Mature, Restful, and Confessional

Dear Church Family,

This Friday, October 31st, is Reformation Day – a day to remember the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago. This weekend also marks the end of Day Light Savings Time, so don’t forget to set you clocks back one hour on Saturday!

Anyway, seeing as we are coming up on the traditional time in Reformed churches in which we celebrate the Reformation and the recovery of the gospel, I thought this would be a good opportunity to address the question, “What does it mean to be Reformed?” In a general sense, all Protestant denominations may trace their roots back to the Reformation; however, not all Protestant churches or denominations hold to the doctrines of the Reformed faith, and even some that call themselves Reformed often fail to understand how all-encompassing is the nomenclature.

Young, Restless, and Reformed?

What I have in mind here is the relatively recent rise of what has come to be known as the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” – terminology which was coined by Colin Hansen in his 2006 Christianity Today article and 2008 book of this same name. Basically, Hansen tried to describe a resurgence of the emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the ‘five points of Calvinism’ among a new generation of evangelical Christians. But, is that all that the word ‘Reformed’ means? A belief in the so-called ‘five points of Calvinism’ (aka, TULIP)?

To answer that question, I wish to draw your attention to an excellent article by professor of historical theology, Dr. Richard A. Muller, called “How Many Points?” In the article, Muller argues that Reformed teaching is synonymous with Calvinism and that there are many individuals today who are “proud to be a five-point Calvinist, whose doctrines would have been repudiated by Calvin.”

More than TULIP: Confessional

Calvinism, or the doctrines of the Reformed faith, according to Muller is defined by the doctrines which are taught in the historic Reformed creeds, “whether the Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformed church or the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches or the Westminster standards of the Presbyterian churches.” So, first and foremost, ‘Reformed’ means to be ‘confessional.’ And so, to be Reformed means to hold to the teaching of the Scriptures as summarized in the historic creeds of the Reformed churches.

Muller goes on to enumerate some of the distinctive doctrines of the Reformed creeds that are most often overlooked or repudiated by those who wish to call themselves Reformed, yet limit their understanding of the word to the five-points of Calvinism. Here is a brief survey of those doctrines which Muller enumerates in his article:

[1] Paedobaptism – Muller writes that the “assumption concerning the legitimate inclusion of the children of believers in the covenanting community through the sign and seal of baptism stands as the natural adjunct of the five points: Salvation does not arise out of human merit but by grace alone through the acceptance, by graciously engendered faith, of the sufficient sacrifice of Christ for our sins.” Once in a new members class, a woman who was interested in joining the church was asking a lot of questions about the doctrine of predestination and election. At one point, she apologized saying, “I’m sorry to be asking so many questions about this, but I want to understand the doctrine of infant baptism and I recognize that the two go together.” Far from being put out by her questions, I was overjoyed to see her making the connections that few often see.

[2] Ecclesiology – Muller writes, “the Reformed doctrine of grace – the irresistible grace of the five points – not only identifies God’s grace as unmerited but also locates the primary working of that grace in the covenanting community of believers where it is presented through the means of word and sacrament.” And, “the church is not, therefore, a ‘voluntary association’ – certainly not in any usual sense of that term. It is the divinely mandated and established covenanting community within which and through the agency of which the Word is preached, the sacraments faithfully administered, and the grace of God mediated to a needy world.” This understanding of the centrality of the Church over and against the emphasis upon the autonomy of self is the major failing among evangelicals today. Yet, the confessionally Reformed believe that it is the privilege and obligation of all Christians to join and unite with the Church and not to withdraw from it (Belgic Confession, 25).

[3] Sacraments – Muller writes that “sacraments are indeed signs and, therefore, in a sense, means of grace – that the churchly administration of the sacraments holds out the promise of the divine work of grace.” Sacraments are far from simply a remembrance of what Christ has done or merely a declaration through signs and symbols of what Christ has done on our behalf (or worse, an expression of one’s personal faith). Rather, a sacrament (baptism and the Lord’s supper) “is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (WSC 93).

[4] Covenant Theology – Muller states that the problem of multiple dispensations of salvation “assumes not only that salvation has been administered differently in various ages of the world but, contrary to the Reformed Confessions’ understanding of Scripture, also that one church has not existed ‘from the beginning of the world,’ will not ‘last until the end,’ and has not been universally ‘preserved by God against the rage of the world’ (Belgic Confession, XXVII).” Though differently administered in the Old and New Testaments (WCF 7:5), there are not two covenants of grace which differ in substance, but one way of salvation for all people for all of history (WCF 7:6).

[5] Eschatology – Speaking of one’s understanding of the final things, Muller points to how the “so-called amillennialism of the Reformed assumes not the absence but the presence of the earthly reign of grace. There is a powerful difference between the faith and the church of those who await a millennium and who hold that now Satan bestrides the earth seeking whom — including members of the voluntarily gathered church — he may devour, and the faith and church of those who hold that the ministry of Christ and his work on the cross bound Satan, who may no longer devour God’s people however else he may roam about.” There is an implicit, if not overt, understanding in the Reformed confessions that Christ’s kingdom has already come with His incarnation (WCF 8:5), yet it will not yet come in its fullness until Christ’s return (WCF 33:1-3). Additionally, the Second Helvetic Confession states, “We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth.”

[6] Assurance – Muller points out how many evangelicals derive their assurance of salvation by gauging whether they have “exerted themselves enough in renouncing the world and ‘accepting’ Christ.” In contrast, all of the Reformed confessions “agree on the assumption that our assurance of the salvation, wrought by grace alone through the work of Christ and God’s Spirit in us, rests not on our outward deeds or personal claims but on our apprehension of Christ in faith and on our recognition of the inward work of the Spirit in us.”

Conclusion

I have tried to briefly summarize Muller’s points from his article, but I recommend reading it for yourself. Again, it may be found online here. Here is the final paragraph of that article in which Muller summarizes the above points, and then points to how limiting our understanding of doctrine to simply five points is detrimental to the health of the Church and the Christian faith:

In conclusion, we can ask again, ‘How many points?’ Surely there are more than five. The Reformed faith includes reference to total inability, unconditional election, limited efficiency of Christ’s satisfaction, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints, not as the sum total of the church’s confession but as elements that can only be understood in the context of a larger body of teaching including the baptism of infants, justification by grace alone through faith, the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent upon our faith and justification, the identification of sacraments as means of grace, the so-called amillennial view of the end of the world. The larger number of points, including but going beyond the five of Dort, is intended, in other words, to construe theologically the entire life of the believing community. And when that larger number of points taught by the Reformed confessions is not respected, the famous five are jeopardized, indeed, dissolved —and the ongoing spiritual health of the church is placed at risk.

 

As we remember the rediscovery of the gospel truths and our Reformed heritage this Reformation Day, let us also remember and give thanks that our understanding of the Christian life as taught in the Scriptures is not reducible to merely five points of soteriology. The doctrines which are taught in the Scriptures, as summarized in the Reformed creeds and confessions, embody a familial, ecclesial, sacramental, covenantal, hopeful, reassuring, and vibrant faith which is lived out in local, confessionally Reformed, churches.

 

The Lord be with you!

- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch