Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Justification (Part 2)

Justification: Christ Alone

The basis for our justification is the grace of God in Jesus Christ, not how much faith we have. The ground of our justification is in Christ, and thus it does not depend on us, and not on our works. The reason why we are justified by grace alone through faith alone is because justification is in Christ alone. The ground of salvation is outside of us (extra nos) and therefore when the Scriptures say that salvation is a free gift, it really is a free gift, since nothing we do will ever affect the salvation we receive by faith alone.

The focus on Christ alone is made in contrast to two errors. The first error is to focus on the will of men. This was the problem with the early 17th century Arminians, and the problem with many of the 15h and 16th century Renaissance humanists like Desiderius Erasmus (and with Rome too). In such systems, it is Christ and us who co-operate to save ourselves. God plays his part, even most of the work, but it is now up to the individual person to take the last step towards salvation. The second error is to supplement Jesus with the cult of the saints, especially Mary, which was prevalent and still is present in Roman Catholicism. Prayers to various saints and especially Mary are perceived to help supplement one's devotion towards God. In the case of Mary, outrageous claims have been made in Roman Catholicism about the simple girl from Nazareth, to elevate her to a person with almost god-like status. Prayers to the saints, and especially to Mary, are encouraged in Roman Catholicism, even with helping out in one's standing before God. But if justification is in Christ alone, then the saints and Mary (assuming they can hear our prayers, and that without being appalled by being treated as an object of prayer) cannot help at all. Christ is the only mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5) and there cannot be any other, neither "the saints" nor Mary.

Christ alone saves because He is the only righteous man. His righteousness can be split into His passive and His active righteousness, both of which are given or reckoned to us.

Christ's passive righteousness and satisfaction

Christ's passive righteousness refers to the righteousness of God that comes from His suffering. It is not "passive" in contrast to active, but rather "passive" as in full of passions. The sufferings of Christ begin from the time the Son become incarnate, took on a human body, and had to limit Himself to a human with all our limitations, and culminates at the Cross, where Christ suffered, bled and died on the Cross.

This passive righteousness of Christ, as focused on the Cross, is tied up with the notion of satisfaction, which is the doctrine that Jesus died to satisfy or quench or propitiate the wrath of God. God is angry against sin, and His wrath burns against sinners. It was because of the universal knowledge of God's wrath that ancient cultures around the world, distorting the original knowledge of God, had animal and even human sacrifices to propitiate the wrath of their gods. In Israel, God re-instituted the pure sacrificial system to teach Israel and us that, apart from the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).

Far from being an invention of backward savages, the bloody sacrificial system points to the truth that the shedding of blood as payments for sins is necessary to return to a right relationship with God. Jesus by dying on the Cross paid the price for our salvation so that we do not need to shed any more blood to be justified.

Christ's active righteousness and imputation

Christ's active righteousness consists in his obedience to the demands of the law of God. It is active because it consists in the actions of obedience. As Jesus perfectly obeys the law and obeys the will of the Father, He merits life, the only human to ever have done so (Rom. 5:16b, 17b). Jesus' perfect obedience shows that He is supremely worthy of eternal life, and this life He gives to us His people who believe in Him.

Jesus gives us His righteousness through imputing or reckoning it to us. Imputation is the doctrine that states that we are given Jesus' righteousness so that we are seen as if we are actually righteous even though we are not in nature and action. As Scriptures states, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21). Our sins are imputed to Christ, while Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. Jesus was treated as if He were sinful even though He was not, and we who believe in Christ are treated as if we are righteous even though we are not.

This notion of double imputation, or the Great Exchange, is the crux of our salvation. The reason why we can be justified by grace alone through faith alone apart from works is because of what Christ has done on our behalf (pro nobis). We are justified because Jesus has given us His righteousness, not just paid our punishments but that we have actual righteousness credited to our account. When God the Father sees us, He sees the righteousness of Christ, not our ugly sins, because of what Jesus did for us.

Conclusion

The eternal and glorious God, without any compulsion, decided to save His people, and He does this through the life and work of our Savior Jesus Christ. We are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus took our sins and appeased God's wrath, and imputed to us His righteousness, and thus make us right before God and pleasing to Him.

What is a Reformed Church: Justification (Part 1)

Why justification by faith?

The story of mankind is that of creation, ruin and then salvation. Jesus in history sets up the New Covenant so as to save sinners from their sins and the consequences of their sins. But what is sin? Sin is any want of, or transgression of, the law of God (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 14). In other words, sins can be sins of omission, not doing what is right and ought to be done, or sins of commission, doing what is wrong. Sin is an objective reality, independent of ethnicity, culture, language, or religion. Everyone sins because we are all sinners, born with the original guilt of Adam and committing sins each and every day.

