works, what can be done and what can’t be done, was was first shaken in Europe and then destroyed by World War I. The senselessness of modern war destroyed the modernist universalism and modernist optimism only to be replaced by totalitarianism, facism, socialism, and existentialism. The churches of Europe emptied during the 20th century. The optimism of modernity was replaced with fear, loathing, and nausea. World War I led, eventually, to World War II and destruction on a scale unthinkable without modern technology. During the 20th century it is likely that more humans were killed by other humans than at any time in human history. One has only to recite the names: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda and so on. As modernity moved from rationalism and empiricism to Romanticism and subjectivism European writers began to doubt that there is such a thing as an “objective” reality that can be known. One’s subjective experience of reality came to dominate. The old modernist optimism was replaced with late modern suspicion. The dominant question, first in Europe, and later in the USA, came to be “Who’s asking?” By the late 60s, in the midst of turmoil over civil rights, the Vietnam war, the rise of cynicism about government and authority the same shift was underway in North America.

Late or Liquid Modernity

Some accounts of modernity describe the late or “liquid” modern period (the subjective turn) as “postmodern,” but at least a few writers have called that adjective into question. Taken literally “postmodern” would seem to entail a rejection of fundamental principles of modernity but there is little evidence that any such rejection has taken place. Few, if any, of the leading so-called “postmodern” writers have rejected the fundamental principle of modernity, i.e., human autonomy. Indeed, the subjective turn of late modernity was anticipated in the 19th century by the Romantics who sought to balance the early modernist turn to the objective, to rationalism (i.e. the doctrine that only that is true or real that can be comprehensively understood and analyzed rationally) and empiricism (i.e. the doctrine that knowledge comes principally or only via the senses), with intense affective (feeling) experiences. The subjectivism of the current period emphasizes, e.g., not the author’s intent but the reader’s reception of the text. Evangelical Christians were, in certain respects, ahead of the curve when it came to this sort of subjectivism. The religious revivals of the early to mid 18th century bore marks of the sort affective emphasis that marked 19th century Romanticism. The late modern turn to the subjective experience of texts was a feature in American evangelical piety for decades before most English speakers would know the names Derrida or Foucault.

The great unifying theme of modernity, whether early or late, whether optimistic or suspicious, has always been human autonomy. Inasmuch as late modernity still assumes human autonomy relative to all other sources of authority, including God, it is still modernity. To be truly postmodern would be to reject the fundamental principle of modernity altogether. To its credit, in principle, Reformed orthodoxy or confessionalism never accepted human autonomy. Beginning with God’s autonomy, self-existence, and authoritative self-revelation, many of the old Reformed theologians were at war with modernity from the start. It was a confessional Reformed theologian who diagnosed Deism (an utterly transcendent, unitarian, unknowing, and unknowable deity) and it was a confessional Reformed theologian who saw Descartes’ turn to human autonomy for what it was: an attempt to unseat God and to replace him with humanity and human experience.

The Reformed Antithesis to Modernity

Since the rise of the religion of autonomy, human perfectibility, and universalism, only one confession has been utterly antithetical: The Reformed confession. Only the Reformed faith has utterly and consistently rejected modernity root and branch. In arguing this I am not claiming that the Reformed churches or that Reformed Christians have escaped completely the influence of modernity. There are important ways in which we have come under the influence of rationalism and subjectivism. Cornelius Van Til called attention to ways in which some segments of the Reformed world sued for peace. Arminianism is one example of an attempt by some “Reformed” folk to sue for peace in the early days of the struggle with modernity. The attempt, in the 17th century, of some of the followers of Cocceius to appropriate Descartes for Reformed theology and J. A. Turretin’s rejection of his father’s theology are other examples. The collapse of Reformed orthodoxy across Europe is witness to the failure of those attempts to find a mediating place between modernity and Reformed orthodoxy. Arguably, bearing in mind the revisions to the story argued by Paul Helseth, Kim Riddlebarger, and others, even old Princeton Seminary bore the pockmarks of the ravages of modernity in its sometime attempt to mediate between the subjectivism of revivalism and the rationalism of the 19th century.

Contemporary evangelicalism has sought a middle way with modernity via religious subjectivism. The temporary and strategic alliance between revivalist evangelicals and the Reformation began breaking down in the early 18th century. That alliance was temporarily revived in post-World War II neo-evangelicalism, but relations between evangelicalism and the Reformation have returned to the status quo ante. The same might be said for fundamentalism. Having begun with a conservative version human autonomy, fundamentalists were temporarily allied with the Reformation faith early in the 20th century, but the interests of fundamentalism were never those of the Reformation. When it became clear that the Reformation was a poor friend of religious nationalism (Christian America) and moralism (tee-totaling) the fundamentalists abandoned their dalliance with the Reformation. The starting point of most fundamentalists, however, was never very different from that of modernity: human autonomy. The fundamentalists sovereignly exercised their autonomy to assert their election of Christianity and moralism but the core conviction has always been sovereign human choice.

