© 2008 by Daniel R. Hyde. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
CD—Canons of Dort
WCF—Westminster Confession of Faith
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AMONG THE circle of churches in which I once worshiped and even was a youth pastor, you either were a Christian, which meant you went to a “Bible-believing, Spirit-filled” church like a Foursquare Church, Calvary Chapel, or a non-denominational church, or you were a Catholic, meaning, Roman Catholic. I was aware of some other kinds of churches because at different times I liked a Presbyterian girl and even dated a Lutheran girl, but their churches were considered more or less Catholic because they were “dead,” “traditional,” or, “ritualistic.” To the chagrin of some in my circle of family and friends I soon became one of “them.”
Maybe you too have heard of “Reformed” churches, but have never actually worshiped in a Reformed church or investigated the beliefs of a Reformed church. Maybe you are just curious or even a little critical.
What is a Reformed church anyway? Why are they called “Reformed”? What do they believe? Where did they come from? What do they do? These are the types of basic questions I hope to introduce here. What I hope I am able to communicate to you here is that Reformed churches are Christian churches—believing that the Bible is the Word of God, that there is only one God who exists eternally as a Trinity, and that Jesus Christ is both God and man. Reformed churches are also Protestant churches—rejecting the claims of the Pope to be the Head of the Church, acknowledging instead that Jesus Christ is the Head of his Church, and that he rules and governs his Church by his Word and Spirit. Finally, Reformed churches are just that, Reformed churches—believing that sinful humans are saved by grace alone, from eternity past to eternity future, and that we experience this grace of God as the Holy Spirit uses certain means that God has appointed in the Church: the preaching of the Word and celebration of the Sacraments.
I WANT to begin with a little history lesson. I know, I know, we enlightened moderns are not much into history, but care about the here and now and are busy planning our futures. We are guilty of what C. S. Lewis called, “Chronological snobbery.” I want to begin with some history before turning to the beliefs of Reformed churches because you need to know that Reformed churches did not just come out of nowhere.
Derided by their opponents and known popularly as “Calvinism,” after the theologian and pastor in Geneva, John Calvin (1509–64), Reformed churches are those Christian churches along with Lutheran churches that trace their roots to the sixteenth century “Protestant Reformation” in Europe, and beyond that, to the early Christian church of the several centuries after the apostles died (AD 100–500).
The Ancient Church
Reformed churches are Christian churches because they trace their roots to the early Christian Church. Like the early Church, Reformed churches receive the Bible as the Word of God and believe it as such. Because of this, Reformed churches do not teach novel doctrines, but consider themselves historic Christian churches. A part of joining with the ancient Christian church and standing upon the Word of God is confessing what are known as the ecumenical (Greek, oikoumene, “worldwide”) creeds of the ancient church—the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as well as the Definition of Chalcedon.
The Protestant Reformation
Reformed churches are also Protestant churches. German princes who supported the ideas of Martin Luther first used the term Protestant at the Second Diet of Speyer (1529), a meeting between the Holy Roman Emperor and his rulers, some of whom issued a protestatio against him because of their convictions against certain Roman Catholic teachings. Along with the Lutheran churches, Reformed churches protested the Roman Catholic Church’s false teachings. The main teachings of Rome to which these reform-minded groups protested were Rome’s insistence that the Bible was only one authority among many, including tradition and the Pope, and the teaching that sinners were saved from their sin and God’s wrath by co-operating with God’s grace in doing good works. The protestations of the Reformers were that Scripture alone, sola Scriptura, was the ultimate authority in the Church and that sinners are saved by God’s grace alone, sola gratia, which is received through faith alone, sola fide, which is placed in Christ alone, solus Christus. These teachings, along with others, were expressed both by the Lutherans and the Reformed in various confessions of faith and in various catechisms.
As time passed during the Reformation, the Lutherans and the Reformed became distinct camps within Protestantism with distinct confessions. While the Lutheran churches gathered various catechisms and confessions into one book, called the Book of Concord, the Reformed churches of varying regions in Europe utilized different confessional standards. Eventually, two great collections of confessions became the basic statements of the Reformed churches. Those Reformed churches from the continent of Europe held to the “Three Forms of Unity,” the Belgic Confession (1561), Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and Canons of Dort (1618-19), while those from Great Britain, known as Presbyterians, held to the “Westminster Standards,” the Westminster Confession of Faith, Westminster Larger Catechism, and Westminster Shorter Catechism, to which were also added The Directory for Publick Worship and The Form of Presbyterial Church Government.
We speak of the Three Forms of Unity because there are three forms, or formulas, expressing our beliefs. We speak of the Three Forms of Unity because these confessions, like all creeds, are meant to unify us in heart, soul, mind, and strength in what we believe the Word of God teaches. As the opening words of the Belgic Confession say: “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth.”