The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23a). Wrong must be punished, treason against the King of the Universe must be avenged. Good works cannot erase the punishments for sins, in the same way that volunteering for charity events will not prevent a murderer from being convicted of murder and paying the penalty for that. To say that we can do good works to "balance" our ledger is to show a failure to understand how detestable sins is to God. God is so holy that what we think of as a small sin is so detestable to him, like what we might feel when we think of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust he engineered and presided over.

All Christians believe in the sinfulness of mankind, and the need to trust Jesus Christ in order to be saved. But the Reformed faith emphasizes how terrible sin is before God. According to the Scriptures, and the Reformed teaching, humanity is totally depraved. Our basic slant is sin, and we cannot help but sin. As Scripture states, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil" (Jer. 13:23), and "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Rom. 3:10b-11). Total depravity means that every aspect of our being is tainted with sin, not that we are as sinful as we can be. Obviously, there is always room for further wickedness, as the more modern examples of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler have shown us.

We are condemned because of our sins. All our "good works" are like soiled garments (Is. 64:6; "menstrual cloths") before God, as whatever does not proceed out of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). As the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes on this topic,

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (WCF 16.7)

When we think that we can do good in order to be right with God, we show that we do not understand the holiness of God. The only "good work" that God accepts is perfect and perpetual obedience, or 100%, which only Jesus has. In God's marking scheme, anything less than 100%, even 99%, is a failing mark. Therefore, while God does promise eternal life for doing good and only good (Rom. 2:1-11), the fact of the matter is that no one does good according to God's standards.

That is why the doctrine of justification is so important. In justification, we are proclaimed righteous because of faith in Christ (Rom. 3:22), not because of our works, because we do not have the perfect obedience required. Historically, the doctrine of justification is important because of the Medieval idea of salvation by faith and good works. But if our "good works" is so imperfect and tainted with sin, then "good works" cannot play any role in getting us right before God.

Regeneration by the Holy Spirit

Before we go to justification, we need to back up a bit to speak of the Holy Spirit. If we are totally depraved, that means that even our wills are tainted with sin. As Romans 3:11 states, no one seeks for God. How is it that anyone can turn to God in the first place? Roman Catholicism "solves this" by having baptism remove the guilt of original sin. Many Evangelicals "solve" this by making the human will at least in part exempt from the corruption of sin. But the Scriptures do not solve the problem of sin and the need to turn to Christ this way. Rather, it is written, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day." (Jn. 6:44). Jesus' solution is that He draws people to Him. God in the person of the Holy Spirit draws people to faith in Christ (Jn. 3:1-8), granting them faith as a gift (Eph. 2:8). The Holy Spirit regenerates, or brings about spiritual life, in a person, who then turns to Christ in faith.

Justification: Faith Alone

If good works cannot be a part of making us right before God, then it does not play any part in our justification period. Justification is by faith alone (sola fide), apart from works (Eph. 2:8). But what is faith? "Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel" (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 86). In other words, faith is trust. Faith is not a work that one does, but an acknowledgment that one cannot do anything and has to thus rely on another, Jesus Christ; We receive and rest upon Him alone. Faith is the naked hand through which one grasp the salvation offered by Christ in the Gospel, the hand of a beggar absolutely unable to offer anything in return for this gift from God to us.

Justification: Grace Alone

Technically, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, not by faith alone. This is because our faith is not the reason we are saved, but the way we take hold of salvation. What saves us is God's grace; it is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). God does not see our faith and save us, but rather He sees Christ and save us. This is actually a very good thing, for imagine if God is to judge us according to how much faith we have? That would make faith into a work, and those who have more faith will be saved while those with little faith might not be saved. But Jesus through one of his parables speak of the power of such small faith even as the faith of a mustard seed that can move mountains (Mt. 17:20). The reason why Jesus can say this is because what saves is God's grace, not how much faith we have. Faith after all states that we are powerless to save ourselves, so what does "strong powerlessness" and "weak powerlessness" on the issue of faith even mean?

In the Reformed tradition, the emphasis on grace alone is important in light of the Arminian controversy from 1610 to 1618. The Arminians believe that God sees our faith and rewards our faith with eternal life. The Canons of Dordt, written in 1618-1619 in response to the Arminians, rejects this as error. As it states,

[This error is rejected:] Who teach that what is involved in the new covenant of grace which God the Father made with men through the intervening of Christ's death is not that we are justified before God and saved through faith, insofar as it accepts Christ's merit, but rather that God, having withdrawn his demand for perfect obedience to the law, counts faith itself, and the imperfect obedience of faith, as perfect obedience to the law, and graciously looks upon this as worthy of the reward of eternal life. (Canons of Dordt, 2, Rejection of Errors 4)

No, it is grace alone that saves us. And the basis for our justification and our salvation is Christ and Him alone.

