Monday, September 26, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Church (Part 2)

Pure and Less Pure churches

IV. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.

(Westminster Confession of Faith 25.4-5)

The church is created by the Word of God. Yet it consists of sinful humans, we who still retain the old sinful nature within us. What do you get when a bunch of sinners come together? They sin of course. Sin is not just about external morality but it includes other things like pride and arrogance, and thus even the good things and virtues we have including our intellects can be used to sin against God and against each other.

The ideal for a church, as the Body of Christ, called by Him and instituted by Him, is holiness. That is what the church is called to be. But sin is ever present in her members, and thus the church is not subjectively holy. How many times have believers been hurt by someone within the church? Probably quite often I would imagine. Even with the best of intentions, our words may be said intemperately causing hurt instead of comfort to the ones receiving them. Thus, the church struggles with sin in her members, some more than others.

It is this reality that the Reformed faith acknowledges, in speaking of the pure and the less pure church. Among true churches, some believers in some churches are obviously more godly and kinder than others, and some are better in preserving orthodoxy than others. All of them are true churches, yet they vary in how pure they truly are. But since we are not saved by works, so therefore there is nothing wrong with churches falling on a spectrum as believers individually work out their own sanctification processes in varying degrees in various churches.

The introduction of the spectrum between pure and less churches should help us move away from an ideal and unrealistic view of the church. There are indeed true and false churches, but if we stick to only this distinction, then there is a real temptation for a believer to see struggles with sin in his church as evidence that his church is a false church, instead of a true church that is struggling with sin.

Therefore, the Reformed church does not substitute the new law of Rome (complete with her sacerdotal office and seven sacraments) with another set of "law" (full adherence to purity of doctrine and practice). Rather, while the marks of the true church are indeed marks of the true church, progressive sanctification in the life of believers and in the life of a church is recognized. The ideal is for us to strive towards, while recognizing the reality of sin among believers.

The idea that there is the true and the false church, while among the true churches there are purer and less pure churches, is helpful to us in this time where many different churches abound. There is a truism that states "there is no perfect church" and that is certainly true. No church is perfect and made up of perfect people. In this sense, when we are disappointed with people in the church, it is "normal." There is no need to denounce the church and leave her, since you are just as much a sinner as the one who offended you. When there is conflict in the church, we should aim for reconciliation and forgiveness, not revenge. There is no perfect church and one should not expect there to be a perfect church. Struggle instead with living lives with others who will definitely hurt and offend you just as much as you will do the same to them. Learn to forgive others just as Christ forgive you (Mt. 6:12).

At the same time, while it is true that no church is perfect, there is a wrong way to interpret that, which is to use it to deny the distinction between the true and the false church. The truism could be abused to allow heresy into the church and to keep people in a church that teaches heresy. Here is one place where Reformed churches would disagree with the current Evangelical mindset, where believers think they should stay in false churches in an attempt to change her from the inside. But what does Scripture teach? "Go out from their midst, and be separate from them" (2 Cor. 6:17 c.f. Is. 52:11). We are not to think we can subvert (for that is what it is) a false church from the inside, but rather believers should always join true churches and undertake evangelism of false churches from the outside.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Church

The Visible and Invisible Church

There are churches, and there are churches. In this period of history, there is what we might call the democratization of the church. The church is seen to come into being when a bunch of Christians come together to form a community of believers. While not denying that the church is called by God, modern people understand the calling to refer to the invisible church, not the visible church. The visible church is seen as the community of believers. A person is thus called into the (invisible) church and then joins the visible church as a profession of faith.

Earlier, we talked about the thematic markers of a Reformed church, which are mentioned here again as follows:

  1. We hold to the unity of internal and external piety
  2. We hold to a historical progression of God's plan in the history of the church
  3. Therefore, we hold to the importance of consulting the wisdom and insights of our forebears.
  4. Therefore, we hold to the importance of the creeds and confessions of the historic Christian church.

Thematic marker one is what we want to focus on here as we discuss the nature of the church. We see that the unity of internal and external piety means that we should not create a false dichotomy between the internal and the external. When it comes to the church, we likewise should not make a false dichotomy between the internal and the external, between the invisible and the visible. Look at Scripture and you will not see such a dichotomy made. When the apostles speak about the church, they see it as a whole. The categories of invisible and visible are helpful heuristically, but we must understand that we should not so separate them such that there is no real relation between the invisible and the visible.