All of this goes to show that Reformed churches have deep roots biblically, historically as well theologically, and have persevered through all the doctrinal struggles that have faced the Church through its history.
A DUTCH Reformed Christian once asked an evangelical Christian friend, “What is your confession”? The evangelical replied, “The Bible.” The Dutchman then responded, “But the Bible is so big.” What this amusing dialog illustrates is that every Christian believes the Bible, but the question is, what does a Christian believe the Bible teaches?
As our opening section showed, as Christian, Protestant, and Reformed churches, we teach among ourselves and confess to the world the ancient Christian creeds and Reformed confessions because their teachings come straight from the Bible and they have been believed by Christians for many centuries. To be a Reformed church is to be a biblical church, and to be a biblical church is to be a confessional church because we believe and confess the truths of God’s Holy Word.
Creeds and confessions are biblical, historical, and beneficial. They are biblical as we see the people of God confessing their faith in the Old Testament every morning and evening with the words of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God: the Lord is one”! With the coming of the Son of God in human flesh, the creeds and confessions we read throughout the New Testament are many in number and a fuller expression of the belief of God’s people. Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16) was elaborated on by Paul in places such as 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, where he summarized the faith of the Church in this creed: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . . he was buried . . . he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (Cf. Eph 4:4-6; 1 Tim 3:16). The Bible teaches us, then, that as the people of God we have something to confess to the world. The slogan, “No creed but Christ,” actually hinders the Church because a creedless church cannot long exist.
Not only are creeds and confessions biblical and historical, they are also beneficial in several ways. According to the New Testament, our confession of the faith unifies the church (Rom 15:5–6; Phil 1:27), teaches the church in an age of false doctrine (Acts 20:27; Rom 6:17; Eph 4:14; 2 Tim 1:13, 4:4; Jude 3), protects the church (1 Tim 4; 1 John 4), provides a public standard for church discipline, protecting members from being excommunicated, dis–fellowshipped, and shunned without any biblical steps of reconciliation simply because of personal differences or not agreeing with the pastor, provide a standard to evaluate teaching (2 Tim 2:2), and witness to the truth to those outside the church.
The creeds and confessions are the official, public faith of the Reformed churches. To answer the question, “What is a Reformed Church,” in its best and fullest way, you must simply read our creeds and confessions for yourself. A simple summary cannot do full justice to the breadth of the Reformed faith but can only introduce you to major emphases in our churches.
Scripture: The Final Authority
WHICH CAME first, the chicken or the egg? The classic conundrum gets us thinking about the issue of origins. In light of this book, it opens up the foundational issue of the Protestant Reformation—authority. Rome put Scripture alongside the tradition of the church, the church’s decisions, and the Pope as co-equal authorities in the church. This led Rome to speak of the Church as giving birth to the Scriptures. The Protestant Reformers, on the other hand, spoke of the Scriptures as giving birth, form, and shape to the Church. After all, the Scriptures say the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20), not the other way around.
Because of this belief, the slogan sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” was coined. The reason for this insistence upon the Word of God as the ultimate authority in the Church was the Word’s own insistence that this was true. For example, after the LORD redeemed his people out of Egypt (Ex 12:33–42), brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground (Ex 14), he led them to Mount Sinai where he made a sacred covenant with them that he would be their God and they would be his people (Ex 19–24). After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the LORD renewed this covenant with his people. This is what the book of Deuteronomy is about. It is the account of the second giving of the covenant law to the people of God. When the LORD renewed his covenant he said to his people, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you” (Deut 4:2). Later, while prescribing the place of worship and warning his people of worshipping another god, the LORD said, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deut 12:32). There was even a proverb among the Israelites, which said, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Prov 30:5–6).
Later, in the “fullness of time . . . God sent forth his Son” (Gal 4:4). The writer to the Hebrews compares and contrasts God’s speech in the Old Testament with that of the New, saying, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1–2). God climactically revealed himself to the world in the Word incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1–18). The entire Old Testament was written as a prophetic witness of the LORD’s coming in the flesh (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47; John 5:39), and the entire New Testament was written as a testimony of what he did while on earth. The Gospels explain his ministry while on earth, Acts explains his continued ministry by the Holy Spirit through the Church, and the Epistles and Revelation interpret the meaning of his work for us. This last book of the Bible virtually ends saying,
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (Rev 22:18–19).
The Reformed confessions bear witness to this truth of the Scriptures. As examples, the Belgic Confession spends six of its thirty-seven articles on the issue of what is the Word of God, while the Westminster Confession of Faith opens with one of the most moving expressions of what the Word of God is.