[to be continued]

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Covenant - Our Story (Part 3)

The Covenant at Creation: The Covenant of Works

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). All things in space and time came into being by God speaking the universe into being. God created all things including mankind, with the first couple Adam and Eve being created by God and placed into the Garden of Eden.

At the beginning after creation, the first human couple were pure and sinless. God then made a covenant with them, which is commonly called the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Nature or Covenant of Creation. It is called a Covenant of Creation because it was made at creation and a Covenant of Nature because it was made with mankind in nature and natural harmony. But it is most commonly known as the Covenant of Works because in it there is a works principle, which is to say the principle that works of obedience to God would merit eternal life.

In Genesis 2:16, God gave Adam the command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If he disobeyed and ate of the tree, he would certainly die. Conversely, if he obeyed the command, he would not die but will live, as the parallel with Christ shows (Rom. 5:12-19).

This works principle can be seen in passages such as Romans 2:1-11. God is a just God and here He reveals that doing good in obedience will most certainly be rewarded, and evil will be punished. The works principle is the basic principle of the Law, "Do this and Live" (Lev. 18:5, Rom. 10:5, Gal. 3:12). In the Covenant of Works, the works principle was at its peak. God has given His command, but will Adam obey the command and live? The subsequent narrative of the Fall (Gen. 3) showed us Adam's breaking of God's command and the subsequent judgments of God. Adam failed the test, and therefore all mankind now inherit Adam's guilt, and are sinful from birth. Death came to all men (Rom. 5:12), and thus all men die, spiritually now, and physically later.

The Covenant of Grace

God's plan however was to save His people, even from the foundation of the world. Therefore, the Gospel was proclaimed even in the midst of the pronouncement of judgment (Gen. 3:15). There will come a Savior, the Seed of the Women, who will crush the head of Satan and defeat him. This Covenant of Grace pushes forward through the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic Covenant, each one building up towards the coming of the Servant-King, the Messiah. In the fullness of time, Jesus Christ came into the world, ministered in Israel, and died on the Cross for our sins. His death on the Cross satisfies the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25), and inaugurates the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13, 9:11-28). In this New Covenant, we now have a way back to God, not by works but by faith in Christ.

From the time of Christ's death on the Cross therefore, the promised Savior has arrived. Adam failed to be obedient and thus earned death. But for those in Christ, salvation is not about working to earn salvation but simply to truth in Christ, who earned our salvation for us by His life and death on the Cross. History began at the Garden of Eden, but it finds its zenith at Calgary. After millennia of waiting, the promised Messiah has finally arrived, and now we can turn to Him so that we can come back to God.

The end of the world

We are now situated in the time between Jesus' first coming and His second coming. Nearly 2000 years have passed by since our Savior first came to die for us. God has not told us when He will come back to bring an end to this world, when Christ comes again. But in that last day in the future, this world will come to its end. Nations and peoples will stand before God to give an account of their lives, and only those who have trusted in Christ will be saved on that day. In that great and terrible Day of the Lord, the earth will be burned by fire (2 Peter 3:12) and terrible judgments will consume the earth (the judgments in Revelations). There will come a new heavens and a new earth after that, where God and mankind can finally be together, in full fellowship, forever.

What is a Reformed Church: Covenant - Our Story (Part 2)

Before the world began: Covenant of Redemption

In the beginning, there was nothing but God. Then, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). In the beginning, there was (past tense) the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (Jn. 1:1). God existed before anything existed. He is eternity. Everything else is created and has a beginning. God is eternal and uncreated.

But the story started in eternity, before time started. In eternity, the Triune God planned the entire course of all creation. In eternity, God in His Triune Being focused on the centerpiece of His plan: the salvation of sinners. In this plan, the three persons of the Godhead came together and planned the salvation of God's people, for this is what God desires.

Scripture is clear about this plan. In Psalms 2:7, God the Father spoke of the decree that has already been made even before human rebellion, and thus in eternity. In Psalms 110, God plotted with God ("the LORD said to my Lord") for the kingly rule of the second lord ("the Son"). In John 5:19-28, Jesus spoke about the granting of authority from the Father (Jn. 5:22, 27) to accomplish the work God the Father gave Him to do. This happened in eternity because the imparting of "life of Himself" (Jn. 5:26) from the Father to the Son is in eternity. In his High Priestly prayer, Jesus revealed to us this plan when He spoke about the giving of all authority to Him (Jn. 17:2) before the world began (Jn. 17:24).

In Zechariah 6:13, the "counsel of peace" is made between "the Branch" and the priest on his throne. This cryptic language is strange until we figure out "the Branch" refers to the Messiah, of which Josiah is a mere type pointing to the Messiah. But what makes it even strange is that we have another person, a priestly figure, who is occupying the same throne, the same space. But how can two people occupy the same space, unless they are actually one? Thus, the counsel of peace is the covenant between the Messiah (God the Son) and God the Father, who are and is one.