Nevertheless, the Reformed confession of the absolute sovereignty of the Triune God, the mystery of the fall, the imputation of Adam’s sin, the mystery of the incarnation, the wonder of the substitutionary atonement, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and behind all these, of the mystery of unconditional predestination stand in stark relief to modernist subjectivism and rationalism. Where the modernist says “the real is the rational and the rational is the real” and where the subjectivist says, “the real is the experienced, and the experienced is the real,” the Reformed faith says, “The real is the revealed and the revealed in the real.”

This antithesis best explains why the modernists have expended so much energy and ink in seeking to destroy Calvin’s reputation. One has only to google “Calvin” and “Servetus” to see the evidence. By contrast, the modernists have not sought to deface the image of Luther in the same way. It is because Calvin is singularly and unfairly associated with the doctrine that is most utterly opposed to the religion of modernity: predestination. We have a similar problem with doctrines such as federalism (Adam and Christ as representative heads of humanity). These two doctrines are utterly unreconcilable to the modernist assertion of human autonomy. The modernist definition of humanity entails autonomy relative to all other authorities and actors. The Reformed definition of humanity begins with God and our status as image bearers. We understand ourselves as necessarily implicated in tow great corporations, righteous humanity and fallen humanity. In both cases our state was determined by someone outside of us who acted for us. Our autonomy is compromised fatally from the beginning.

The emerging and emergent movements seek to be “postmodern.” In fact, to the degree that they begin with human autonomy, with versions of rationalism (e.g., in their denial of the atonement), in subjectivism (e.g., in their hermeneutic and quest for the immediate encounter with God) they are not postmodern as much as they are, as Mike Horton likes to say, “most modern.” To be truly postmodern would be to embrace the historic Reformed faith. It would be to become anti-modern, to repudiate the assertion of the sovereignty of human choice or of human experience or of human rationality in favor of the the sovereignty of the mysterious Triune God, of the two-Adams, of unconditional grace, faith, and the church instituted by Christ himself.

Thoughts On Bible Translations

This essay was first published in The Christian Renewal (March, 2002).

We live in an uncertain age. One German sociologist characterizes our time as defined by liquidity. This is a term we might associate with financial matters, but it applies to vocation and to virtually every other sphere of life. There was a time when it was not uncommon for a man to work for the same company all his life. My grandfather worked for IBM for 30 years. My father-in-law worked for the railroad for 40 years. Today, it is not uncommon for one to change jobs even professions every few years. Indeed, it is important for success to be flexible. Liquidity also affects morality. Practices of all sorts, which were once unmentionable in polite society, are featured on radio and television talk shows. The chief consequence of this liquidity is uncertainty.

Socially, some have reacted to uncertainty by trying to go back to some perceived golden age. In the church there has also been a retrenching, a reconsideration of the viability and acceptability of positions which were relatively non-controversial only a decade ago. One of those areas is Bible translation. In the last 100 years there has been an amazing number of English Bible versions, some of them well done and some not so well-done. The growth in English translations has caused some to question to whole business of contemporary translations.

Of course the matter of translations has only become more intense since the 1995 release of gender neutral edition of New International Version (NIV) in the United Kingdom. When WORLD Magazine publicized this development in 1997 it became known that the Committee on Bible Translation, the group which actually controls the content of the NIV, intended to release a gender neutral version in North America. There was, of course, a storm of controversy which died down only after the International Bible Society (IBS) agreed not to release planned gender neutral revision of 1984 edition of the NIV.

Now, however, the IBS has decided to release a gender neutral version of the NIV alongside the 1984 edition, to be known as Today’s New International Version (TNIV). Some of the changes seem innocuous. “With child” (Mt 1:18) will be replaced with “pregnant.” The Greek text says , “having in the womb.” This colloquial expression is faithfully rendered by our English word “pregnant.”

Other changes, however, are troubling. In Matt 5:9 peacemakers will now be “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” Such changes might seem harmless, but this change, and others like it, actually carries theological implications. Though feminists may not like it, sons had a certain status in the Biblical world, so that to call all those who are united to Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, “sons” says something significant about their position before God. To make them all “children” does not raise the status of females and does not faithfully reflect the original intent of the divine and human authors of Scripture.

Critics of the TNIV point to the use of gender neutral language in the translation of Hebrews 2:6 as another, even more pointed example in which a clear liberal social bias is evident. The NIV reads, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” This translation is quite faithful to the original and has the virtue of leaving in the English translation the ambiguity present in the original, which is itself a translation and quotation of Ps 8:4. Who is the “man” of Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6? Interpreters and commentators are divided and this translation quite judiciously does not decide the question. The TNIV, however, has decided the question for the reader by rendering it, “What is are mere mortals that you are mindful of them?” This ham-fisted translation not only runs roughshod over the intention of writer to the Hebrews, but also over English style by changing the singular noun “man” and pronoun “him” into the collective “children” and plural “them.”