So what does that mean for us? It means that the democratization of the church is in error. Since there is no sharp separation between the visible and the invisible church, the church is not primarily a community of believers. Rather, the church is the institution ordained by God. One is called by God to join the church He has ordained and set in place.

The church is ordained by God, and is created by the Word and Spirit, as it is shown in the book of Acts. Thus, while the notion of "apostolic succession" is unbiblical, there is an organic continuity from the apostolic age to the church ordained by Christ in the present age. This rules out any and all independent churches where any Tom, Dick or Harry proclaims himself a pastor and goes out to plant a church. Rather, the organic continuity called for in the Scriptures is that of faithful men entrusting other men with the Gospel, who will do the same with the Gospel entrusted to them (2 Tim. 2:2). A Reformed church, following this biblical pattern, will share an organic continuity with other Reformed churches, and thus the pastor is not some maverick out there doing his own thing, but he is a person brought up and entrusted with the Gospel he received from other faithful men, being brought up under their leadership and guidance.

Marks of a true church

This alone does not of course resolve the question of what a Reformed church is, since there are many other established church bodies. Besides seeing the church as an institution with organic continuity, the Reformed church also see from Scripture that a true church must have three distinctive marks: the right preaching of the Gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the right practice of church discipline (c.f. Belgic Confession 29). Since the Gospel is the message of Christ unto salvation, then a church without the true Gospel cannot be a true church. As the sacraments are performed words of the Gospel, therefore to wrongly administer then is to be in error in an aspect of Gospel proclamation. Lastly, to not rightly practice church discipline means that false teachings and heresies and ungodly practices are tolerated within the church (contra Titus 3:10), and thus the preaching of the Gospel is brought into disrepute.

Since the church is created by the Word, it should be seen how important the three marks of the church are. The teaching of the marks of the church was borne in the Reformation so as to differentiate the true church from the false church which claimed to be the church, the Roman Catholic Church. The marks of course is applicable beyond Roman Catholicism, and we can use that to test the various church bodies. Besides the conservative Reformed, conservative Presbyterian, conservative Lutheran, some Anglican, some Methodist and some Baptist churches, most church bodies today do not match up to these three marks of a true church.

Some will ask what the point of such an exercise is. Are we trying to be unloving and be narrow-minded against other Christians? By no means! But Christ's Church must be the Church, and since Christ has instituted the Church, He is the one who must define who she is and what she is. It is not loving to pretend that a society of professing Christians constitute a church when the Scripture says otherwise. Christ will define His church, and we have no right to disagree with Him.

The Reformed church is a true church, but not all true churches are Reformed churches. Some Anglicans are Reformed, and some Methodists may be Reformed despite their heritage, and some Baptists might be Reformed despite their deficiency on the second mark (right administration of the sacraments). So the two main groups of the true church are the Reformed and the Lutheran. The Reformed and Lutheran, assuming where both are confessional, differ on a few matters primarily on the teaching on the Lord's Supper, which we shall mention again later. But we note here that the category of a true church, while to some extent it seems narrow, is actually a broad category flexible enough to accommodate some differences in understanding of baptism and the Lord's Supper. It only seems narrow to us because we have fallen so far in our understanding of the church in this modern era of the democratization of the church.

Friday, September 16, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Sanctification (Part 3)

The means of sanctification

In the practice of sanctification, are there disciplines we should be doing in the Christian life that will enrich our walk with God? What did God prescribe to us for our growth in godliness?

This question is a very practical one now, and it was a practical question back then during the Reformation. Medieval piety had plenty of options for those who were devout, ranging from fasting, pilgrimages, penance and joining monasteries or nunneries. Spiritual disciplines were promoted as actions or practices that one could engage in to grow in holiness. Far from being an arid desert, the medieval period was a great time for piety with a huge variety of options. Even for those seeking to join a monastry, one had many choices stretching from the Dominicans to the Benedictines to the lay Brethren of the Common Life. Whatever one wishes to say about the medieval period, a lack of spiritual exercises isn't it.