What is this plan? In Psalms 110:4, the Son is termed a priest forever "in the order of Melchizedek" which is the eternal priesthood without beginning or end (Heb. 7:3. 15-20). In this covenant, the plan of salvation was stated. In eternity past, this plan of salvation, this counsel of peace, this pact of salvation (pactum salutis) was made.

God the Father made an agreement, made a covenant, with God the Son through God the Holy Spirit. In this pre-temporal, pre-creation covenant, God the Father gave the Son rule and authority, giving Him an eternal priesthood, with the purpose of giving Him the preeminence, the name above all other names (Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:18, Phil. 2:9). God the Son as part of His priesthood agreed to come down to be the sacrifice at the Cross for the salvation of His people (Heb. 9:12), and then after ascension He now is seated as King at the right hand of God the Father, and as priest in the act of intercession for His people (Heb. 7:25). As reward for His part in fulfilling the covenant, God the Son is granted a people, the people whom He has died for, a people to be His Bride (Rev. 21:2). And through it all, all glory rebounds upon God the Father (1 Cor. 15:28) even as all glory goes to the Son with the preeminence, the name above all other names.

The Covenant of Redemption is the covenant before all covenants. It sets the stage for the unfolding plan of God to work in the flow of history, the jewel of God's plan amidst the whole of creation. Before time and history has even began, God has already set the tone of the entire story, so that all things and events will develop for His glory, and our benefit.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Covenant - Our Story (Part 1)

Narrative and History

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant (WCF 7:1)

Narratives have a beginning and an end. History likewise starts somewhere and has an end. The history of World War I normally begins at the flashpoint of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, although historians will look further back for causes that led to the war. The end of World War I is at the signing of the Versailles Treaty that formally ended the war. Narratives, stories and histories — all these give us a sense of what is happening and why, and place people and events in the stories in context.

When we ask question about who we are and why we are here, these questions can only be properly understood from the viewpoint of our Creator God. And the Creator God is the Lord and Creator of all things, and thus He is Lord of history. History is His story, and we living in our times situated in this story. The small narratives of our lives, from our births to our deaths, intersect with the far grander scale of God's big story from the beginning of this universe to its end.

God is God, and as such He is infinite. How can we finite creatures understand an infinite God? The Scriptures of course is God's revelation to us, and through that authority, we can come to know Him. But how about God working in history? To just have the Scriptures without the stories in Scripture is to make Christianity about absolute principles only, and God is thus a remote deity of laws and rules. The narrative in Scripture however shows us the greater story of the world we live in, and help us to know our place in it. It shows us how God works, and how we are to relate to this God who has shown us who He is and what He has done.

Covenant - Structure of the story

Inherent in Reformed doctrine is the view that the notion of "covenant" is the thing that holds the story of God's working in history together; God works and relates to the world through the making of covenants. "Covenant" can be described as an agreement made by one or more parties that describe how the parties are to relate to each other. As God's story, all covenants are unilaterally imposed, which is to say that God alone makes up the rules of how the relationships between Him and others work. But each covenant can be either unilateral or bilateral in the conditions each side has to fulfill to continue the relationship. Through a succession of covenants, God's story and the history of the workings of the universe unfolds.

The true story of the world

In this world, many people have a view of history, the "secularist" view, that omits God out of the picture. The history of the cosmos for them starts with the Big Bang, followed by billions of years of star and solar system development, then about 4.5 billion years of changes on the earth. Humans evolve from primordial apes within the last million years, human civilization started a few thousand years back, complete with religions, arts and sciences. The universe will continue to develop and atrophy a few billion years more, and the ultimate end of history will either be the heat death of the universe, or a big crunch destroying the universe (and perhaps starting a new one). In this view of history, each human individual lives a life that has no true meaning, only creating meaning for him or herself. Joining a cause (social, political, philosophical, religious) in this scenario has as much to do with, or even more than, creating meaning in life as it is about the exact details of the cause. Or one can focus on getting wealth and on personal pleasure and enjoyment in this life as one's meaning in life. One's personal story in the secularist view is subjective, and for the most part function independently of the story of our universe.

Over and against this view of the world's history is God's view of history, which God asserts to be the only true account of history. In God's view of history, it begins with God in eternity, then God creates the universe, and then mankind. The first couple Adam and Eve however disobeyed God, causing disruption to happen to the world, following which they were removed from God's presence. Until the time of Christ, humanity were living in darkness and sin, until Christ came and the Gospel is being proclaimed to the nations. As people repent, they are saved from their sins and wickedness as the Gospel goes forth. This time between Jesus' first and second coming is our time. When Christ comes again in the future, there will be judgment of the wicked, and the burning up of the current universe leading to the renewal of the universe into the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness and peace will once against rule the earth from the throne of Almighty God.