Crossway Books has published an alternative to the NIV, called the English Standard Version. The ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version with which many readers will be familiar from its use in Christian Reformed pulpits and pews before the arrival of the NIV. The ESV has Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6 as “what is man that you are mindful of him?” Another alternative is the Holman Christian Standard Bible which is unpublished as yet. It has Hebrews 2:6 as “what is man….” Both these translations boast a conservative approach to translation.

The question before us is how we ought to respond to such developments. Already One response is to abandon all modern translations and return to the Authorized Version (AV) or the King James Version of 1611. Still others call for the return to a form of textual criticism, i.e., the study of the original texts and how they were copied, of the original texts, which was practiced before the late 19th century. These critics favor the so-called Majority Text and sometimes the English translation based upon that text tradition known as the New King James Version.

These approaches do not seem promising for several reasons. First, the AV is antiquated. The AV has 2 Corinthians 8:1, “…we do you to wit of the grace of God….” No one has used the expression “to wit” for “to know” in common or even high English usage for a very long time. Second, proponents of the “King James only” forget that it was itself a translation offered in competition with an existing and highly popular Calvinist English translation known as the Geneva Bible which had been in circulation for decades before the 1611 publication of the AV. If we should go back to the AV, why not go back to the Geneva Bible, which was arguably more faithful to the original text and less influenced by the Vulgate than the AV? The answer, of course, is that the horse is out of the barn. Moreover, the Scriptures were not given in an antiquated language. They were given to us in the language of the day.

Further, though there are many legitimate criticisms which one might make of the some of the contemporary translations, some of the criticisms of create more problems than they solve. Some, for example, have complained that the NIV is partly a translation and partly an interpretation, i.e., there are places where the NIV gets the sense of the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) into English accurately, and other places where the translation appears to be too interpretive. This is a difficulty, but not a new problem.

In fact, there has never been a Bible translation which has not been an interpretation. This was true of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Scripture which became the “Authorized Version” of the medieval church. It was true of the early English (e.g., Tyndale) translations, of the AV and all subsequent translations.

This is because interpretation is necessarily a part of the translation process. Some seem to think that translation is like a vending machine, one puts in a word from the original language and out comes a guaranteed correct English translation. Of course, in the nature of things, translation does not and never has worked that way, not even in our day of electronic translators. Anyone who has used a Web-based translation program has seen the sometimes-amusing results. This is because context affects the meaning of words. We experience this in speech daily. If I ask, “Would you carry that for me?” If the hearer is a skilled English speaker, he will likely guess that I am not addressing him as “Wood.” How does he know? Experience and context teach him how to interpret the request. The same phenomena occur in written speech. These sorts of nuances are things one cannot teach a computer, at least yet.

Rather, at every turn, the translator must choose a word or phrase or clause or sentence which best expresses what he understands the original to be saying. He must make judgments about the intent and message of the original language as well as the nature and usage of the receptor language. This process of deciding what the original text and receptor tongues are saying is the science and art of interpretation. Those who have done the great work of pioneering the work of translation, e.g., Martin Luther, have been very honest about the difficulties faced by a translator.

No successful English Bible translation, with the possible exception of the 1888 Revised Version (RV) or the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV), has ever attempted to use a one-for-one correspondence of the same English word for the same Greek/Hebrew word, because it doesn’t work very well. As any competent translator will admit, translating is as much art as it is science. It is as impossible to ignore the demands of the receptor language as it is to ignore the demands of the source (original) language.

Some have criticized the principle of dynamic equivalence (i.e., the practice of not repeating the exact words of the original text but using an equivalent word or phrase in the receptor language) as the methodological culprit which leads to conflating translation and interpretation. Certainly dynamic equivalence is open to abuse and there are better ways of translating.

Again, this problem is not new. The Vulgate contains numerous examples of dynamic equivalence. Even the translators of the AV were influenced by this principle. Because they thought it would communicate more clearly to their readers whom they expected to understand the prayer book and the church calendar better than the Old Testament calendar, they chose “Easter” for “pascha” in Acts 12:4. Few would charge the translators of the AV of liberalism or corrupting God’s Word in their translation.

There are more conservative ways of translating. The ESV, for example, says that it follows the “essentially literal” approach to translation, that is, it works on a word-for-word basis rather than on a thought-for-thought basis. This approach is inherently more conservative and tends to reign in the translator. For example, where the NIV has the more general word “atonement” (Romans 3:25), the ESV has the more correct and specific, “propitiation.” This translation has the virtue of using the more difficult word and allowing the reader rather than the translator to do the work of interpretation. When the translator chooses to use the more difficult word (e.g., propitiation), he is calling for the education of the reader. There are many other examples in the NIV where they should have been more conservative and allowed elders and ministers to do their work.

