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The Sermon on the Mount: The Culture of God's Kingdom

"If culture is the public expression of a worship of a people, and the gospel restores us to true worship, then the gospel restores us to true culture, which is the Kingdom of God."
-Joseph Boot

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck articulated a way of understanding God's redemptive work as "grace restoring nature." This includes the restoration of humanity, but more broadly refers to the whole of creation as all things are brought under the reign of God in Christ. Through the grace of the gospel, nature is raised to its highest fulfillment, toward its eschatological goal.  Put another way, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God breaks into the world.  

Going up on the mountain, Jesus began to teach...

In a recapitulation of Moses' receiving of the Law at Sinai, Jesus goes up and delivers the law of the Kingdom to the disciples and those who crowd around below to hear.  Just as God, through his chosen instrument, Moses, delivered His people out of slavery in Egypt and gave them His Law for the ordering of a (re)newed culture, Jesus knows He will deliver His people--from every tribe, tongue, and nation--out of slavery (to sin, death, and the devil) and, in the Sermon on the Mount, reveals the culture of the Kingdom.  

The good news is not only that we have been redeemed from sin and death and reconciled to God, but also that we have been restored to true worship. As we express this worship in our lives, as we fervently seek to witness to the Kingdom of God in word and deed, we enter into God's redemptive drama--His work of restoring nature by grace and guiding it toward its eschatological goal--and live into the true culture for which He created us. And as we live into this true culture--the culture of God's Kingdom--light comes to bear on the darkness and transformation of individuals, families, communities, and the world follows as God's will unfolds. 

I hope you will consider joining us this Fall (Thursdays at 6:00PM) as we study what the culture of the Kingdom looks like by reading and discussing Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount. Words that were significant in shaping the culture of the early church. Words that are crucial for shaping a culture today that, rather than merely capitulating to the world, provides a compelling alternative to it. Words that provoke us, here in Ames, at Iowa State University, to live differently. For the glory of God, the flourishing of the world, and our ultimate good and joy. 

ROOM SCHEDULE:

September 7 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
September 14 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213
September 21 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3540
September 28 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213

October 5 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
October 12 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213
October 19 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
October 26 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213

November 2 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3558
November 9 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 2213
November 16 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3540
November 30 @ 6PM in Memorial Union Room 3540

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What? (Pt. 6)

Over the last month or so, we have wrestled with what it looks like for the church to continue to be reformed, and always reforming.  Looking to Scripture--that which our ongoing reformation must be according to, and directed by--we have examined four areas in which we can continue to seek to be reformed: 

1. A renewed emphasis on the covenantal community
2. The gracious use of church discipline
3. An evangelistic confessionalism
4. Tempered cultural engagement

So what now? How, then, shall we answer the possibilities of reformation and renewal in these areas?  And what is the outcome?  My hope is that as we continue to pursue faithful reform we may be able to declare, with the editor of TableTalk Magazine Burk Parson:

We are Reformed. We are not ashamed of being distinctively Reformed in all that we do. We are Reformed because we believe that to be Reformed is to be biblical. To be Reformed is not only to stand firmly on the same doctrine as our faithful Reformation forefathers, it is to stand firmly on the Word of God. To be Reformed is not only to believe that God is sovereign over salvation, but to believe that He is sovereign over everything. To be Reformed isn't simply to accept the doctrines of grace, but to take great comfort in them, to teach them graciously, and to defend them courageously. To be Reformed is to believe that God has one glorious covenantal plan of redemption, and that He is carrying out that plan. To be Reformed is not to give mere lip service to the historic Reformed confessional standards, but to affirm them heartily and study them diligently. To be Reformed means not only that we are professing members of a local Reformed church but that we are regular, active worshipers and participants in the life, community, and mission of our local churches as we take the gospel to the ends of the earth. To be Reformed is not to be a complacent, smug, arrogant, or apathetic people, but to be a gracious, dependent, humble, prayerful, evangelistic, joyful, loving people who believe that God not only ordains the end of all things but that He ordains the means of all ends in us and through us by the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit for His glory alone. [1]

May these articles stir you to deeper consideration of what reformation looks like in your life, and in your church, as we seek to glorify God and see the fragrance of the aroma of our Lord Jesus Christ spread over all the earth.  

[Let me know your thoughts below on the series, or other places you desire to see reformation according to Scripture in the church today.]

 

 

[1] Burk Parsons, "We Are Reformed," TableTalk (May 2017), 2. 

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What? (Pt. 5)

Parks Library 2.jpg

 

[I must apologize for the delay, but we have finally arrived at the fifth and final post in our series]

Internal renewal leads to external engagement.  Beginning with internal renewal—a re-emphasis on our identity as a covenant community and the gracious use of church discipline—we turn to external engagement.  This began in the last post, as we examined what it means to be confessional, and imagined what could come from the intentional use of the confessions in reaching out to both Christians and non-Christians.  And now, we turn to cultural engagement. 

