Wednesday, October 5, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Preaching and Sacraments (Part 3)

Sacraments: Lord's Supper

Baptism is the rite of initiation. The Lord's Supper however is a rite of covenantal renewal. It is where the Lord feeds us in faith, nourishing our souls as we remember His death and resurrection for us.

The Lord's Supper was first instituted by our Lord on the night he was about to be betrayed, as He partook of the meal together with his 12 disciples. The Last Supper, as the incident is known, started as a typical Passover feast, where commemoration was made of the night where the death of lambs and the application of their blood on their doorposts protected the Israelites in Egypt from the Angel of Death. As the night continued, our Lord Jesus Christ instituted this supper using the common elements of bread and wine. The Lord's Supper then continues on in the church as a sacrament commemorating the death of our Lord, as we can see in 1 Corinthians 11:17-32.

In the Lord's Supper, the bread that was broken and given for us ought to provoke us to recall the death of Christ on the cross; His atonement for our sins (1 Cor. 11:24). As we partook of the wine, we are to meditate on the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25), which is to say we are to meditate on the Gospel of free grace that we are justified and saved and loved by God because of Christ, so that we are now all sons of God and co-heirs with Christ (Gal. 4:7). Thus, when we partake of the Lord's Supper "in remembrance of him" (cf 1 Cor. 11:24), we ought to meditate on these two truths as we partake of the two elements of bread and wine.

The Lord's Supper is a remembrance, but it is not just a mere remembrance. It is Christ's body and blood "given for you" (1 Cor. 11:24). Those who partook unworthily are sinning against the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 1:27), which is strange if the Supper was merely a remembrance. No, the Supper is really the body and blood of Christ. There is indeed a "real presence" of Christ in the Supper. Yet, we also know that the bread and the wine are not physically the body and blood of Christ, otherwise that would make Jesus a cannibal at the Last Supper. How then ought we to think about the presence of our Lord in the Supper?

The Calvinist view of the Lord's Supper is that of a presence of relation, where Christ is present spiritually (through the Holy Spirit) to feed our souls with His body and blood (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.10). In the Supper, Christ feeds us spiritually through the Holy Spirit, and thus we partake of the true body and blood of Christ spiritually. It is a nourishing feast for our souls, until Christ comes again (Mt. 26:29).

The partaking of the Lord's Supper is to be done by discerning the body and blood of Christ. This means that one has to meditate on the truths the elements are meant to convey and to have faith in the God who saves. Partaking of the Supper unworthily in 1 Corinthians 11:27 here does not imply sinlessness, for no one on earth is sinless. Rather, to partake of the Supper unworthily implies a lack of reverence for and a lack of faith in Christ, especially when one makes a mockery of this sacred sacrament, which the Corinthians did (1 Cor. 11:18-22). It is this element of discerning the body that is the reason why infants and children are prohibited from partaking of this sacrament even though they are part of the covenant community. Of course, we would wish for the children to celebrate the Lord's Supper with us, which is why we ought to diligently train them in the faith so that one day they will be able to make a confession of faith and join the rest of the church in celebrating the Supper.

It is here to be noted that, while Ulrich Zwingli was an early Reformed minister, his pure memorialist view was not taken by the majority of the Reformed churches. We also reject the views of Lutherans on the matter of the Supper (consubstantiation), and the views of Roman Catholics on the matter (transubstantiation). With regards especially to the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, that the elements of bread and wine are transformed in their substance into the body and blood of Christ while retaining the accidents of "bread" and "wine," we believe that to be grotesque and in essence ritualistic cannibalism, as if we all become cannibals when we eat the bread and the wine. Aristotle is not in the Bible, and especially here the appropriation of Aristotelianism is unbiblical and unwarranted. Since Roman Catholicism after Lateran IV has adopted transubstantiation, the Supper among Roman Catholics has degenerated into rank idolatry and wickedness, a fact acknowledged by the Reformed confessions (HC Q80, WCF 29.6)

The Lord's Supper is a sacrament and a means of grace. As such, it is meant for our good. Therefore, while there are no texts telling us how often we are to celebrate the Lord's Supper, we ought to celebrate it as frequently as we can. As we discern and partake of the body and blood of our Lord, God blesses us in Christ and communicate to us His grace and benefits, helping us in our spiritual walk with Him.

What is a Reformed Church: Preaching and Sacraments (Part 2)

Sacraments: General

During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic seven sacraments and only embraced two sacraments as being those instituted by Christ: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. For these two sacraments, we have explicit evidence from Scripture that Christ instituted them for the church. Since we only do in worship what God commands, therefore we are not to multiply sacraments just because we think those extra "sacraments" are helpful or that others may have benefited from them.