As it can be seen, the secularist view of history and God's view of history is in conflict with each other. Both cannot be true. Granted, there are lots of places where overlap is possible, but on the major events, the two contradict each other. Which account is true? The Scriptures, being our ultimate authority, say that the biblical story is the true one. How are we then to understand why the secularist story is false?

The question is which one is true ultimately stems from which authority do we believe in. On the Christian side, we have God and the Bible. On the secularist side, we have what is known as empiricism, that is the study of the world through scientific experiments. Science of course has been a great tool to understand the world and to improve our lives. But is it competent to understand the history of the world and is future?

To this question, we must say no. In order for science experiments to proceed, two of the three conditions must be known: the initial conditions, the final conditions, and the process or law that affects the thing being studied. When it comes to history, we have the final conditions, we guess the initial conditions, and we assume the processes are either uniform or that there are no changes along the way to the system being studied. Only the final conditions are known, while the other two can be guessed but cannot be proven as fact. When it comes to the future, we have the initial conditions, and we assume a close system for our experiments, which on a cosmic scale might not be true. Basically, when it comes to history and the future, science has insufficient evidence to prove anything definitively. What we have at best are theories based upon good guesswork.

Even that is insufficient however, for we note that science, due to its method, must assume the workings of God to be absent. That is good for dealing with normal processes in the world, but not if God has actually intervened in history. If God is excluded on a matter of principle, then of course any act of God cannot be comprehended by science.

The problems with the secularist narrative of the world should be plain by now. First, it is incapable of proving anything definitely, and the assumptions it makes to produce its narrative might be, and some of them are, false. For example, if God actually caused a worldwide flood in the time of Noah, then the assumption that the current rate of erosion and deposition of soil cannot be extrapolated into the past to derive an age of ancient geological structures. Second, it assumes a closed system where God does not work, but God does work in miracles, and therefore science by definition cannot know if miracles have or have not happened.

The Christian view of history thus stands on the authority of the all-knowing God, and Reformed Christian believe in God's authority more than the fallible interpretations and sometimes unwarranted conclusions of those who abuse science to create secular meta narratives of the world. In the end, the question is: Who do you trust? Do you trust in the words of God, the One who claims to give eye-witness account of history, or do you trust in the guesswork of men? The Reformed church, while not denigrating science, keeps science to its proper sphere and believes in God's view of history above the world's view of history.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Scripture as Authority (Part 2)

Sufficiency

So Scripture comes from God. But is Scripture sufficient? Put another way, are there other places of authority I can seek? Or has God spoken elsewhere and thus I can "supplement" Scripture with "new revelation"?

The Reformed Church holds to the sufficiency of Scripture. That sets the Reformed Church apart from Roman Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy) on the one hand, and the Charismatics on the other hand. Roman Catholicism believes that the church, especially the "see of Peter" at Rome, has magisterial or ruling authority over the church. Eastern Orthodox holds to a similar stance except it is spread out among their patriarchs. In Charismatic churches, the issue of ongoing prophecy competes with the biblical view of prophecy as expressed in 2 Peter 1:21, and thus acquire at least some form of semi-canonical status. While not all charismatics are the same, it is clear that belief in ongoing prophecy today must logically lead to opening up the (now closed) canon of Scripture and thus clearing the path for God to speak in these new prophecies apart from Scripture.

Scripture alone is sufficient for all of faith and life. This is what is taught in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, in that Scripture is adequate (Greek artios), and it is practiced by Jesus Himself. The fact that God locates authority only in His Word logically leads to saying that Scripture is sufficient, for God did not put His authority anywhere else. Thus the claims of Rome (Roman Catholicism) and Constantinople (Eastern Orthodoxy) are at once rejected. Against the Charismatics, Hebrews 1:1-2 shows us that God's revelation has ceased and finalized in the Scriptures we have. The gift of prophecy is to proclaim God's words, and with the closing of the canon, that gift is now limited to the proclamation of God's Word from the pulpit, for God does not reveal anything new today.

Clarity

Scripture is made up of 66 books and uses a wide variety of styles, genres and vocabulary. It might look like Scripture is intimidating and hard to read, and it could be hard to read and understand. Yet God who authors Scripture inspires it in order for us to understand, as the Word brings faith to us (Rom. 10:17) and equips us (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Scriptures are at the same time easy and difficult, easy since it is made to be understood yet parts of it may be difficult. This is expressed in the Westminster Confession as follows:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF 1.7)

Conclusion

The Scriptures are the ultimate authority for the Church, and it is thus in the Reformed Church. The Creeds and Confessions frame our doctrinal conversations, yet they too are to be derived from Scripture as our ultimate authority. The Scriptures, fully inspired, authoritative and clear, grounds us in what God actually says, and, together with the derived standards of the creeds and confessions, form the basis for the life and practice of the Reformed Church.