The Reformation came about in the midst of a great variety of spiritual exercises, and rejected almost all of them. Monasteries and nunneries were closed, mandatory fasting rules from meat on Fridays were purposefully violated, and all manner of "impiety" occurred. Martin Luther even had books of canon law burned together with the papal bull that excommunicated him from the Medieval Catholic Church. To promoters of Roman Catholic piety, the Reformation was a time of great impiety and gross wickedness.

The Reformers of course were not promoting impiety. But it is true that they were "impious" from the standpoint of medieval practice. That should inform us that the Reformation was a full rejection of the whole idea of "spiritual disciplines" or "exercises." Reformed piety is not about inventing set times of spiritual activities which one labor in before God. It is not about doing things before God, so what exactly is Reformed piety about?

The Reformed tradition uses the term "means of grace" (c.f. WSC 88) to speak about the gifts that God gives to believers for our benefit. In other words, instead of "spiritual disciplines" being about "ascending" to God with our piety, it is rather God that "descends" to us. For who will ascend to heaven to heaven to bring Christ down? (c.f. Rom. 10:6) Rather than us working our piety towards God, in the means of grace God descends to us and give us His grace. We do not engage in "works of piety" to become godly. Rather, we come to the means of grace and engage in them to receive grace from God. We do not come to give to God, but to receive from God.

The means of grace are the preaching of the Word, the partaking of the sacraments, and prayer (WSC 88, c.f. HC65). Notably absent from the list are fasting, frequency of set prayers, contemplative meditation, religious pilgrimages, or even "serving God" in "lay ministry" and parachurch organizations. Now, we know that fasting is appropriate (Mt. 6:16-18), but fasting is only appropriate as an extension of prayer, and done in the same spirit. In other words, fasting is not more spiritual if it is of a longer duration, or if it includes harsher conditions (e.g. fasting from water as well as from food). In fact, it is not about how spiritual one is at all when one fasts, or doesn't fast.

The means of grace, being God's gift, is for us to partake to get strength from God. It is for the weak, not for those looking to be more "spiritual." In fact, as being means of grace, it particularly unsuited for the "super-spiritual." For it is not the well who needs a doctor, but the sick (Mt. 9:12). In fact, if one thinks that he is really very spiritual, then one ought to forego the means of grace altogether! But of course to say that shows only that one is unaware of his sinfulness before God (1 Jn. 1:8,10)

Instead of "spiritual disciplines," Reformed piety and sanctification forego these as being worthless for true piety. Instead, we focus on the means of grace that God has given in, and partake of them as weak saints needing desperately the nourishment of Christ. Thus, when we fast, we may fast more because we are greatly burdened, but we do not pass judgment on another who doesn't. In fact, those who don't fast might be doing better spiritually than us at that time, and in that we rejoice for them.

What is a Reformed Church: Sanctification (Part 2)

The practice of sanctification

Sanctification is to be done by the power of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:3, 5:16). While it is we who need to be striving towards holiness, we are not to be striving on our own strength but in dependence upon the Holy Spirit who empowers us.

The practice of sanctification comes in two parts: Mortification, putting to death the Old Man (2 Cor. 5:17), or putting to death the sinful desires, and Vivification, the bringing to life the New Man, or endeavoring to live in new obedience. Mortification is to be done by repentance of sins committed, while vivification is to be done by having one's mind fixated on not doing the previous sin but instead doing what God commands, a turn-around from the previous sins. This is succinctly presented as follows:

Q87: What is repentance unto life?
A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience (Westminster Shorter Catechism 87)

There are two dangers when it comes to the practice of sanctification. The first danger is to neglect the practice of sanctification and think that sanctification is automatic. It is true that sanctification flows from the new life in Christ, but we are called to strive to be holy, which requires making conscious effort towards godliness. The second danger is to over-emphasize sanctification such that the Christian life become fixated on holiness. Yes, holiness is important, but Christians still sin while on this world.

The first danger is a real danger. Nevertheless, the tendency is towards the second danger, because over-emphasizing sanctification lets people move towards works-righteousness while seemingly they preserve the true Gospel. When it comes to practice, the tendency for the flesh is to make personal holiness into a standard for evaluating whether a person is or is not a "real Christian," whether as applied to himself or, more commonly, to others. All of such is legalism. Yes, all believers are to grow in holiness, but sometimes sanctification is gradual and people change slowly. We must also understand that it is the natural temperament of some people to be more moral in certain areas. Therefore, a person, Person A, naturally deficient in temperament may look more ungodly than Person B who has a better natural endowment, who could be a new Christian but might not even be a believer. Since natural temperament varies a lot, we should refrain from passing hasty judgments about how much or how little sanctified a person might be, for how would you know his background?