What is a sacrament? The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

Q 92: What is a sacrament?
A: A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q92)

A sacrament is instituted by Christ. The word "sacrament" is the rendering of the Latin translation of the Greek word normally translated "mystery" in New Testament. Therefore, the sacraments are visible signs pointing to the truths of God. As signs, they point to a deeper spiritual reality which we ought to meditate on. The sacraments are also seals, which mean that as we partake of them in faith (not apart from faith), we partake of the spiritual truths they point toward. God uses the sacraments to grant us more grace in our walk with Him on this world, so that we may be further strengthened to live our lives for Him.

During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church embraced the idea that the sacraments work its benefits merely because they are done (ex opere operato), so that faith is not necessary. The Reformed view of the sacraments however is that faith is necessary in order to benefit from the sacraments. God is giving us a sign and a seal of his grace towards us, but as the sacraments are always God's relating and covenanting with us, therefore we as the recipients have to be involved in receiving His benefits with our faith.

Sacraments: Baptism

Baptism is the rite of initiation into the covenant community. It marks the fact that a person is now to be considered as a partaker in God's Covenant of Grace. In the Reformed view, baptism is not a ceremony whereby the believer publicly confesses his faith before God, which is the Credobaptist view. Rather, baptism is the application of God's mark to the person that he or she is now a member in the covenant community. That is why the Reformed tradition holds to both adult and infant baptism. This is not because of church tradition (although the church has a long tradition of infant baptism), neither is it because of sentimental love for one's children but rather because of God's covenant of grace which is always to believers and their children (Deut. 30:6, Jer. 32:39, Ezek. 37:25, Acts 2:39).

Since adult baptism is done after an unbeliever comes to faith, it is natural for people to think that baptism has to do with one's faith. Thus, it is not uncommon that even among those who hold to infant baptism, infant baptism is thought of separately from adult baptism, as if the two are separate rituals altogether. But that is a false way of thinking. Both infant baptisms and adult baptisms are done on the same basis: that God is applying the mark of the covenant to the person. Adult baptism is done as the person by faith joined the covenant community, and thus baptism is more like a welcome ceremony into the church rather than a public declaration of personal faith. Infant baptism marks the inclusion of the baby or child into the covenant based upon the promises of God "to you and your children," and similarly welcomes the child into the community of the saints.

But, it may be objected, what if the child manifests that he has no faith in God when he reaches adulthood? Well, what do we do with adult converts who apostatize after they had been baptized? We excommunicate them. Likewise, children who reject the faith in their mature years would be excommunicated and kicked out of the church. Baptism is never administered because we believe the person is saved, for nobody knows the status of anyone's soul. The church can only judge a profession of faith, but never a person's faith or lack thereof. Therefore, adult baptism is administered to a person who makes a credible profession of faith and thus can be judged to have joined the covenant community. Whether any particular person is saved or not saved only God knows, and each one's faith would be manifest only at the final judgment.

Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It signifies one's entrance into the covenant of grace, for it is a command of God for all in the covenant community, believers, to be baptized. Baptism is also a seal of covenant inclusion, for in Galatians 3:27, those baptized into Christ have "put on Christ," which means that baptized believers now partake of Christ and have communion with Him.

This New Covenant sacrament of baptism replaces circumcision in the Old Testament (Col. 2:11-12), and is meant to signify the inner reality of regeneration (1 Peter 3:21). Therefore, the external rite of baptism is meant to reflect the inner reality of regeneration. It is therefore not uncommon in Reformed churches for believers to be told to remember their baptisms, by which they are to recall the sacrament of baptism being administered to them, so that they may be comforted in their afflictions that God is their God and we are His people.

In the Reformed tradition, the mode of baptism is not important, for the metaphors of sprinkling (Ex. 24:8, Heb. 9:19, Ezek. 36:25), pouring (Is. 44:3, Ezek. 39:29, Joel 2:28-9) and immersion have all been used to depict regeneration, which baptism signify. Since baptism is God's mark on His people, it should not be administered more than once. It is an objective mark, and therefore it matters not whether the person has faith at the time when he received the mark of baptism, as long as he currently has faith. The only consideration for "another baptism" is if the first baptism is invalid, which would imply that the person is actually going to be baptized truly for the first time and not actually being rebaptized.

What is a Reformed Church: Preaching and Sacraments (Part 1)

The church-centered means of grace: Preaching and sacraments

Sanctification in the Reformed faith is to be done through attending to the means of grace: preaching, sacraments, and prayer. The objective and church-based means are preaching and the sacraments. Thus, while prayer and striving to live a godly life are important, the main focus of Reformed piety is attending to the public means of grace in the corporate worship assembly on the Lord's Day.


Preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the truth of God's Word by God's servant to God's people. First of all, preaching is all about God's Word. Therefore, the content must be an exposition of Scripture. Biblical and Reformed preaching must be about expositing the Word of God and speaking only what the Word of God teaches. The preacher does not have any right to preach his own philosophy or his own ideas about what he thinks God's Word teaches. Neither does he have the right to change his message to make his hearers more comfortable. He also does not have the right to make the message "more practical." Where God's Word teaches doctrine, he must teach doctrine. Where God's Word teaches practical issues, he must be practical. Certainly, the preacher could and should show the practical implications of the text, but he has no right to make applications that are not derived from the text themselves.

Secondly, preaching is about the truth of God's Word. In other words, preaching must communicate truth that God's Word teaches. While it is true that Scripture covers many different genres, yet preaching is about exegeting the passage and proclaiming the truths in those passages. Preaching is not about just telling stories, even biblical narratives, but showing believers the truths God is conveying in the narratives, or in any poetry or any passage in any genre.

Thirdly, preaching is about the truth of God's Word, which imply that it is the truth of all of God's Word. This implies that the passage being exegeted and preached must be interpreted not just in its immediate context but also in its canonical context. That means that is must be interpreted in light of the progress of redemptive-history. Also, it must be interpreted in light of the central theme of covenants that is interwoven through the entire Scriptures. Last but not least, it must be interpreted through the framework of the Gospel, and therefore it must be interpreted through the lens of the Law and the Gospel, or the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.

Fourthly, preaching is done by God's servant. Therefore, it is to be done by someone called to the special office of a pastor/ teaching elder. Since there is nothing ontologically special about the pastor, therefore there is nothing to stop any man from taking the office, as long as he is qualified and called to that task. But he must be called to that task. While any believer can witness to others about the Gospel, and anyone can seek to teach and convince others of the truths of Scripture, only the pastor can proclaim the truth of God's Word in the context of a worship service.

Lastly, preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the truth of God's Word. According to the Scriptures, the pastor is a herald of God conveying God's truths to God's people (2 Cor. 5:20). The herald has the authority of the one who sends him, and therefore as God's herald, the message the pastor conveys is authoritative to the extent that it is a true interpretation and application of Scripture. Therefore, all preaching must be treated seriously. All believers must give heed to the preaching from the pulpit. Where the preacher preaches the Word of God, his message must be accepted and applied to one's life. Where the preacher deviates from God's truth, those parts are to be rejected and the preacher has to be reproved. Since the proclamation is authoritative, what is not allowable for any true believer to do is to treat it with indifference and apathy. Either the preacher preaches God's Word and must be obeyed, or he mixes in error with truth and the errors are to be explicitly rejected.

It is therefore noted that preaching in the Reformed tradition is different from much of modern Christianity. The emphasis on the text, the rejection of moralism, and the authoritative nature of the proclamation are all things the modern church downplays at best. In the Reformed church, a sermon is not a lecture or talk show performance. Believers who hear the Word preached are obligated to treat what the preacher proclaims seriously, and to ignore whatever is preached is sin.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Worship (Part 3)

Worship and the Christian Sabbath

Q 59: Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath?
A: From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath. (WSC Q59)

Which day ought we to worship God? Since God is God everyday, can we worship God on any day of the week we so please to do so? Yes, God is God everyday, and yes, God will notice whenever we worship Him. But the Scriptures and the Reformed tradition tell us that God has set aside one day out of seven, purely out of His desire to do so. That day is the Sabbath. Now of course, God can choose to tell us to worship everyday, or one day out of ten, but He did not do so. Rather, God has chosen to give us this 6+1 pattern for us to follow, a pattern that already began at creation.

The Sabbath principle of working 6 days and resting 1 day is seen already in creation in Genesis 1. The verb translated "rested" in Genesis 2:2 has the same root as the word for "Sabbath" and thus, while we are not told that Adam and Eve were to honor the Sabbath, we can infer that the Sabbath pattern was transmitted to them. After a few millennia, Moses and Isael were once again reminded that the Sabbath is to be observed because of the 6+1 pattern of creation (Ex. 20:11). Formal worship therefore is to be done on the Sabbath, based upon the 6+1 pattern of creation.