The Belgic Confession opens by confessing what the Bible says about God in article 1. Then, in articles 2-7 it speaks of the Word. The Word, in the first place, is the clearest revelation of God he has given to his creature. The Belgic Confession says we can know the one true God of Scripture “more clearly and openly” in the Word rather than in creation (art. 2). The God who created all things is not unknowable, but is knowable in and through his holy Word. In this Word he reveals himself, that is, shows himself to us in a clear and open way.
The Westminster Confession begins the other way around. While the Belgic Confession opens with God and then speaks of how he has revealed himself, the Westminster begins with the reality that God has revealed himself before speaking about the God who is revealed:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church (1.1).
When he revealed himself through his Word, it “was not sent nor delivered by the will of man, but . . . men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Peter says” (BC 3). Here the Belgic Confession quotes from 2 Peter 1:20–21, which speaks of the origin of Scripture being in the will of God, not the will of men. The apostle Paul spoke similarly when he said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). The Greek word he used that we have translated “breathed out by God,” was theopneustos, which emphasizes like Peter’s words that the origin of the Scriptures is in God’s speech, not ours. In fact, what is so amazing about God’s revelation is that his spoken Word was then written as God had “a special care . . . for us and our salvation” (BC 3; emphasis added). This truth was magnificently expressed in the Westminster Confession:
. . . therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing (1.1).
Where is this written Word found? It is found in the sixty-six “canonical” books of the Old and New Testaments, which we have in our Protestant Bibles. Against these books “nothing can be alleged” (BC 4). These books are distinguished from the apocryphal (“hidden”) books, which the Roman Catholic Church considers inspired (BC 6). These books are not divinely inspired “and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (WCF 1.3).
The Belgic Confession continues, saying, “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith” (BC 5). Because the Word that God speaks to us his creatures is inspired, it has an authority that demands we receive it for what it is. There are two primary evidences that confirm the Bible as the Word of God to us. In the first place, “the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God” (BC 5). This is why the Westminster Confession says of this work of the Holy Spirit: “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (1.5).
The second evidence is the self-authenticating nature of the Scriptures themselves. The Belgic Confession simply says, “they carry the evidence thereof in themselves” (art. 5). The Westminster Confession lists several characteristics in which the Scriptures evidence their inspiration, such as:
. . . the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God (1.5).
In conclusion to its section on the Word of God in article 7, the Belgic Confession speaks of the sufficiency of the Word, that is, that what we have in them is enough for us to be content as God’s children. In these concluding words of this section, we hear an echo of Peter’s words, who said God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet 1:3). The Reformed Confessions speak of this twofold aspect of the sufficiency of the Word in terms of faith and man’s salvation (“godliness”) and the Christian life and God’s glory (“life”).
Covenant: God’s Story
ALL SCRIPTS tell a story. They seek to communicate the thoughts of an author to an audience. Scripture is God’s authoritative script that speaks to us, his creatures, of the mighty deeds of the LORD. This story of Scripture is what Dorothy Sayers called “the greatest drama ever staged.” So what is the Bible all about anyway? If you listen to the culture or even politically conservative talk-show hosts, the Bible is about being a good person and doing unto others what you want them to do unto you.
On the contrary, the Scriptures tell of God’s dramatic story in creating all things good (Gen 1–2), of man’s turning all things bad by his sin, which we call the “Fall” (Gen 3); yet, God dramatically revealed himself to be a God of redemption as well throughout the history of the Bible (E.g., Gen 3:15, 21) and as the one who will one day consummate his plan of redemption and bring his people and all that he has made into what he originally intended for them (Rev 21–22).
This story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation is expressed in the Bible through the concept of covenant, which is a formal relationship between two parties that includes blessings and curses. In fact, this way of reading the Bible as the unfolding of God’s covenant(s) is a distinctive feature of Reformed Protestantism. This is why some have said “Reformed theology is covenant theology,” and to be Reformed is to be covenantal.
The first act of God’s story was creation. The Bible opens with this powerful statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). He created all things by the word of his power (Gen 1 cf. Ps 33:6; John 1:1–3; Heb 1:3) “in the space of six days” (WCF 4.1).
The highpoint of creation was the creation of humanity in the image of God, meaning, that he was “crowned with glory and honor” (Gen 1:26; Ps 8:5). As the pinnacle of creation, God made the first man, Adam, in a covenant relationship with him (Gen 2 cf. Hos 6:7). This covenant is variously called the covenant of creation because it was established at creation, the covenant of nature because it was a part of what man was by nature, the covenant of life because it was intended to give man not only earthly life, but heavenly life, and the covenant of works because by it “life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2).
This relationship between God and Adam had the blessing of eternal life and the curse of eternal death. The two trees in the Garden of Eden visibly signified this covenant. The tree of life signified not only earthly life, but also the ultimate and eternal life that Adam was made to enjoy with God (Gen 2:9, 3:22; Rev 2:7, 22:2, 14, 19). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil signified God’s law that Adam would die in the day he ate thereof (Gen. 2:17).