What is a Reformed Church: Scripture as Authority (Part 1)

Scripture as authority

If the creeds and confessions are the doctrinal constitution for the church, the ultimate authority is Scripture. The creeds and confessions frame our doctrinal conversations, but the source and authority in all things are the Scriptures themselves. The Scriptures only are revealed from God, fully inspired from God, consist of the canon of the 66 books of the Bible, and are sufficient and clear for us. Therefore they alone can function as our ultimate authority in all things.

Authority - Scripture Alone

In especially this time and age, many people are skeptical of authority and authority claims. They rightly see that claims of authority imply the necessity for them to submit to said authority if the claim is true. Human authorities have a terrible history of abuse and committing evil, and therefore it is understandable that claims of authority will be met with skepticism or even hostility.

The Reformed Church during the Reformation has already rightly recognized the problem with illegitimate authority. But unlike the modern and postmodern skeptics, the Reformed Church did not throw away authority altogether. It is after all impossible to throw away all authority, for the trashing of all external authority only leads to the tyranny of one's internal authority — oneself, whether in proud self-confidence (modernism) or proud self-abasement (postmodernism). The Reformed Church faced off against the illegitimate authority of the Roman Church and turned back to the proper source of authority — God. Only the God who is all-good and all-loving and who creates and dictates all reality can be trusted with absolute authority. God alone has final authority, so God alone is the only final authority, and thus the Word of God is the ultimate authority, the Word of God that is the Scriptures. It is not the sayings of the church, the traditions of men, that have final authority. It is not even the authoritative deliberations of the church and the creeds and confessions that have final say, but only what God says goes.

In the Scriptures, the final authority of Scripture is upheld by Jesus many times throughout his preaching as he appeals to Scripture, "It is written," especially in confrontation with the Devil (e.g. Mt. 4:4,7,10). For "To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (Is. 8:20). As it is beautifully stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.(WCF 1.4)

Revelation and Inspiration

The Scripture are revealed by God and thus they are God's Word. They are inspired from God, and this is done through the "breathing out" from God (2 Tim. 3:16; the Greek word theopneustos) What this means is that God is the main author of all of Scripture, and it is as if God Himself is speaking in the same way as the breath of a person comes from the person. As 2 Peter 1:21 states, the prophecy that is Scripture does not arise from the will of man but from God who uses men to convey His divine Word in human form.

Scripture is revealed from God and its author is God, yet it also has a human author. As it was mentioned in the comment on 2 Peter 1:21, prophecy of Scripture comes from God who uses men to convey His divine word in human form. Thus, we do not deny the human element the human authorship, of Scripture. Luke himself expresses his comments on his first book, the Gospel of Luke, like he was writing a research project, as he wrote:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, (Acts 1:1)

Thus, we do affirm the human element in Scripture, yet God who is sovereign uses men to convey His divine Word through human words, as 2 Peter 1:21 so clearly says. Everything in Scripture therefore is inspired from God (2 Tim. 3:16).

Canon

The word "canon" comes from the Greek and it meant a rule. The Canon of Scripture tells us what is Scripture. The Reformed Church, in places like WCF 1.2, defines the canon as the 66 books of the Bible, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. Thus defined, anyone wanting to know what Scripture says can go to that definitive collection of books and know that whatever one reads is indeed Scripture inspired from God.

This delineation of the canon is in contrast to the canon of the Roman church, which has extra books in their canon called the Apocrypha. In recent times, liberal "Christian" scholars have also claimed additional books that have been removed from the original canon, the additional books being collectively called the Gnostic texts. In the minds of these liberal scholars, the original canon of Scripture contains many more books like these Gnostic texts, and over time the "winners" of the orthodox party remove the books they didn't like and define the canon their way. The canon for these liberals is a human invention, not a divine artifact.

So who gets to decide what is canon and what is not canon? If God is the one who inspired Scripture, then surely God is the one who gets to define what He has inspired and what He has not inspired. And just as God inspired Scripture through human agents in history, so likewise the canon of Scripture gets recognized in history. One can look at history and see how the church recognizes certain books as canon, together with a list of criteria they think a book in the canon should have, but ultimately the canon just come into being in history . The canon is after all a historical artifact, not an inspired list. When an author writes a book, a canon of his writings has been established (consisting of that book). If he writes 5 books, his canon now has those 5 books, but nowhere has he created a canon through lists. Any list of his writings come after the canon is established, not before. Likewise, the canon comes into being as God inspires book after book of Scripture, thus it is a historical artifact not an additional thing that requires authentication and validation, as opposed to how Roman Catholics tend to think of the matter. God defines the canon through inspiring these books and not others, and the Church as the recipient of that revelation recognizes the canon, not creates it.