The practice of sanctification is personal, for one's own striving towards holiness. It is not meant to be used to judge and condemn fellow believers for failing to live up to whatever standard, biblical though they might be, unless they are outright, obvious and serious sins. We are to exhort each other towards greater holiness, but that is different from condemning others for failing to live up to your standards no matter how godly they may personally be. After all, "it is before his own master that he stands or falls" (Rom. 14:4). If one is to desire greater holiness in the people of God, pray for the continual proclamation of the true Gospel, the continual calling to repentance and faith, and the continual exhortation to holiness, then let the Spirit of God do His work in the hearts of men.

What is a Reformed Church: Sanctification (Part 1)

Sanctification: The necessity of sanctification

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:12-14)

Q35: What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. (Westminster Shorter Catechism 35)

Justification is an act, a single event, whereby God declares the sinner who believes as righteous. Sanctification is a process whereby a person grows towards holiness and to manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 6:22-23). A person is not saved by how holy they are, or how much of the fruit of sanctification they display. Justification is God's gift to the ungodly while they are ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Sanctification however is God's will for us after we have been justified (Eph. 2:10, 1 Thess. 4:3). The reason why we should strive to be holy is because we have already been declared righteous before God. Since we are righteous, we should strive to live according to our new status. We do not become holy so as to be right before God, but we try to be holy because we are already right before God. We do not try to please an angry God, but rather we live so as to please God who is our Father who loves us (Gal. 4:6, Heb. 12:7-12)

While sanctification does not save us, it is necessary for the Christian life, for that is what God calls us to. Someone who is truly saved will want to please God. As the Scriptures say, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (Rom. 6:1-2). When God regenerated and justified us, we are given a new life and are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Believers who are truly saved will want to grow in holiness and obedience towards God. We should not be under any illusion that we can be perfect in this life, since believers will always struggle with sin (Rom. 7:8-25), but yet we are to strive to be holy, as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-6).

What is sanctification?

Sanctification is "to become holy." "Holiness" is to live as if set apart from the world. It is to live a life not according to the principles of what the world thinks or does, but according to what God desires. It is to reject the three main temptations in this life: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16). But what does God desire and demand? We know what God desires through God's Word, in God's preceptive will, or the moral law. Whatever God tells us to do, we should obey. The main summary of God's law for us is the Ten Commandments, which are found in passages like Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. This moral law is summed up in the greatest command Jesus gave us, which is "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Mt. 22:37-9).

The moral law of God is what God commands us to do as what is morally good. The Law of God in the Scriptures can be divided into the ceremonial, the national and the moral law. Although such a division is not clearly stated neither is it clearly demarcated in Scripture, yet it is implied within the passages of Scripture, as passages such as Isaiah 58 show us. For in Isaiah 58, the moral demand of repentance is clearly placed on a higher level than the ceremonial demands of fasting and sacrifice. But if we interpret Isaiah 58 without those categories, then it seems that God is pitting one of His law against another, thus contradicting Himself.

This moral law of God is the standard upon which we can discern God's will and desire for us to live. Here, we have to understand the three uses of the law. First, this moral law is used to convict us of sin so that we will turn always to God. It is not just for the moment of conversion, but we are to remind ourselves of the law regularly because we sin regularly. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9). Since we sin daily, we always are to remember the law and use it to drive us towards confession of our sins to God.

The second use of the law is the civil use, which is to remind and restrain society of sin. As the moral law is published, it informs and reminds society of what wickedness and what righteousness is. Even if many people in society are unbelievers, the publishing of this moral law would act as a restraint against greater lawlessness and wickedness in society. If society obeys the law at least externally, it would result in blessings upon the people who reap the benefits of living in a lawful society.

The third use of the law is the normative use, which is for believers. In it, the believer attempts to live a life that is in conformity to what the law requires. The moral law becomes our standard of what is right and what is wrong. We can judge rightly and live accordingly to what God desires, for the moral law is our pure standard.

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.