Although he was “capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God” (BC 14), Adam gave ear to the devil, he broke the terms of the original covenant, and fell under its sanction of death (Gen 2:17), meaning, complete spiritual and physical death and separation from his God (Eph 2:1). Therefore, “Man, by his fall . . . made himself incapable of life by that covenant” (WCF 7.3). As the Belgic Confession describes the Fall, Adam:
. . . willfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life (BC 14).
This tragic moment in the dogmatic drama of Scripture had lasting effects on all humans, since Adam represented us all. Because of his sin, David could pray, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). As Paul taught the church in Rome, because of the sin of the one man “death spread to all men because all sinned,” meaning, all sinned when Adam sinned (Rom 5:12).
The Fall of humanity was tragic. Yet after chronicling our sinful state as a result of it (Eph 2:4), the apostle Paul said, “But God.” These two little words form an amazing contrast between our sin and God’s grace. At the moment of Adam’s fall, God began to show his mercy, in withholding immediate physical death, and his grace, in promising to send another to redeem fallen humanity from their plight (Gen 3:15). God in his amazing grace preached the “first Gospel,” which Christian theologians have called the the “mother promise,” because from it comes all others (Gen 3:15). The entire history of Scripture from this point forward is the story of how God revealed this grace:
. . . the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe (WCF 7.3).
As Reformed Christians, we speak of Scripture as the unfolding drama of God’s covenant of grace. The essence of this covenant of grace is the same throughout Old and New Testaments (God saves sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone), while its historical administration varies depending on the time and place. For example, the covenant of grace widens from the Old Testament to the New Testament as it was administered first with small families (E.g., Noah, Abram), but now is made with the Church, which is made up people “from every tribe and language and people and nation people from all tribes and languages” (Rev 5:9). It was administered in the Old Testament through “types” and “shadows,” such as sacrifices, the priesthood, and the temple, all which pointed to their reality, Jesus Christ.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and was raised, the covenant of grace reached its zenith in what the bible calls “the new covenant” (Jer 31:31; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:1, 6; Heb 8:8, 13, 9:15, 12:24). What is so amazing about the covenant of grace is that while Christ came to do what Adam failed to do in the covenant of works, by his doing so we receive grace. This continuity between the Old and New Testaments in which both parts of the Word of God center on the promise of Christ and his fulfillment of that promise is summarized by the Westminster Confession, which says,
This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law and in the time of the gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come, which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.
Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations (7.5–6).
Behind these two great covenants in history was yet another, the covenant of redemption. From all of eternity, even before there was a covenant of works or covenant of grace, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit covenanted to share their eternal love and fellowship with creatures. In human terms, God the Father covenanted to create a people, whom he knew would sin, and to choose from this fallen mass a multitude which no man can number for redemption; the Son covenanted to accomplish their redemption; and the Holy Spirit covenanted to apply the work of the Son to those the Father chose.
This dramatic unfolding of God’s covenant will reach it consummation in the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus described the consummation of all things as “the regeneration” (Matt 19:28; NASB) since he would give this world a new birth. Peter preached an early sermon in the life of the church calling the end “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21; NASB). This will be the time when Jesus will raise up the dead, transform his people’s bodies to be fit for eternity (1 Cor 15), and will usher in the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev 21–22) wherein “righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). Because of the nature of this glorious age, Paul says all creation groans for it (Rom 8:19) and that it is our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).
This story is revealed all throughout Scripture, from its beginning in the book of Genesis to its end in the book of Revelation. It is revealed through all the twists and turns of ordinary people’s lives that God used for his own glory in Jesus Christ.
Redemption: By Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, in Christ Alone
ACTION! ALL scripts are intended for actors to play them out. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired and authoritative Word of God to man that tell God’s story of a covenant between he and Adam in the Garden, the breaking of that Covenant by Adam, and God’s subsequent establishing of another covenant. How do we participate in this new covenant of grace that God established with Adam since we too are sinful like him?
Through the concept of a covenant, the central teaching of Scripture is how an offended and holy God provides a means of redemption and reconciliation for fallen and sinful humanity so that they can have a relationship with him. The way this is possible is called “justification” in Scripture (Rom 4:25, 5:16, 18). What the Bible teaches about justification is that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The Heidelberg Catechism cuts through all man-made tradition when it simply asks, “How are you righteous before God”? (Q&A 60) This is what Reformed churches are all about, what the Bible is all about, and what our human condition is all about.
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, though my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
There is an equally wonderful expression of justification in the Westminster Larger Catechism. I remember the first time I heard a professor in college recite it. It was the first time in my young Christian life that I had ever heard of “justification.” I immediately memorized it as it brought such clarity to my mind concerning my salvation and worship in my heart for what Christ had done for me.