The original Sabbath was on a Saturday, Saturday being the last day of the week. But a shift in Sabbath has occurred with the transition between creation and new creation. The original Sabbath looked back at creation, but the new Sabbath looked forward towards redemption. Already in Deuteronomy 5:15, the shift has turned from creation to redemption or new creation. Thus, in the new covenant era, the Sabbath is a future reality for believers (Heb. 4:1-11), and thus it marks the new creation.

The shift in focus has resulted in the shift of the Sabbath from the last day of the week, Saturday, to the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2). The Christian Sabbath is now called the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10). Instead of working 6 days and then resting, we now rest then we work, portraying to us the transition from works to grace.

Worship is to be done on Sunday, the Lord's Day, the Christian Sabbath. That is a Reformed distinctive. Does this mean that worship is prohibited on other days? While God has commanded us to observe the Lord's Day, worshiping on Saturday is better than skipping worship altogether, and thus where worship on Sunday is not possible for real valid reasons, worshiping on Saturdays is better than nothing.

Honoring the Sabbath

In the original Jewish Sabbath, many rules and regulations were fixed so as to prevent work on that day, taking literally the idea of "rest." Now that the Sabbath has shifted to Sunday, should we continue wholesale the Jewish practice of Sabbath observance, excepting the day? No, we should not.

Colossians 2:16-17 gives us a rejection of the Jewish Sabbaths. Onto the Jewish Sabbath were added many types and shadows and extra ceremonial laws, which have been fulfilled and abolished once Christ came. The moral aspect of the Sabbath command continues to be valid for us, but the various ceremonial additions and accretions of Jewish traditions have to go.

For us today, how are we to honor the Sabbath? We primarily honor the Sabbath by going to a church service and worshiping God on that day. The rest of the day we should be spending time focused on God, but there is no definite fixed way how we are to go about doing that. Some in the Reformed tradition believe that Sabbath observance has greater implications for how we to interact with the world the rest of the day though, but where Scripture is silent, any further application is a wisdom issue.

What is a Reformed Church: Worship (Part 2)

Nadab and Abihu

Nadab and Abihu desired to offer sacrifices to God. Yet, they were not commanded to do so (Lev. 10:1) and therefore their sacrifices were unauthorized. In this incident, God decided to punish this sin by burning Nadab and Abihu to death by fire.

While it is true that the sacrifices were unauthorized, the reason why they so is because God did not command them to sacrifice in this manner. Thus, whatever is not commanded God told us we should not do.

All of these are in the Old Testament, yet in the New Testament, God did not change the principle of worship to the normative principle. In the same discourse with the Samaritan woman where Jesus tell us New Covenant worship is no more linked to physical location but rather to our "spiritual" location, "in Spirit and truth," Jesus told the woman that she and the Samaritans were not worshiping God correctly (Jn. 4:22). Worship is indeed greatly simplified (Col. 2:16-23), but it is here also that "self-made religion" (ἐθελοθρησκία, Col. 2:23) is proscribed, and thus the Regulative Principle re-asserted. One could almost say that the Regulative Principle for New Covenant times implies simplicity of worship.

The Regulative Principle and Elements of worship

The Regulative Principle states that we are to worship God only in the way He has commanded. What then are the elements of worship that God has commanded?

It is tempting, and it has been done in church history, to import Aristotelian philosophical categories when discussing what the elements of worship are. In both medieval and Reformed scholasticism, Aristotle's categories of substance and accidents were utilized in an attempt to discern what the elements of worship are and what elements are to be excluded. There has therefore been some churches historically that reject everything but the 150 Psalms of David and reject the use of all musical instruments (with the possible exception of one simple instrument to produce the base note in order that the psalms may be sung on the same key). Scripture of course knows nothing about Aristotle. Aristotelian metaphysics may or may not be helpful, but I do not think it is essential to embrace that in order to discern the elements of worship.

The important thing about Reformed worship is that it only embraces what God commands. Thus, the elements of worship include singing of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Col. 3:16), the preaching and proclamation of God's Word, prayer, and the sacraments. Notably absent are drama, skits, plays, movies, flashy strobe lights, and praise bands. Reformed worship is spartan in comparison to much of modern "worship," as we desire to do only the things which God command us to do. Yet, because it is to be done "in Spirit and truth," it should be truly meaningful without the false worldly impressions of glory given by flashy praise bands.

What is a Reformed Church: Worship (Part 1)

Worship: Broadly and Narrowly Considered

What is the chief end of Man? The chief end or purpose of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 1). Worship is the giving of glory and honor and praise to God, and it is the goal of our existence. As such, worship is very important for the Christian life.

