Wednesday, October 5, 2016

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

Sacraments: Lord's Supper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacraments: General

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

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

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

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q92)

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

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

Sacraments: Baptism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The church-centered means of grace: Preaching and sacraments

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Worship (Part 3)

Worship and the Christian Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honoring the Sabbath

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

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

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

What is a Reformed Church: Worship (Part 2)

Nadab and Abihu

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

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

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

The Regulative Principle and Elements of worship

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

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

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

What is a Reformed Church: Worship (Part 1)

Worship: Broadly and Narrowly Considered

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

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

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

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

Worship: Regulative Principle of Worship

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

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

Cain and Abel

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

What is a Reformed Church: Church (Part 5)

Church and Life: Special Calling and Ordination

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

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

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

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

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

Church and Life: General Calling of believers

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

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

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

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

What is a Reformed Church: Church (Part 4)

Reformed Church Distinctive: Presbyterian Church Polity: Office bearers

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

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

Irresistible Grace

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

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

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

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

Perseverance of the Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reformed Church Distinctive: TULIP

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

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

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

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

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

Total Depravity

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

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

Unconditional Election

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

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

Limited or Definite Atonement

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

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

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.


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.