Still, for those who have had to do the work of translation, these are difficult choices. When the NIV was published, many complained that it was too difficult. Though aware of it, the NIV was not my first choice as a young Christian. Not having been raised a Christian, thus not knowing the Christian vocabulary, having come to faith as a young man through the work of a non-Reformed sect, I found my father’s Revised Standard Version absolutely baffling and was grateful when I was given a copy of the Living Bible. In time, I outgrew that translation, and my children, have been raised in a covenant home with the NIV and are able to understand it, but such is not the case for everyone. Of course, difficult cases make bad law, but the Bible is for everyone, not just for the well-educated.

As for the textual history underlying the various translations, the historical truth is that God has marvelously preserved the autographa (the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts) in many accurate copies of Scripture sometimes in pots in caves, sometimes in deserts and sometimes in monasteries. Whichever text one favors (Textus Receptus or Majority Text or United Bible Society/Nestle-Aland) there is no avoiding the exercise of judgment about which text is superior in a given reading. There are at least two decisions to be made in every case: (1) What are the external probabilities, i.e., which reading has the strongest, most ancient textual history; (2) What are the internal probabilities, i.e., which word/phrase did the author most likely use? On this both the advocates of the eclectic text (e.g., Metzger) and the majority text (e.g., Sturz) agree.

In the Reformed tradition we have consistently affirmed the inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture in the autographa (2 Tim 3:16). We have always known that there are no perfect translations. Therefore, as it is the minister’s sacred duty to study God’s Word in the original language as he prepares to stand in the pulpit and proclaim the Law and the Gospel, so it is his solemn duty to learn the history and practice of textual criticism so as to be able to determine the autograph in any particular case.

Finally, it just as it is the minister’s responsibility to teach God’s people about the true meaning of kaphar/hilasmos (propitiation) etc., it is also his duty to explain the basics of translations and even to explain, at least, that we do the work of text criticism. There is no reason not to tell our people about the questions surrounding John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20 or 1 John 5:7. Ignorance about these issues does not advance their understanding of the faith or their piety. In none of these cases or in any of the others, are any Christian doctrines jeopardized by textual critical questions. Therefore one should not dismiss all contemporary translations too hastily. They have their problems to be sure, but as a reader of God’s Word in the original languages, I find several of them to be generally accurate, reliable and readable.

One solution to the dilemma of which translation is to use different translations for different tasks. The ESV and NIV are perhaps better for public reading and the NASB (especially the updated version) is perhaps better for private study, especially for those who do not have access to the original languages.

I have found the NKJV to do an excellent job as a translation in some passages and a disappointment in others. My chief concern, however, is the textual theory behind the NKJV. Certainly we are free to use it, but I would chafe at being bound to the majority text and even more to being bound to the textus receptus, i.e., the received text which formed the basis for the AV which was corrected by a series of texts discovered by scholars in the following centuries.

Nor is it the job of an English Bible translation to inculcate readers into the history of the English language. This latter task is an important one which I take seriously, but the chief function of a Bible translation is to communicate the sense of the original as faithfully as possible in English. That said, I am quite in favor of educating the reader and quite opposed to “dumbing down” translations, hence the Living and the New Living and the New Revised Standard — which not only did not fix the earlier error the translation of Rom 9:5 but compounded it! — are probably not the best choices for public use in confessional Reformed churches.

We should also be cautious about elevating one translation or another as the official or quasi-official translation of our churches. There are some denominations which have spent a considerable amount of energy arguing about this issue. Some want to make the AV the official translation. Others want to make the NKJV the official translation. Some even wanted to bind us to a particular theory of text criticism. Some wanted us to be obligated to use only the textus receptus and others argued for the majority text. Certainly we ought not repeat those mistakes. In our search for certainty about and accuracy in the text and translation of God’s Word let us not rush hastily into premature pronouncements about this or that translation.

Though the plethora of English Bible translations seems threatening to some, in fact, we might be living in a golden age of sorts, when it comes to translations. Remember that for a millennium most Christians had no access to the Scriptures in their own language. Today we not only have access to the Scriptures in our own language, but we have tools with which to study Scripture about which our forefathers never dreamed.

The collect (prayer) for the Second Sunday of Advent in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is quite appropriate to these questions. It says,

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Whatever faithful translation we use in public worship or in private study and devotion, let it be that we may learn to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest God’s Word and therein find the comfort of the Good News that Christ died for sinners.

Concupiscence: Sin and the Mother of Sin

This essay was published originally in Modern Reformation 10 (2001).

Introduction

In recent years, the study of virtue has experienced a renaissance.1 While we are recovering our classical grammar of virtue, we should also to recover our vocabulary of vice as well. Concupiscence is among our choicest words to be recovered. Because of the great influence of Augustine, it has traditionally been associated closely with sexual desire, even within marriage. Its range of meaning, however, is broader. Derived from the verb Latin concupisco, “to lust for worldly things,” the noun concupiscentia is a word found many times in the Latin Bible (Vulgate). From there, it entered English in the early 14th century, but has fallen out of use as the Authorized Version (1611) has lost its influence on the language.