There is a broad sense in which any life submitted to God is worship. As it is written, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1). In ordinary life, as we live our lives in submission to God with a desire to obey Him and glorify Him, we are engaging in an act of spiritual worship. All Christians ought to be engaging in this broad understanding of worship, and live out the general office of believers in this world.

Narrowly defined, however, "worship" refers to the formal act of explicit praise towards God, and communion with God. Worship narrowly defined is formal and ceremonial. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle and temple services are the places whereby Israel worshiped YHWH. In the worship, praise is offered towards God and God comes down to meet with His people. In the New Testament, worship is now organized around the worship of God and in praise to our Savior Jesus Christ. Arising from a Jewish background, which God intended, worship continues to be the setting whereby men and women can have a covenantal encounter with God, while believers sing praises to God to honor and glorify who He is.

Worship narrowly defined is a religious ritual, thus it has an order to it. Therefore, no matter how "free flowing" and informal a Charismatic service is, by virtue of the fact that it is a religious ritual, it has some kind of a liturgy even if it is unspoken, flexible and ill-defined. The question with regards to worship therefore is not about whether it should be liturgical, but what kind of liturgy should be used and how we get to discern the elements of worship which constitute the liturgy.

Worship: Regulative Principle of Worship

How should we worship? Should we worship God however we feel like it, as long as we do not do anything which God prohibits us from doing? Or should we worship God only in the way He has commanded us to do so? The former is known as the normative principle of worship, while the latter is known as the regulative principle of worship. The Reformed faith in her pure form has held to the regulative principle of worship, noting that God has a lot to command and say about how we are to worship Him especially in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, it is true that the strict laws concerning sacrifices are abolished, and even the place is no more restricted to the tabernacle or the temple at Jerusalem. Rather, we are told to worship "in spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4:24). Physical location is no more important for worship, but rather our spiritual "location" is important. We are to worship "in spirit," and therefore we are to worship God in the Holy Spirit, discerning spiritual things. We are to worship God "in truth," and thus we are to worship God truthfully, not entertaining false notions of who He is or what He has done.

We are to worship God truly. Thus, the first commandment tells us not to have any false gods (Ex. 20:3, Deut. 5:7). But we are to also worship God in a true manner, therefore we have the second commandment (Ex. 20:4-6, Deut. 5:8-10). To worship the true God in a false manner is sin. When the Israelites fashioned the Golden Calf, they were not worshiping a false god but worshiping YHWH falsely in the form of the idol of the golden calf. We see this in the people stating that the Golden Calf represents the God who brought them out of Egypt and Aaron proclaiming a feat to YHWH (Ex. 32:4-5), indicating that the people did not see themselves as worshiping a false god but rather worshiping the true God, albeit in the manner of the pagans. God of course was not amused, and severely judged Israel. In God's eyes, worshiping Him in a false manner is no different from worshiping an idol, and therefore the Golden Calf was treated as idolatry.

Cain and Abel

The episode of Cain and Abel is significant because here both brothers made an offering to God, but God accepted Abel's offering while rejecting Cain's offering (Gen. 4:4). We are not told specifically why God rejected Cain's offering while accepting Abel's offering. We are told that Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice (Heb. 11:4), and that Cain's deeds were evil (1 Jn. 3:12), yet even in 1 John 3:12 it could be the case that the evil deed of Cain pertains to the sacrifice not that he was, initially, morally wicked.

From the explicit teaching of Scripture, we can only say that Cain's offering was somehow deficient. But since we believe that elements of the Mosaic law did not originate from Moses but were present even from creation, it is conceivable that Cain's sacrifice was deficient because it was the wrong sacrifice, a grain offering rather than a sin offering. (There is no indication that Cain's offering was inferior to Abel's since they were both valued equally, c.f. "also" in Gen. 4:4). In other words, Cain worshiped God not in the way He was shown to do so, through the shedding of blood (c.f. Gen. 3:21)

Monday, October 3, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Church (Part 5)

Church and Life: Special Calling and Ordination

In a church, traditionally there is what is called the "clergy" and what is called the "laity." The "clergy" are those who do full-time ministry in the context of a church, especially in preaching and the administration of the sacraments. The "laity" refers to all other members of the church. In congregationalism, and especially in the modern democritization movement within the churches, attempts have been made to erase the line between the two. Thus, there arose the concept of "every-member ministry" (in that all believers are called to ministry in some form), and the concept of "lay leadership" in the churches.

Such concepts are however foreign to the Reformed tradition. In the Reformed church in its most consistent polity, the office bearers are set apart from the rest of the congregation in order to serve as office bearers. They are not different in being from other believers, but rather the distinguishing factor is the call of God to their respective office.