[to be continued]

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Confession and its benefits

Confession and its benefits: Setting parameters that are good for everyone

As the constitution of the church, the creeds and confessions function to frame the general framework for how one ought to read and interpret the Bible, a framework which the church is convinced is derived from Scripture itself. But how does having this framework help us in the life of the church?

The main thing that we always need to remember is constitution is not about specific law. The creeds and confessions of faith are consensus documents expressing the doctrines that many Christians can agree on. Being consensus documents, that means they tend to omit idiosyncratic peculiarities of some theologians, and take no stand on minor points of doctrine that Christians can legitimately disagree with. Also, they might sometimes focus on what they think are the important issues of their times. As we read the creeds and confessions, we need to try to keep those in mind so that we do not mis-read the confessions.

The Creeds and Confessions, as constitution, obviously regulate and dictate the way the church teaches and preaches and operates. This strictness if you will means there are guidelines for preaching and teaching and ministering. That might sounds restrictive, but we should see as protection, just like laws against murder are not restrictive but are there to deter and punish murderers, and thus protect citizens. This protective quality is good for believers, because it provides some, albeit not foolproof, protection against false teachers who will seek to destroy their faith in Christ. It promotes stability and direction in the life of the church, which can focus more effort on instruction, discipling and evangelism instead of fighting doctrinal fires of controversy all year round (or worse).

A second benefit of confessions is that it protects everyone from doctrinal speculations and cultural expectations which may not be grounded in Scripture that some believe to be biblical. This is where the doctrine of Christian liberty comes in. No one, not even a pastor or an elder, can demand anyone in he congregation to do something not commanded in Scripture and not mandated in the Confessions. No one can demand another person in church whether they should or should not drink alcohol, whether they should or should not dye their hair, whether they should or should not send their children to public schools, and the list goes on.

On issues that are mentioned in some fashion in the Confessions, reading the confessions correctly also means resisting the impulse by some to take what certain parts of the confession regarding godliness a-contextually. The main example here is the issue of Sabbath keeping. The Westminster Standards for example seem to prohibit games on the Lord's Day and mandate keeping the whole day holy to the Lord. Many neo-puritans might come away from reading the Westminster Standards thinking that soccer or even a game of Monopoly cannot be played between friends and family for fun on Sundays. They read "all the day" and think 24 hours, or at least the time between one's awaking, and one's going to bed. These people deny these parts of the Westminster Standards as case law, and thus their failure to read the Confessions properly as constitution. Now, if that is their personal conviction on how the Sabbath is to be kept, good for them. But it is a travesty when they think their way is the only way to keep the Sabbath.

Holding on to the confessions thus is a very beneficial exercise for the church. It guides and protects believers from false teaching on the one hand, and guides and protects believers from unbiblical expectations on the other. Against the chaos of free, independent churches, there is direction, guidance and stability. Against the authoritarian demands from other church members, or even leaders, there is the liberty found in Christ. The Reformed Church because of its confessionalism, when practiced, is a stable and healthy church, and all believers should hasten to her and her benefits.

What is a Reformed Church: Confession and being biblical

Confession: It is biblical

A Reformed church holds on to the historic creeds and confessions. But what relation do these creeds and confessions have to biblical truth? After all, if it functions as the constitution for the church, does this not make it above Scripture in terms of authority?

The struggle to understand how something that is not the Bible is the constitution has produced two responses to the question. The first response is to say that the confessions are held to because (quia) they are biblical. The second response is to say that the confessions are held to insofar (quatanus) as they are biblical. Both try to preserve the final authority of Scripture while having the confessions as the constitution of the church. The former has Scripture as authority, and then see the Confessions as authoritative because they are biblical, while the latter says that the confessions are authoritative, but only insofar as they are biblical.

How should a Reformed church think of the relation between the confessions and the Bible? The confessions are to be held both because they are and insofar as they are biblical. Just like the people examining a constitution, the confessions are periodically examined as to whether they are biblical. Thus, the confessions are to be held insofar as they are biblical. But just as most of the time after the period of examination of the constitution the people follow the constitution as the ultimate "law" of the land, so likewise in a Reformed church, the confessions are taken as authoritative because they are biblical, after the examination period is over. Therefore, like a constitution which could be amended, confessions could be amended if found wanting. But any such examination is not the everyday experience, which is that we follow the confessions as authoritative because they are biblical.

Of course, many today flock to the slogan "no creed but Christ." The problem is that itself is a creed. Everyone forms for themselves some form of creed and confession that they live by, as what they think Scripture teaches. Instead of living on an unspoken and unexamined creed, why not look at the Reformed creeds and confessions as those that have been tried and tested over the ages, and then live by them as you are convicted by the biblical truth in them?

Monday, July 18, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Confession As Constitution

Ways of holding on to the confession

A Reformed Church holds to the historical catholic creeds and the Reformed confessions. But what role do these have in the life of the church?