What is justification?
Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinner, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
The underlying cause why an offended God can in any way whatsoever reconcile himself to those that offended him is his own “mere grace” alone. It can be no other way according to Scripture: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Here Paul contrasts “grace” with “your own doing,” and “gift” with “works” to express the sheer divine initiative of salvation. He continues elsewhere: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23–24 cf. Eph 1:7; 2 Tim 1:8–10; Titus 3:7).
With all these verses in mind, we need to ask, what is grace? Grace has a twofold aspect. First, it is God’s unmerited favor, as we do not deserve it. The Catechism says we “have never kept any of” the commandments of God. Grace also has a second aspect—de-merited favor, as we have done everything possible to forfeit it. It is God’s salvation despite “my conscience accus[ing] me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God.”
We see these two aspects of grace illustrated in the story of Scripture. God made Adam in his image and likeness, and very good (Gen 1:26, 27, 31). Despite being able to do what God had commanded him, namely, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen 2:17), he willfully sinned against God and brought upon himself God’s curse—physical and spiritual death. Because of Adam’s sin, this “original sin is extended to all mankind” (BC 15). Therefore, we are born sinful (Ps 51:5), as Jesus says, we are slaves of sin (John 8:34), and as Paul says, we are at war with God (Rom 8:5-8). Paul expresses the sheer wonder of God’s grace, saying, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4-5).
The Heidelberg Catechism succinctly confesses this truth, saying, “Yet God . . . of mere grace” (Q&A 60) saves us, while the Westminster Larger Catechism says simply, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace” (Q&A 70). Question and answer 71 of the Larger Catechism goes on to exposit the meaning of sola gratia, when it says,
How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet in as much as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.
The only means by which sinners receive the grace of Christ is faith. For us to make Christ’s work our work, we must have faith in Christ. Yet, we cannot do this in our sinful state. Because in our sinful state we cannot believe in Christ on our own, we confess “the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates him, and seeks nothing more besides him” (BC 22). This is what Paul meant when he said that is was “by grace” that we were saved and that it was “through faith”; furthermore, this faith “is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8, 9). Our justification is so much by grace alone that even the means by which we receive it was given to us by the grace of God.
Because we receive Christ by the faith that the Holy Spirit gives us, we “say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works” (BC 22). This is the language of Scripture. For example, when Paul spoke of the gospel of Jesus Christ, saying, “in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom 1:17 cf. Hab 2:4). This faith is contrasted with works all throughout the New Testament to clearly teach us that justification is God’s work, not ours (Rom 3:21, 22, 25, 26).
One more important note about the faith that justifies us is that it is not as if faith itself justifies us. Contrary to popular expression, we do not believe we are saved by faith. We are believe we are saved by grace and that our faith, being a gift of God
. . . is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works, which he hath done for us and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins (BC 22).
The basis upon which God, in his grace, can accept sinners is the work of Jesus Christ alone. Because of our sin and inability to save ourselves, God had to come to the rescue. It was “out of mere and perfect love” that he “sent his Son to assume that nature in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death” (BC 20). This grace and love of God has been memorably stated in the words of Jesus himself, who spoke of the reason why his Father sent him: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of Christ’s “perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness” becoming our own by faith alone, because this is how the apostle Paul explained our justification, saying: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18–19).
This is the amazing truth of the central doctrine in Scripture, that the eternal God, who created us freely and was rejected by us in the Garden, has freely sent his Son, who perfect obedience in the place of our sin and disobedience is given to us by grace alone, through faith alone. Because Christ’s work is given to us, we are regard by God “as if [we] had never committed nor had any sin,” but even more, that [we] “had [ourselves] accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for [us].”
Church: Its Distinguishing Marks
WHEN I was a child, my grandpa took me to a smorgasbord. Since I did not know what it was or what I was to do, he explained that it was a large table with all kinds of food. Then he said what I thought was the best part: I could make any meal I wanted out of all the food. Sadly, today we view the church in a similar way. There are all kinds of churches and we can pick and choose what we would like and create for us a church.
Recall that the Protestant Reformers taught that the Word of God gave birth to the Church, not vice versa as Rome taught. What this means is that it is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as expressed in the biblical doctrine of justification, that creates the people of God. One of the fruits of justification, among many others, is the Church of Jesus Christ. This means that the church is not a thing of our own creation, but is created by God.
Since the Gospel not only saves us from our sins and the wrath of God, but places us in vital union with Christ and each other as Christians, an important question that the Reformers asked was this: “How does one know where to go to church”? After all, “all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church” (BC 29). Today the situation is just as confusing as the cults call themselves “church,” such as the Church of Jesus Christ—Latter Days Saints, along with the thousand upon thousands of garden-variety, non-denominational churches.