The call of God comes from God. Therefore it is objective and independent of the church. It comes from outside us (extra nos) just like regeneration and justification. Thus, the role of the church is to recognize those who are called, not to create the call. How the church recognizes those who are called varies, but since God is the God of history as well as the Lord of the Church, those whom the Church has properly called and are serving as her office bearers are those whom God has called to that office, at least for that time.

As the call goes forth, is heeded, and is recognized, the church installs and ordains and appoints her office bearers. Ordination is nothing more than the formal recognition by the church of a pastor called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. There is nothing magical at ordination, as if the being of the pastor is changed and elevated to a higher level of being. But there is also everything special about ordination, in that it marks the church's recognition of God's call of the minister. Ordination is therefore necessary for serving as a pastor in a Reformed church. The practice of some churches of making an "evangelist" wait a few years, even 5 years or more, before he can qualify to be ordained is a practice that has no basis in Scripture and in fact goes against what ordination is supposed to stand for.

In many Reformed churches, there is a process of steps whereby those seeking the ministry ought to go through. Such a process is a matter of wisdom for the church to properly take care of the men under her seeking the ministry. In many Reformed churches, there is a process called licensure distinct from ordination. Since ordination is for men who are starting to serve in the churches, it is only given to those who already have a call to a particular church. Licensure in these Reformed churches therefore function to test and validate a man's capability for the ministry without him necessarily having a specific call to a particular church.

Church and Life: General Calling of believers

While there is a special calling for certain men to the ministry, God does not therefore neglects other believers. Rather, those who are not specially called have the general call of the priesthood of all believers. All believers are called to be Christians, to witness for Christ (Acts 1:8) and to glorify God in all things (1 Cor. 10:31). While office bearers serve the church, believers are all called to serve and witness to the world in general.

This does not mean that non-office bearers cannot serve in the church. Rather, for them it is not compulsory to serve in the church, and they should not feel pressured to serve as if all "spiritual" Christians serve in the church, as if service is an indication of godliness. Furthermore, since they are not called to the special office, they are not to serve in any capacity reserved for office bearers. Thus, they are prohibited from serving in authoritative teaching, ruling, preaching, administration of the sacraments, and allocation of alms. As long as they are not called to those offices, to serve there without being called is a sin.

God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does. Believers therefore have a very important role in their outreach and good works outside the church. Sadly, it is much easier for believers to look inwards and keep to their church cliches, rather than look outward in outreach. Such an attitude probably promotes a desire to do ministry within the church in forms such as "lay ministry." But being busy in the name of serving God in a church is not necessarily a virtue when one is not called to serve there. More programs do not necessarily translate to anything except lots of activities, which may mask sickness in the church and project an illusion of health. Instead of having lots of activities and service and "ministries," why not look outside and do good works to our neighbors apart from the church, so that God may be glorified and the Gospel we proclaim clothed with the good works of the saints?

The doctrine of vocation is this doctrine that Christians are called to serve God in their work and in the world they are in. Secular work is of this age, but it does not have to be godless. Rather, "whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31), and unbelievers will glorify God because of your good deeds (1 Peter 2:12).

What is a Reformed Church: Church (Part 4)

Reformed Church Distinctive: Presbyterian Church Polity: Office bearers

In the history of the Reformation, various church bodies emerge, which adopt various ways of governing the church. The Church of England opted to retain the episcopal form of government, while the Particular Baptists and Congregationalists adopted the congregational form of government. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches adopt the Presbyterian form of church governance, which they believe to be the most biblical form of government which is taught in Scripture. Thus, while there could be church bodies believing in much of Reformed theology that do not embrace Presbyterian church polity, it could still be said that Presbyterian church polity is a true distinctive of a consistent Reformed church.

In episcopal church polity, church leadership is arranged in a hierarchy where the clergy are ranked above the laity, and higher clergy like bishops are ranked higher than priests. Episcopal church polity is strongly institutional and authority is centralized in the highest office of the church, for example an Archbishop. Opposite to episcopalianism is congregational church polity. In a church governed by strict congregational church polity, power and authority is vested in the members of the congregation, and thus highly decentralized. Where there are pastors and elders and deacons, they are seen as servants of the church, with no substantial difference between them and other church members, except that somebody has to be employed to do the work of the church which most church members do not have the time or the energy to do.

Presbyterian church polity is in the middle of the spectrum between episcopalianism on the one end and strict congregationalism on the other. In Presbyterian church polity, there is some measure of "hierarchy" in that office bearers (pastors, elders, deacons) have a calling from God that is not shared with other church members. But such a calling is not a hierarchy of being or intellect or anything of that sort, but strictly of whom God calls to the office. (The concept of the special call would be fleshed out later.) It does not multiply offices neither does it arrange them in a hierarchy as in episcopalianism, and it does not deny the special vocation of office bearers like in congregationalism. On the issue of authority, it does not centralize authority in the highest office bearer, neither does it decentralize authority in everyone.

There are two offices in Presbyterianism, or three if one holds that pastors are of a separate office from elders. Pastors and elders rule the church and take care of major issues (especially spiritual issues) concerning the church. Deacons take care of the material aspect of church life especially care for the physical needs of the members. Each office should be occupied by many men, such that there should be a plurality of elders, and a plurality of deacons where possible. All office bearers have equal standing among their peers, with no one elder higher than another or one deacon lower than another deacon. The elders and especially the deacons stand as representatives of the local assembly they serve, and thus they make decisions on behalf of the entire church body. They do not make decisions then impose them on the church, neither do they make decisions only where every church member agrees with the decision. Rather, they make decisions as representing the entire church corporately.

Presbyterian church polity is also connectional. Therefore, Presbyterian churches come together to form higher assemblies such as Presbyteries, Synods and General Assemblies. In these higher assemblies, pastors and elders from various churches come together to deliberate matters pertaining to the churches and to provide oversight and accountability for the various works of the denomination. This is done so that they may be order, greater visible unity, and greater synergy in the work of the Church, which glorifies God. While that council is certainly unique, we do see the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as providing a pattern for such higher assemblies.

Friday, September 30, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Church (Part 3b)

Irresistible Grace

Irresistible Grace teaches that God intends to save a person, the grace given to him or her at that time will most definitely result in his or her salvation. It does not teach that sinners can never resist God's grace, for we all do that all the time, but that the grace which intends to save will save.

Historically, this is grouped together in the Canons of Dordt in discussions of Total Depravity, in the Third ad Fourth Heads of Doctrine. This was done as both of them had to do with the will of Man. Concerning Total Depravity, did depravity extend to the human will? Concerning grace, is saving grace resistible by the will of Man? The answer is that the grace which saves will effect its own work on the human will. Or to cite from the Canons:

In this way, therefore, faith is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for man to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on man, breathed and infused into him. Nor is it a gift in the sense that God bestows only the potential to believe, but then awaits assent--the act of believing--from man's choice; rather, it is a gift in the sense that he who works both willing and acting and, indeed, works all things in all people produces in man both the will to believe and the belief itself. (CD 3/4: 14).

Biblically, it is God the Spirit that brings people to spiritual life (Ezek. 37:1-10; Jn. 3:5-6). The ones who come to Jesus in faith are drawn by the Father through the Spirit (Jn. 6:44). Thus, the Spirit brings life to believers effecting the drawing of the elect to faith in Christ.

Perseverance of the Saints

Perseverance of the Saints teaches that those who are truly saved by Christ will persevere in the faith and will not lose their faith. This was opposed by the Remonstrants and even John Wesley, who believed that perseverance is conditional upon faith. Now, both sides believe that Christians ought to have faith. The question is not whether faith is necessary for salvation, neither is it whether professing believes can fall away, but rather who is responsible for upholding personal faith. (Concerning the first, everyone agrees that faith is necessary for salvation. Concerning the second, Scripture itself states that those who fall away were never true believers in the first place (1 Jn. 2:19).) Thus on the issue of real difference, Calvinists say that it is God who will sustain the faith of someone who is truly saved, while Arminians will put the onus on the believer to sustain his or her personal faith.

Biblically, in John 6:37b, Jesus implies that He is keeping His sheep safe, and in verse 44b, He promises the person drawn by the Father will be present "on the last day." In John 10:28, Jesus clearly states that no one can take His sheep out of His hand. "No one" means that we ourselves cannot take ourselves out of the saving hand of Christ. The reason why the saints will persevere is not because they are such great and good individuals, but because the God they believe in IS great and powerful to save. Thus, we can say:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Rom. 8:31-35)

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39)

No one is able to separate us from Christ and His love, and that includes us ourselves.

What is a Reformed Church: Church (Part 3a)

Reformed Church Distinctive: TULIP

In the history of the Reformed Church, errors of various kinds have crept into in an attempt to subvert the faith. One such error was Arminianism, which was condemned at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. Due to the international (for its time) scope of the Synod, this Synod approximates an ecumenical council to a large extent, and therefore to the degree that it is biblical, which we think it is, it is binding on the Reformed churches and tradition.