What does it look like to bring reformation to our cultural engagement?  The answer is a return to the foundations guiding such engagement: a commitment to a Christian worldview firmly rooted in, and authorized by, Scripture, and a renewed emphasis upon the good news of the Kingdom of God.

CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW

From political ideologies to national or ethnic identities, youth-driven movements to (pop)cultural trends, any number of issues and/or ideas can reshape our worldview, mutating it into something that vaguely resembles Christianity, but is fundamentally warped.  As Abraham Kuyper so winsomely wrote, our worldview is only Christian in so far as it views and engages the world in “the light that the Holy Spirit kindles on the candelabra of Scripture.”[1]

As Christians, we recognize that with the fall, all spheres of life and every facet of human nature has been marred by our sinful rebellion. Scripture is that which allows us to see ourselves, and the world, aright; a light that leads us out of darkness into light, and a lens that brings clarity to the blurriness.  Apart from this light, and this lens, we are apt to be led down dangerous paths with serious implications (mission creep, compromise) for our witness and engagement.  With its all-encompassing scope, Scripture provides the foundation for approaching all of life with a consistent system, as well as an authoritative guide for living in grateful obedience to God for his glory and our neighbor’s good.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

If Scripture is, in one sense, the beginning, the kingdom of God is the end, or that toward which our cultural engagement is oriented.  We must draw on all of Scripture to see the full beauty, truth, and goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God for fueling our work in the world.  And this good news, explains Andrew Sandlin, is that:

The gospel is calculated to redeem not just individuals but all human life and culture and creation…In Jesus Christ [God] has dealt and is dealing decisively with the problem of sin and gradually reinstalling His righteousness in the earth. The gospel is that everything wrong in this world, God is setting right.[2]

God in Christ not only redeems us, forgiving us of our sin and restoring us to a right relationship with him, but also, by the Spirit, renews us in our ability to fulfill our calling to serve God, unfolding the latent potential of creation (culture-making) for his glory and proper human flourishing.  Therefore, every fiber of our being and sphere of life—church, state, family, vocation, education, etc.—must be reoriented towards the kingdom of God; the righteous reign of Christ over all things. 

Such an understanding of the gospel guards against the danger of evangelicalism, which tends to narrowly focus on individual salvation and “going to heaven,” ignoring the cosmic scope of God’s purpose in redemption—to lead all of creation to its climax in the new heaven and new earth—and our work within it.[3] As a result, evangelicalism wrongly creates distinctions between the sacred and the secular, stunting cultural transformation and flourishing.

However, for healthy cultural engagement, we must also remember, as Craig Bartholomew points out:

The kingdom is exciting because of the King, and without a living relationship with the King religion will be about many things but will lack that missional vision of the kingdom, passionately concerned with spreading the fragrance of the King throughout the creation that is rightly his.[4]

The kingdom of God has broken into our world in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and begins its expansion through the regenerating work of the Spirit in bringing men and women of all peoples to faith and obedience under his reign.  Our work toward seeing the lordship of Christ extended over all areas of life must begin with being in living relationship with the King.

This, then, guards from the other danger (most often associated with Protestant liberalism) which overemphasizes cultural engagement, forgetting that it is citizens of the kingdom—those who have been born again, and trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ according to the Word and Spirit—who need to be culturally engaged.[5] Additionally, anchoring ourselves in Christ serves to prevent us from straying into false teaching and theology that may hinder our witness (i.e. liberation theology, dominionism, social gospel, etc.).

CONCLUSION

Finally, we should remember the sure hope accompanying our mission (outlined by the Cultural Mandate and Great Commission).  We can engage joyfully and confidently, knowing that our Lord and Savior is with us, the Spirit renews and empowers us for the task at hand, and the work will one day be completed.  As J.H. Bavinck declares in his book, From the Beginning to the End:

We ruptured the kingdom and have brought dissonance into the world order…[Yet] God will not surrender this terrible world to the powers of decay at work in it, but that great day in which he himself will gather up his world into a harmonious symphony of adoration has begun.[6]

When it comes down to it, bringing reformation to our cultural engagement rests in returning to two foundational aspects of our faith: a Christian worldview rooted in Scripture and a robust gospel of the kingdom emphasizing the cosmic scope of God’s redemptive, restorative work in Christ.  If we ground ourselves here, we may faithfully, fruitfully, and joyfully engage in witnessing to, and working for, the advancement of the kingdom of God in all the earth.

 

[1]Abraham Kuyper, “The Blurring of the Boundaries,” in Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), 400.  
[2]P. Andrew Sandlin, “Reclaiming Culture is Gospel Ministry,” in Jubilee 15 (Fall 2015), 4. 
[3]Craig Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 32.
[4]Ibid, 32.
[5]Ibid, 33.
[6]J.H. Bavinck, Between the Beginning and the End (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 45-46.