In their protest against Rome, the Reformed churches searched the Word of God to answer the question of where to go to church. What they found were three essential, outward marks by which any discerning person could determine whether any given congregation was truly a church or not: “The marks by which the true Church is known as these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin” (BC 29).
The Pure Preaching of the Gospel
The most fundamental of all these three marks is the pure preaching of the Gospel. Again, the reason this is most fundamental is that apart from the Gospel preached, there would be no church in the first place. After expositing the biblical doctrine of grace, the apostle Paul spoke of the preaching of that doctrine when he said,
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:14–17).
To purely preach the Gospel, then, the church’s minister must preach the doctrine we just describe in the previous chapter—that sinners are justified by the free grace of God alone, which is received through faith alone, which itself is a gift of God, and that this faith is placed in and rests upon nothing else except Jesus Christ the Righteous.
All throughout the Reformers’ writings, they understood justification to be purely preached when the Word was “rightly divided” (2 Tim 2:15) into its two parts: Law and Gospel. The Law was preached in all its terror, while the Gospel was preached in all its comfort as that which the Law could not do (Rom 8:3–4; CD 3/4.6). In doing this, the Reformers taught us to preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 1:23). If a church preaches any other “gospel,” whether it is explicitly faith plus works or some insidious version of “get in by faith, stay in by obedience,” it does not come not with the “doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9), but an antichrist counterfeit. Anything other than the doctrine of justification sola fide is what Paul termed, “a different gospel” (_heteron euangelion_; Gal 1:6), which brings with it an eternal anathema.
The Pure Administration of the Sacraments
The second mark of a true church is the pure administration of the sacraments. The two sacraments that Christ himself instituted are baptism (Matt 28:18–20) and the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26–29). Because of our continued struggle with sin, the visible Word of the sacraments supplements the audible Word of the Gospel preached. As the preaching of the Gospel creates faith, the sacraments confirm that faith within us (HC 65).
To purely administer the sacraments, a church must do so “as instituted by Christ” (BC 29). This means first, that there are only the two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper (HC 68). Second, this means that they are administered without the unbiblical ceremonies and elements added to them over the course of history such as in the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, baptism is to be administered simply with water, in the name of the Triune God, and by an ordained minister (Matt 28:18–20). Whether one is baptized in a church building or at the beach, with a font or a bowl, by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, and whether the minister sprinkles, pours, or immerses once or three times is indifferent. With the Lord’s Supper, the pure administration means that both bread (whether leavened or unleavened) and wine (as Calvin says, no matter the color) are to be given to those who profess faith, whether kneeling, sitting, or standing. This is to be done by reciting the words of institution (1 Cor 11:23–26), as the example of Paul testifies, along with prayer (“ . . . when he had given thanks . . . ”) over the bread and wine. Whether the minister reads a long Form, explains the sacrament in his sermon, or explains it in his own words, does not make the sacrament more or less purely administered.
The Exercising of Church Discipline
The mark of church discipline is a fruit of the first two. The reason is, that by baptism one is brought into the church and is nourished by the preaching of the gospel and Lord’s Supper as a member of Christ’s church. All in whom a true faith in Christ is created and confirmed, need to be shepherded until the Lord comes again, then.
Church discipline has a negative connotation in our culture, but the biblical idea is both positive and negative. It is positive because church discipline means members are encouraged, built up, and strengthened through God’s appointed means and appointed messengers. Discipline promotes the LORD’s holiness (Ezek 36:16–21; 1 Cor 5:1), protects the Church from infection (1 Cor 5:6; Heb 12:15–16; 2 Tim 2:14, 16–18), and restores the rebellious, making clear the seriousness of their resistance to Christ’s Word and Church (1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 2:5–11; Heb 3:12–13, 10:24–25, 12:11–16). It is negative because it is “punishing of sin” (BC 29).
By these three biblical marks, the diligent and discriminating believer may find a congregation that truly is a Christian “church” and in which Christ truly meets with his people in Word and sacrament, and shepherds them by the discipline of his under-shepherds.
Worship: Meeting God
WHY DO we exist? For what purpose did an all-sufficient God who needs nothing beside him decide to create us? As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Q&A 1). We exist not only to give God glory, as we speak to God in worship through prayer and praise, but also to enjoy him, as he speaks to us in worship through Word and sacrament.
Because Scripture is our ultimate authority, it defines not only our theology, as we have sketched it out in terms of Scripture, covenant, redemption, and the church, but also our piety, that is, our grateful response to what God has done in worship.
The Belgic Confession speaks about worship by linking together our belief in the sufficiency of the Word of God to worship, when it says, “For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an Apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the Apostle Paul saith” (art. 7).
“The whole manner of worship which God requires” is found in the Word. This means we come to worship on God’s terms, not ours; that we do in worship what God wants, not what we want. Continuing in a later section, the Belgic Confession says, “We reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God” (art. 32).
The Word, then, contains all we need in order to worship, and therefore, we reject all human-made laws or elements of worship. This is most memorably and succinctly stated in Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 96, which says, “What does God require in the second commandment? That we in nowise make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded us in his Word.”
The Westminster Confession explains this saying,
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (21.1).
We hold to this principle because we take the Bible seriously as God’s Word to us for our faith, as well as our worship and Christian life. Because we believe Scripture alone is our ultimate rule, and because we believe that the Scriptures sufficiently give us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3), we believe it alone governs our worship.
We see this principle taught in the Bible, first, in the Old Testament. The LORD is jealous for his name to be revered and hallowed (Ex 20:7, 34:13–14; Deut 4:24; cf. Matt 6:9), and when we are jealous for his glory by worshipping him how he deserves and desires, we “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb 12:28).
In the first Commandment the one true God who has redeemed us to be a worshipping people, a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9), commands us to worship him alone: “You shall have no other gods before me.” In the second Commandment this one true God tells us the way we are to worship him, negatively, by saying how we are not to worship him: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Ex 20:4 cf. Deut 4:15¬–19). Positively, this teaches that we are to worship God only according to his word. We see this in the very words of the second Commandment itself, where the “steadfast love” of the LORD is towards those who “love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:6). Intricately linked with the prohibition of images of the LORD, is the language of doing what the Lord says in his Word. As well, the book of Leviticus expresses this positive aspect as it mentions repeatedly that worship is “according to the rule” (E.g., Lev 9:16 cf. Lev 10:1; Deut 12:29–32). Thus, all worship not “according to Scripture” is what the Paul calls “will worship” (Col 2:23; ASV).
The New Testament
“But this is all Old Testament teaching,” you might be thinking. Yet Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). Is the solemn requirement that the Church teach all things that Christ has commanded not at the same time a solemn prohibition against teaching anything that he has not commanded? If, in the worship of God, we observe all that Christ has commanded, ought we not also to scrupulously avoid anything and everything that he has not commanded? Jesus said that the Pharisees worshiped God “in vain” (Mark 7:7). Why, then, did God reject their worship? Because, Jesus said, “You leave the commandment of God” preferring “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7-8). They worshiped God in vain because they worshiped God as they wished, not as God required. In the same way, the apostle Paul warned the Colossians: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Col 2:18). This was worship offered because they wished to offer it, rather than because God commanded it: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23).
No doubt Jesus was rude by our standards when he said to the woman at the well, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Yet, he was only being truthful. “God is spirit,” he said, “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). True worship was impossible for the Samaritans as long as they worshiped God as they wished. They needed to worship God as he commanded in order to find acceptance with him. “For the Father is seeking such people to worship him,” said Jesus, who would be “the true worshipers [who would] worship the Father in spirit and truth (John 4:23). When we persist in worshipping God as we will, rather than as God wills, we are not “true worshippers.”
In Romans 1:21–25, the Apostle Paul condemns every false kind of worship invented by men. He also reveals the source of such false worship. Men become “vain in their imagination,” he says. They invent what they vainly imagine to be “good ways” to worship. They worship, as they want, not as God commands. But when they do this, they really “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator,” says Paul, and for this reason “they are without excuse.” They are without excuse because there is no excuse for departing from the rule, which says “we must not worship God in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”
Preaching & Sacraments: Means of Grace
MUSIC, TELEVISION, radio, and computers are all mediums of communication. Whereas these are ways we communicate with each other, God has chosen to use different means. In fact, his means are “foolish” to the world because they do not demonstrate great power (1 Cor 1:18–31).
All that we have said about the Word of God being our ultimate authority, God’s story of coming to save a sinning people, our being justified by faith alone, the church having three marks, and worship being by the Word, is only relevant if we can truly come into contact with the God who has created the universe, sustains it by his providential care, and redeems a people for himself. After all, if we have only just described impersonal principles and there is no personal relationship associated with them, they are meaningless to us.
The reason all that we have said above is so important is that sinners gather together week by week with the belief that God meets with them. We meet with him because his authoritative Word calls us to do so, he promises to save us through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, he promises to be among his people when they assemble in a place that has the three marks of a church, and he commands us to meet with him on his terms. How, then, do we receive his grace? How do we have an experiential relationship with a God we cannot see, touch, or hear? The Reformers were clear in teaching that there are means of grace that God the Holy Spirit uses to communicate with us. These means are the Word and Sacraments:
Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith?
The Holy Ghost works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments (HC 65).
Preaching of the Gospel
The chief, and primary, means by which the Holy Spirit communicates the grace of God to us is the preaching of the Gospel, by which he creates faith within us. As Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). What Paul says here is that the “word of Christ,” which is the preached word of the Gospel, is the means “through” which the Holy Spirit gives faith to sinners. This is why we call preaching the primary means of grace.
The Belgic Confession says the Holy Spirit “kindleth” faith in us (art. 22), and that it is “wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Ghost” (art. 24). It is when the powerful Holy Spirit accompanies the preached Gospel that he gives new life and faith to those who hear. The third of the Three Forms of Unity, the Canons of Dort, speak of the preaching of the Gospel, saying, “What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of his Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation” (3/4.6). The Spirit’s work through preaching is explained in more details, when the Canons say,
. . . he not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit he pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions (3/4.11).
In preaching then, Jesus Christ must be the subject matter from beginning to end. Not only did Jesus teach his disciples that all the Old Testament Scriptures were about him (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47; John 5:39), the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “But we preach Christ” (1 Cor 1:23). Yet, we know that not all who hear the good news believe it. As Jesus taught in the parable of the sower (Matt 13), preaching is like spreading seed. Some seeds fall along the path and birds eat them, some seeds fall on rocky ground where they immediately spring up only to be scorched by the sun, some seeds fall among thorns and are choked off, while other seeds fall on good soil and produce grain.
This is why preaching must be discriminating in its presentation. The church is a covenant community, meaning it belongs to Jesus Christ; yet, within the covenant people there are sincere believers as well as hypocrites, as well as the fact that unbelieving people from the world are also (should also!) be in our worship service. This is why Reformed preaching emphasizes both the law and the gospel. The law does two things. First, it humbles the believer and causes the unbeliever to see his/her sin. Second, it hardens the unbeliever who will not acknowledge his/her sin. The gospel does two things as well. First, it comforts and confirms the believer in his/her salvation. Second, it is offered to the unbeliever as the only means of escaping the judgment for their sin. As the Canons of Dort say:
Moreover the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel (2.5).
As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called; for God hath most earnestly and truly declared in his Word what will be acceptable to him, namely, that all who are called should comply with the invitation. H, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to him, and believe on him (3/4.8).
The faith the Holy Spirit creates in us he confirms by the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Rome added five more sacraments (confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, last rites) to those Christ instituted, and made them works by which we cooperate with God to receive his grace. In contrast, Reformed churches believe the two sacraments are means by which God works to sanctify us and strengthen our faith.
Baptism is a means of grace because it is the sacrament of initiation. This means that by it “we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to him who ensign and banner we bear” (BC 34). Whether in childhood or adulthood, baptism places us in the covenant community, as we say, giving us the privileges and benefits of hearing the Word preached, public worship, participating in prayer and catechism as families, and living among the people of God.
Baptism is also a means of grace that benefits all those who believe in Jesus Christ for their entire Christian life: “Neither doth this Baptism only avail us at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life” (BC 34). It is not merely a one-time event, but our whole lives are strengthened by baptism as we look back to it throughout our lives, appropriating the benefits of Christ for ourselves. We were buried with him and raised with him: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3–4).
Baptism initiates us into the covenant community while the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of nutrition, feeding us with the body and blood of Christ unto everlasting life as our “spiritual nourishment” (WCF 29.1). Jesus called his disciples to “take” and eat” the bread and to “drink” of the cup of wine as they were the visible means of participating in his death “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:26, 27, 28). In John’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’ bread of life discourse, in which he explained the significance of his multiplying bread for the five thousand in terms of our “eating” (John 6:35, 47–51, 53–58).
Christ is the true food and true drink of our souls, and we eat and drink of body and blood by partaking of him by faith through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Just as we believe in Christ through the preached Word for our justification so we believe in Christ through the visible Word of the Lord’s Supper for our nutrition. For this reason, the historic Reformed liturgies of the Lord’s Supper call us to feed upon Christ by faith, saying,
That we, then, may be nourished with Christ, the true heavenly bread, let us not cling with our hearts unto the external bread and wine but lift them up on high in heaven, where Jesus Christ is, our Advocate, at the right hand of His heavenly Father, whither also the articles of our Christian faith direct us.; not doubting that we shall be nourished and refreshed in our souls, with His body and blood, through the working of the Holy Spirit, as truly as we receive the holy bread and drink in remembrance of Him (“Celebration of the Lord’s Supper: Form Number 1,” Psalter Hymnal, p. 146–47).
Another of these liturgies, the Book of Common Prayer, has these words for those who partake of communion, as they take and ate of the bread and drink of the wine:
The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.
The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.
It is by these means of Word and Sacrament that God meets with us in public worship to give us true fellowship with him in order to sustain and strengthen our faith.
I invited you to a conversation about the beliefs and practices of Reformed churches, no matter what your level of understanding or interest in the subject might be. I sincerely hope I have given you some things to think about and welcome your participation through questions, whether via e-mail or preferably in person on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week.