Arminianism is the theological system that came out of the teachings of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch Reformed minister in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Arminius professed to hold to the Reformed doctrines and was at one time even a professor at the theological faculty of Leiden University, training pastors for the Dutch Reformed church. But things were not as they seem. Arminius' students began to profess and teach doctrines contrary to the Reformed faith, and they ascribe their new teachings to Arminius himself. Arminius' followers were called the Remonstrants because they remonstrated against what they see as unbiblical teachings, and wanted the Dutch Reformed church to amend its standards to tolerate Arminius' teachings.

Due to social and political considerations, it was not until 1618 that a synod was able to assemble to address the Remonstrants. In order to get more counsel, delegates from the various Reformed churches were invited to participate in the deliberations of the Synod at Dordt, and most of them came with a few exceptions (e.g. the Reformed church in France could not send delegates under the threat of expulsion from the nation). At the synod, Arminianism was examined and condemned as false teaching that "summon back the Pelagian error" (Canons of Dordt, Second Point of Doctrine, Rejection of Errors 3). Needless to say, the Remonstrants were ejected from the Dutch Reformed church after the council.

A major distinctive of Reformed churches, and what ought to be the case in churches that have historical roots in the Reformed tradition (Anglican, Methodist), is the rejection of Arminianism. Now of course, there is not one single type of Arminianism. That is why Arminianism is not necessarily a damnable heresy. But Classical Remonstrant Arminianism is heresy. In fact, church history bore out this judgment in the further apostasy of one of the Remonstrants Conrad Vorstius into Socinianism, and many Remonstrants later became Rationalists.

The Canons of Dordt therefore has acquired a quasi-ecumenical status in the Reformed tradition. Calvinism, as expressed in the acrostic TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints, is part of the Reformed faith. All Reformed are Calvinists, although Calvinists may not be Reformed. To deny Calvinism is to deny the Reformed faith, and thus to put oneself in danger of further error leading away from the Christian faith.

Total Depravity

Total Depravity teaches that all humans are depraved in every aspect of their being. It does not teach that all people are as wicked as they could be. Rather, the focus of Total Depravity is that there is not any one aspect of mankind that is not tainted by sin. Even the will of Man is affected by sin so that nobody can choose God of his own free will, not because he cannot do so if he wants to, but that he is unable to want to do so (CD, 3/4).

The Remonstrants claim to believe in Total Depravity, which is why the third and fourth articles of doctrine are combined in the Canons of Dordt, to show that they actually do not hold to Total Depravity. In the Remonstrant system, man is "totally depraved" but his will is not depraved enough to choose God, whether that comes about naturally or by some prevenient grace. But in Reformed theology, Total Depravity implies that humans by our own nature cannot choose God (Rom. 3:10-11). Left to ourselves, no one would choose to believe in the true God, and therefore it is only God that can save us.

Unconditional Election

Unconditional election teaches that God elects whom He wants to save, and He elects those whom He saves apart from any condition whatsoever, or any supposed virtue, in sinners. In other words, election unto salvation is not for some "deserving" individuals, but that God elects and saves those whom He wills, based on nothing in the sinner.

This is opposed to the Arminian idea that God elects whom to save based upon foreseen faith. In this view, God sees down the hallway of time so to speak, and then saves those who puts their faith in Him. Election unto salvation according to Arminianism is conditional upon faith, but that is not taught in Scripture, which makes election dependent purely on God's good pleasure (Eph. 1:11). God will have compassion on those whom He will have compassion, and He will harden those He wants to harden (Rom. 9:14-18). Out of the same lump of clay, God will destine one for salvation and another for damnation (Rom. 9:21), and there is no injustice to God in doing that. For "who are you, O Man, to answer back to God?" (Rom. 4:20).

Limited or Definite Atonement

Limited or Definite Atonement is the teaching that Jesus came to save a definite people. This is opposed to the Arminian teaching that Jesus came to die for all people without exception (thus "limited" as a contrast to the Remonstrants' "unlimited" atonement). Calvinists note that the use of the words "all" and "world" need to be qualified by their surrounding contexts, for surely "all the world" in Luke 2:1 means all of the Roman world, not the entire world. Therefore, verses that are claimed to teach an atonement for "all" and for "the world" need to be likewise qualified and interpreted.

Scripture is clear that Jesus came to die for His sheep (Jn. 10:15), and not everyone is of His sheep (Jn. 10:26). All the Father gives to the Son will be saved (Jn 6:37). Jesus came to die for His Bride, not for anyone else. There is a singular intention in all of God's actions in salvation (Eph. 1:9-10), including Jesus' death on the Cross to atone for our sins.