There are couple of ways these doctrinal statements could be understood and used in the life of the church. They could be treated as summaries of correct doctrine (Paradigm 1). They could be treated as historical documents to be honored (Paradigm 2). They could be treated as guidelines towards greater truth (Paradigm 3). They could be treated as basis for godly living (Paradigm 4). Or they could be treated as the doctrinal constitution of a church (Paradigm 5). All of these can be listed as follows:

  1. Confessions as doctrinal summaries
  2. Confessions as honored history
  3. Confessions as signposts
  4. Confessions for godliness
  5. Confessions as constitution

If the creeds and confessions are treated as summaries of correct doctrine, then the creeds and confessions are data-mined for doctrinal propositions. Such a practice is more likely to occur in what are called "fundamentalist" churches. These propositions are abstracted from their original context and then taken to be transcendental truths. That might work for most statements, but sometimes this does not work. For example, Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 21.8 states that we must on Sunday rest from "worldly employments and recreations." If one takes the confession-as-doctrinal-summary position, then one has to believe that playing any game with family and friends on Sunday should be prohibited, not even board games with family and/or friends. But this I would assert is an incorrect way to read and practice the creeds and confessions.

The opposite error is treating them as historical documents to be honored, paradigm 2. Such a practice is found in many mainline Protestant churches especially those who were Reformed (and who might still consider themselves reformed). Such churches treat the creeds and confessions as showing us the work of God in their particular historical contexts, and mark how God has worked mightily at that time. Therefore, the creeds and confessions are to be honored, maybe even read during a worship service, but the content of the creeds and confessions may or may not be important. What is important, such churches assert, is the "spirit" of the creeds and confessions, which seems (and is) vague and ambiguous.

Those who hold on to paradigm 2 might also hold to paradigm 3, but those holding to paradigm 3 might not hold to paradigm 2. Paradigm 3, the confession-as-signpost position, takes the creeds and confessions as pointing a trajectory towards greater truth and knowledge. This paradigm is associated with a Hegelian and modernist view of progress, and is found whenever optimism in human progress can be found. Therefore, it is associated with Liberal churches and those who hold to liberation theology on the one end (left-wing), and it is also associated with churches in the Charismatic "New Apostolic Reformation" on the other end (right-wing). In either case, if any of these churches hold to the creeds and confessions, it is to use them so as to go beyond them; the creeds and confessions are just stepping stones towards "final" orthodoxy.

The fourth paradigm, confession-for-godliness, sees the creeds and confessions as primarily to provoke godly living, to provoke general growth in godliness. This paradigm can be found in Pietist and evangelical circles, and sometimes overlap with churches who hold to the first paradigm. For those who hold to paradigm 4, the particular doctrines may or may not be important, but what is important is that the confessions lay the framework for godliness. The emphasis among its advocates will be on practice, and thus they will emphasize parts of the confessions and catechisms dealing with the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Needless to say, the same issue with WCF 21.8 applies here.

The fifth paradigm, confession-as-constitution, hold the creeds and confessions as the doctrinal constitution of the church. As constitution, they hold normative authority for all teaching and doctrinal discussions. As constitution, they are general and not specific laws. As constitution, they function as the "system of truth" constraining discussions on doctrine on the one hand, and allowing diversity within the system of truth on the other hand.

Problems with other ways of holding to the confessions

The problem with the first paradigm is that it treat the creeds and confessions as being specific instead of general. One problem for this paradigm is making a specific case law (e.g. WCF 21.8) into a general prohibitive principle. Another problem for this paradigm comes when something not discussed in the creeds and confessions come along. If one takes the creed-as-doctrinal-summary position, there is no way the creeds and confessions could be used to address anything not found or discussed in the creeds and confessions, at least no legitimate way according to this paradigm.

The problem with the second paradigm is that the "spirit" of the creeds and confessions cannot be divorced from the actual contents of the creeds and confessions. Also, "honoring" the creeds and confessions without actually following them is paying them lip service and treating them like sacred relics rather than actual documents with statements in them. The problems with the third paradigm are the same as those with the second paradigm, with the extra problem that one is imposing an unbiblical narrative of "progress" on the creeds and confessions.

Concerning the fourth paradigm, it partakes of the problems with the first paradigm, while it also has the problem of imposing an unbiblical frame of prioritizing the "practical" aspects of the creeds and confessions more than their other parts. In their desire to make the creeds and confessions law instead of constitution, both the first and fourth paradigms ignore the category of "case laws" and thus impose strict practical constraints on believers.

Confession as constitution

The Reformed churches at their healthiest see the creeds and confessions as their constitution. They are there to set the standard for teaching and doctrinal discussion, drawing a line in the sand of what is tolerable and what is outside of the bounds of orthodoxy. The way they are structured also shows us the way our doctrinal discussions ought to be structured, so that we would not veer towards unbiblical ways of thinking.