Concupiscence in Scripture

In the Latin Bible the “Tombs of Desire” (Kibroth Hataavah) prepared for those who craved food other than that which the Lord provided (Numbers 11:34-35) was rendered the “Tombs of Concupiscence” in the Vulgate. In Psalm 62:10 the Vulgate used the verb concupisco to translate the expression “set not your heart” (on riches). Among the seven vices which the Lord hates is lustful desire (concupiscat) for the beauty of the adulteress Folly (Proverbs 6:16, 25).

According to the Apostle Paul, concupiscence is the result of the fall and the quintessential illustration of the danger of the Law to sinners. In Romans 7:7, 8 concupiscentia translates the Greek noun epithumia or “coveting” (NIV) and “coveteous desire” (NIV). Following the Vulgate, the AV translates epithumia as “concupiscence.” Without the Law “I would not have known what concupiscence was.”2 In Galatians 5:17 it translates the Greek verb “to desire” (epithumeo) in the clause, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the [Holy] Spirit.” In Colossians 3:5 Paul lists “evil concupiscence” as one of those “earthly members” to be put to death and warns believers not to participate in the “lust of concupiscence” (1 Thessalonians 4:5; AV). The Apostle John warns against the transitory “concupiscence of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) which he contrasts with God’s eternal will (2:17).

So far it is clear from the Scriptures that concupiscence is sin, but according to James, it is more than that, it is also the seminary (seedbed) of sin. He uses an obstetrical metaphor to describe the psychological and moral process of sinning.

each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire (concupiscence), he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after concupiscence has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15, NIV).

For James, concupiscence is our fallen inclination to sin , such that our own corrupt hearts and wills are the authors of sin and it is them we must blame and not God. Concupiscence (original sin) conceives actual sin and actual sin brings death.

Three chapters later James fires a salvo at his congregation when he says, that the source of their in fighting is their concupiscence (4:1). He continues, “You lust (L. concupiscitis; Gk. epithumeite) and you have not, you murder and desire.” Rather than praying, despite the futility of their concupiscence, they pursue it even by taking fellow Christians to court (4:2). Because of their corrupted desires, God does not grant their requests when they do pray. It is not as if, however, if they could somehow suspend their concupiscence, God would suddenly begin answering their prayers. Rather, their concupiscence is only more evidence of the fact of their friendship with the world (4:4) and that they do not have true, saving faith (James 2:14-26).

According to James, not all concupiscence is evil. It is not that we should not have intense desires. Indeed the God the Holy Spirit who “dwells within us” does precisely that (concupiscit Spiritus), but he does not desire the sorts of things we do, but rather he desires piety and holiness (4:5). Therefore God the Spirit gives us greater grace and resists the arrogance demonstrated in concupiscence (4:6). Christ confessors ought to stop behaving like rank pagans. They ought to repent and believe, submit to Christ and resist the Devil. Paradoxically, spiritual strength is not found in fulfilled desires, but in abandoning them for Christ’s sake.

Concupiscence in Christian Theology

Tertullian (c.160-c.225) argued that the root of concupiscence is idolatry.3 In a letter encouraging Eustochium to continue her chaste (monastic) life, Jerome (c.345–420) said that Daniel (Daniel 1.8) had refused to eat the bread of desire or “drink the wine of concupiscence.”4

St. Augustine (354-430) expressed his mature views in the treatise, On Marriage and Concupiscence (419) written against the Pelagians.5 Under the influence of neo-Platonism Augustine interpreted Paul’s teaching on the “Spirit” and “flesh” in terms of being (ontology) rather than as ethical and eschatological categories.6 Though he denied any “carnal concupiscence” before the fall and he considered it the “law of sin” (Romans 7:23), he also associated it very closely with sexual desire.7 Baptism, “the laver of regeneration”
(Titus 3:5), washes away original sin and the guilt of concupiscence, but in this fallen world, the act of concupiscence remains, even among the regenerate.8 The “evil of concupiscence” may be tamed for procreation, but even in marriage it brings shame when its passions run hot.9

According to Thomas Aquinas (c.1224-1274) humans were created good, with all the virtues, but because we are creatures and material we necessarily have “lower powers” or “appetites.”10 Even before the fall, these powers were only subject to the soul, even before the fall, only by a “super added gift” (donum super additum) of grace. He says, “even before sin ” man “required grace to obtain eternal life.”11 From the beginning, before the fall, Adam had within his soul, certain lower powers, one of which (concupiscence) was “the craving for pleasurable good” and this desire itself arises from natural, lower appetites.12 Thomas reasoned this way because he presupposed a sort of continuum of being between God and man, with God having complete being and man have relatively less. In short, for Thomas, concupiscence is the result of being human and was the precondition for sin even before the fall.

The Reformation not only reformed the doctrine of justification, but also moral theology. Against the prevailing medieval and Roman view, the Protestants denied that we fell because we were human. Rather, as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) taught in Q. 6, we were created “in righteousness and true holiness, that we might rightly know God our creator, heartily love him and live with him in eternal blessedness.” Thus the First Adam needed no grace before the fall. Grace is for sinners, not for the sinless. The Protestant theologians consistently defined concupiscence as a post-fall phenomenon. Among the children of the first Adam, concupiscence is both an actual sin and the pre-condition or proclivity to sin.13

Unlike Aquinas, who restricted concupiscence to the “sensual appetite,” Calvin argued that it affects the whole of fallen man.

that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly,  that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence (Institutes 2.1.8).

Thinking about the deadly mixture of God’s Law and our sin, Calvin rejected any idea of sinless perfection in this life.

if we go back to the remotest period, we shall not find a single saint who, clothed with a mortal body, ever attained to such perfection as to love the Lord with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and, on the other hand, not one who has not felt the power of concupiscence (Institutes, 2.7.5).

Unlike Augustine, Calvin did not necessarily associate concupiscence with sexual desire. For Calvin, concupiscence is nothing more than a comprehensive synonym for sin.

The Ethics of Concupiscence

Concupiscence is a violation of the eighth and tenth commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 110) says,

110. What does God forbid in the eighth Commandment?

God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by this magistrate, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit, such as unjust weights, fraudulent merchandising, measures, goods, coins usury, or by any means forbidden of God; also all covetousness and the misuse and waste of His gifts.

Considered according to its first use, the Law condemns all of us as concupiscent, covetous, thieves. The Gospel is that Christ Jesus, the Second Adam has actively obeyed this law for concupiscent sinners and his justice is imputed to all those who believe.

For those who have been justified sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, the Law has a third use: as the moral norm for the Christian life. Those who have been redeemed should not be marked by sinful desire. In this regard, it is striking that the Heidelberg Catechism focuses on our commercial life. If there is any area where American Christians have been prone to excuse themselves from God’s Law it is in the area of business. Ministers who address matters of commerce are likely to be accused of meddling rather than preaching.

Put positively, there are certain virtues which Christians must cultivate through the use of the means of grace (Word and Sacrament). The Heidelberg Catechism says:

111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?

That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.

Christians should be identified with utter honesty in all business dealings and by the proper use of God’s gifts. By its nature, concupiscence makes others into mere vehicles for self-fulfillment. The modern corporate business culture often makes concupiscence into a virtue by calling it “personnel management.”

Christian morality has been profoundly influenced by the corporate culture. Pastors are too often rewarded not for proclaiming faithfully the Law and the Gospel, but for being good CEO’s. In their meetings they do not often discuss Biblical exegesis or theology, rather, they tend to compare the size of their congregations. Ministry done for self-aggrandizement and by deceit is concupiscence.

The root of this sin is revealed even more clearly by the tenth commandment which forbids us from “the least inclination” against God’s Law and requires that “with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.”14 As we have seen from Scripture, concupiscence is about inclinations as much as it is about actions. Just as we need Christ’s justice imputed to us, we also need a daily renewal of our affections, flowing from which should be satisfaction with Christ and his mercies.

Conclusion

Concupiscence is a confusion of the two kingdoms. We live and fulfill our callings in both, but one is eternal and the other is not. As citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20) we must also acknowledge that we have too often replaced the virtue of selflessness with the vice of concupiscence. With the help of grace, let us repent daily of our concupiscence and desire instead to be so governed by the “Word and Spirit that we submit always more and more” to Christ.15


[1] See Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd edn. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1984); Oliver O’ Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); David Wells, Losing our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] On this passage Calvin says, “The recesses in which concupiscence lies hid are so deep and tortuous that they easily elude our view; and hence the Apostle had good reason for saying, ‘I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet'”  (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 2.7.6.

[3] De idolatria, cap. 1. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1986), 3.61.

[4] Letters, 22.9. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 6.26

[5] See The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 5.263–308.

[6] On Marriage, 1.18, 35.

[7] On Marriage, 1.18,25,34.

[8] On Marriage, 1.20–22, 28, 29.

[9] On Marriage, 1.27.

[10] Summa theologiae, 1a, 95. Art. 1, Art. 3

[11] ST 1a 95. Art. 4, reply to obj. 1

[12] Summa theologiae, 1a 2ae Q. 30, Art. 4; ST 1a. 81, Art. 1

[13] See the Apology of the Augsburg Confession in T. G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 101.7. See also Luther’s Larger Catechism, §222–52.

[14] Heidelberg Catechism Q.113.

[15] Heidelberg Catechism Q. 123.

Principles of Reformed Worship

Adopted September 19. 2000 by the Consistory of the Escondido United Reformed Church
____

In preparation for the invasion of Canaan, our covenant God promised to destroy the nations before us (Deut. 12:29). His chief complaint against the nations was their pagan worship. He warned,

…and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods (Deut. 12:30-31).

Here Scripture connects two essential Biblical principles, antithesis and worship. Antithesis means that God’s people are to be clearly distinct from the surrounding pagan culture and that difference is to be expressed in worship. Not only are we not to worship the pagan gods, we are to worship the true God truly. It is significant then, that to this warning he added, ” See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”

This principle is not confined to the Old Covenant Scriptures. Our Lord Jesus taught the same doctrine in Revelation 22:18-19. This is so because God’s covenantal Word is united by one covenant of Grace: I will be your God, you will be my people (Gen 17:1-14; Ex 6:7; Jer 7:23; 31;31-34.). There is only one Lord, one faith and one baptism, i.e., one covenant of grace under different administrations (Ephesians 4:5; see also ). Under Moses, this covenant was expressed in types and shadows (Col 2:17; Hebrews 10:1; Rom 5:14). In Jesus Christ we have the reality of what was promised.

Always in the history of salvation, God comes to his people, announces our redemption and then declares the terms of his covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other God’s before me.” (Exodus 20:2). Indeed the first four commandments speak directly to worship, “You shall not make for yourself and idol”; “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord” and “Remember the Sabbath day.”

Thus his covenant word, including his teaching on worship is sacred and inviolable. The circumstances in which we worship have changed, but the nature of the God whom we worship has not changed.

These passages reveal another fundamental principle which continues to guide worship which is Reformed according to the Scriptures. We may do that and only that in worship which is required explicitly or implicitly in God’s Word. In other words, the question is not, “May we do this?” but rather, “What must we do?”

We are to worship intelligibly and in a way which edifies God’s people, not babbling vainly (Matthew 6:7). We are to worship in spirit and truth. Where the woman at the well was concerned about circumstances, our Lord was concerned about attitude and object (the Triune God) of worship. Our attitude is to be one of joyful reverence and the triune God is the only object and audience of true, spiritual worship (John 4:23-24).

God established a dialogic pattern of worship in the history of salvation. God speaks, and his people respond with praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 18 is a classic example of this pattern, in which the Psalmist recounts God’s mighty saving acts for his king and people and then responds with joyful, submissive reverence in v. 50, “Therefore I will praise you among the nations, O LORD; I will sing praises to your name.” This dialogic pattern is fundamental to Biblical Worship.

The other foundational Biblical principle of worship is the nature of the Biblical message itself. God’s Word distinguishes clearly between Law, i.e., what God demands of us, and Gospel, i.e., what Christ has done for us. Paul makes this distinction in Romans 3:20-21:

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The function of Law is to teach us our sin and drive us to Christ. Thus, immediately in the next verses he declares:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

The Good News is that Christ has done for us, what we could not do for ourselves. Reformed worship must express this great truth.

Our Confession
This Biblical principle has come to be summarized as the regulative principle of worship. In the United Reformed Churches in North America we confess that Biblical principle in the Belgic Confession (1561) and Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Because we regard the teaching of our confessions to be a summary of God’s Word it is binding upon all confessing members. Belgic Confession Art. 7 says in part,

For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures….

Because we regard the Scriptures as the sufficient rule for faith and life (sola Scriptura) the Reformed regulative principle is that we do that in worship and only that which is taught explicitly or required implicitly in God’s Word. The exact same doctrine is taught in Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 96:

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

This principle is in contrast to the Lutheran and evangelical approach which holds that we may do in worship whatever is not forbidden. The primary reason we worship as we do is not because it is pleasing to us, but because God has revealed his will for worship in his Word.

Belgic Confession Art. 32 also says in part,

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.

Since the fall, the unbridled worship has been playground of the sinful human imagination. The tyranny of the human will and imagination is not, as some believe, the way of freedom but of slavery. Worship is not an optional assembly for the Christian. When God’s people are gathered on the Christian Sabbath, the day of “sacred assembly” (Leviticus 23:3), the Word and Sacraments administered, the Christian must attend.

If he must attend, then the church must not burden his conscience with any ceremony, rite or element (music, prayer, sermon, sacrament etc) which God has not ordained. Thus the principle at stake here is the freedom of the Christian to worship only as God has revealed.

 

Church Order

For these reasons, the Church Order of the URC (based on the Church Order of the Synod of Dort [1619]) teaches that God’s Word authorizes the elders and minister to call the congregation to worship twice each Lord’s Day as well as on other days (H.C. Q. 103; C.O. Art. 37). When the congregation is gathered worship “shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word” (C. O. Art. 38).

That is, there are certain essential elements which are necessary to worship according to Scripture. The preaching of the Word has the “central place”. Preaching has this centrality because it is through the “preaching of the Holy Gospel” by which the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts (HC Q. 65).

Because the administration of the Word (Law and Gospel) in the sermon is the chief means of grace through which God has promised to work faith, we make available the means of grace to God’s people twice each Lord’s Day and the second sermon ought to “preach the Word as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, with special attention given to the Heidelberg Catechism by treating its Lord’s Days in sequence.” (C.O. Art. 40).

The sacraments are the other divinely instituted means of grace because it is through the administration of the Holy Sacraments by which he confirms our faith (HC Q. 65; CO Art. 41-46). Baptism, as the sign and seal of initiation into the covenant is celebrated as often as necessary. Our present practice is that the Lord’s Supper as the sign and seal of covenant renewal is administered 8 times a year.

 

Our Liturgy

Scripture requires that in worship everything must be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). That is, worship must be intelligible and edifying. Following the teaching of Scripture, its summary in the confession and catechism and its application in the Church order, we follow in our worship services an historic Reformed liturgy which we believe reflects these Biblical and confessional priorities.

Because it is God who made and redeemed us, he has the first word so our services begin with a call to worship from God’s Word, an invocation and Greeting from God, followed by a response by God’s people.

We read God’s Law, confess our sins, and rejoice in the declaration of God’s grace toward his people (CO Art. 38)

Out of gratitude we give tithes and offerings and. since prayer is the chief part of thankfulness (HC Q. 116), we offer our hearts in thankful prayer in morning and evening worship (CO Art. 38).

Continuing the dialogic pattern, God speaks to us in the sermon and we respond in worship and praise.

God has the last word as the minister pronounces God’s benediction upon his covenant people. Just as the service begins formally with the call to worship so it ends formally at this point. The doxology may be sung in response, but this has the same standing liturgically as a song service before the call to worship.

 

Seeker-Sensitive Worship and the Worship Wars

We want to be seeker-sensitive, but we must identify the true seeker in worship. Scripture teaches that “no man seeks God”, certainly not the unregenerate, rather it is God who seeks us (Romans 3:11). Our Lord taught us that the Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23). Therefore the primary focus in Reformed worship is our living, holy, righteous, awesome Triune God. Thus when we gather before his face (Hebrews 12:18-20) we are in a sacred assembly where he has promised to give us an audience. More than that God has promised to be with us as our covenant God (Genesis 17:7-10; John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Matthew 28:20), to make us a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5) It is our earnest prayer that it will be so obvious that God is in our midst, that when an unbeliever enters the assembly he will be convicted of his sin, fall down and worship God exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25).

Because we live in the era of so-called worship wars, the matter of “praise…in song” (Art. 38) has become hotly controversial. One side wants “traditional hymns” and the other side calls for “contemporary songs.” Speaking strictly, however, Reformed worship is neither, “traditional” nor “contemporary.” Rather we operate on revealed principles which must be applied in every age. C. O. Art. 39 says,

The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

It is our conviction that the Psalms are both traditional and contemporary. Though written a millennium before Christ, they are as timeless and as relevant as the Word of God. The Psalter is a “Bible in miniature,” teaching God’s Law as well as his Gospel, pointing us to Christ’s work on behalf of sinners and the Spirit’s ongoing gracious work in his people in justification and sanctification. We believe that the Psalter is Christ’s principal songbook for his people and that it is rightly given the “principal place in the singing of the churches.”

Nevertheless, we also recognize that there are other songs which may be sung in Christian worship. The elders have approved the use of the 1959 CRC Psalter-Hymnal. Other songs to be used in worship which not contained in the Psalter are to be approved by the Consistory. Thus what is sung in worship is not a matter of private preference but publicly stated principles administered by authorized office bearers.

The age of a tune is morally indifferent. Tunes from many eras may be used so long as they are express the mood of the text and are appropriate and conducive to corporate worship. There are older tunes which are now considered traditional which are just as inappropriate as some of the contemporary praise songs and contemporary tunes which are quite suitable to be used in reverently joyful public worship.

Much of the modern confusion about worship is due to the confusion of public and private piety. Reformed worship is not a concert, revival meeting, nor a private prayer circle. In Biblical worship, God speaks to his gathered people and they reply corporately. Therefore what is done must be appropriate to corporate public worship (1 Corinthians 11:10). Therefore there are certain music forms which, while perfectly appropriate to private settings are inappropriate in public worship in which all God’s people, of all ages and backgrounds are gathered (1 Corinthians 11: 22; chapter 14).

Having lost confidence in the preached Word of God as a means of grace, many evangelical congregations and even some Reformed congregations have added elements to the liturgy, namely liturgical dance and drama. It is our conviction that such additions are contrary to God’s Word and are the moral equivalent of the “strange fire” condemned in Leviticus 10:1-2. Scripture not only forbids false gods, but also human innovation in Christian worship, even that which is well intentioned (e.g., 2 Sam 6). The sacraments are the only divinely sanctioned visible Words of God to his people.

 

Conclusion

It is our conviction that the fundamental principle at stake is that God’s Word, not our own desires nor the culture around us, must shape our worship. Therefore we shall continue to worship in way which is as ancient as the Psalter and as relevant as the Gospel of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeking to worship in a way which pleases God and edifies his people.