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What? (Pt. 4)

Confession.jpg

We continue our series, this week examining what it means to express an evangelistic confessionalism

 e·van·ge·lis·tic (iˌvanjəˈlistik/)--adjective referring to one who zealously advocates a particular cause or belief.

con·fes·sion (kənˈfeSHən/)--statement setting out essential religious doctrine (or, as Carl Trueman writes, "a public statement of what a particular church or denomination believes that Scripture teaches in a synthetic form. [1]")

As a member of Trinity Christian Reformed Church, I belong to a denomination that declares itself to be confessional. By this, I mean, churches in the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) point to three documents as witnesses to the gospel and summarize the teachings of Scripture: The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort.  Yet, I cannot help but notice that many within our denominational house (and some of those in our neighborhood) seem to be confessionally confused.

 In an article entitled, Buried Treasures: On the Riches of the Reformed Tradition, James K.A. Smith uses an architectural allegory to make this same point.  He describes a person who is invited to a friend's house. But this is no ordinary house, it is a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Smith articulates the excitement of anticipation one experiences at the prospect of visiting this house and witnessing its incredible craftsmanship, quality, and design.  "Imagine your surprise when, entering the house, you find something starkly different", writes Smith. He continues: 

A garish linoleum covers the precious tile that you just know is under the entryway. Dropped ceilings have shut down the transcendent space of what would have been 10-foot ceilings. At some point in the '70s someone decided that orange Astroturf was better than classic hardwood. Then at some pint in the '80s someone must have surmised that tacky mirrors were more contemporary than stained glass. And as you make your way into the kitchen, you notice that someone in the '60s, armed with pea-green plastic, thought they could improve upon the ancient craftsmanship of the house you just know is dying to breath underneath all this renovation.[2]

This is (generally) the vibe I get around our churches. Too often we have been swept up by contemporary fads or cultural pressures, changing and "reforming" according to these rather than our doctrinal standards (summarizing the authoritative teaching of Scripture).  The truth is, the Three Forms of Unity are not simply pieces of paper or written accounts of personal belief; they are corporate expressions of the faith, once for all delivered to the saints and pointing to those doctrines we've held as dear (and orthodox) for generations. Rather than papering over these wonderful truths, we should embrace and devote ourselves to more deeply understanding what they communicate about God, His ways and His work in history.

The confessions serve as a staff, guiding the church in all its work as it both "presents the promise of the gospel to those who may believe and proclaims God's truth to the powers that rule in government, business, education, culture, etc. [3]" To return to a robust confessionalism would bring a renewed sense of unity to the church, its mission, values and teaching, and clearly articulate to outsiders what we believe and why we believe it.  Our confessions also function as a stick, providing the means for, and clear boundaries of, church discipline (discussed in the previous installment of this series). Thus, returning to our confessional roots means enhancing (clarifying) our witness to the world of Christ, the Kingdom, and the grace of God revealed therein, as well as preventing abuses of power and self-made religion.  Finally, the confessions serve a doxological function, providing the impetus for maturity, praise, and loving action in service to God and neighbor alike.[4] A renewed confessionalism provides those in our congregations a solid doctrinal foundation and theological framework in which they can grow and flourish. Or, to put it another way, orthodoxy and orthopraxy lead to doxological living. 

However, beyond this, I believe that we should celebrate and joyfully proclaim to others the truths contained in our confessions.  We should utilize them as a formative tool given us for Lord's Day worship, use them in the discipleship of our congregations and in shaping an alternative culture to that of the world. They should be a source of encouragement, comfort, hope, and motivation as we seek to live as faithful witnesses in the world. We should have a desire to share the riches of our tradition--with its emphasis on such ideas as the sovereignty of God, authority of Scripture, covenant theology, and the Kingdom of God--with the wider body of Christ, as well as the world, rather than struggling to throw off our confessional identity, discard it in misguiding efforts to be "relevant," or hide it as we strive to imitate others.  

I think of a struggling lawyer who was greatly comforted when I shared Heidelberg Catechism Q&A#1 with him while running on treadmills at the gym; I think of the engineering student who visited our church and found the Reformed distinctives expressed in corporate worship to be refreshing to his evangelical megachurch-weary, cynical soul; I think of the joy and encouragement of an international student (from the Netherlands) in finding that there are other Christians who believe, confess, and practice the same Reformed Standards as he does; and I think of the young Christian growing into a leader in part through our studies of the catechism and its bearing on his life. 

With the amount of time and energy devoted to questions concerning the future of our denomination and, more broadly, Christianity, one may ask: What do we do? Where do we turn?  We should not capitulate to the winds of culture, jettisoning the central tenants of our faith. Neither should we seek to hide our "accent", striving to appear as those around us. We should not be concerned with the next, best thing, nor retreat into a stale traditionalism.  Rather, may we turn back to our tradition, to the confessions, mining the depths of the riches embedded in them, and push forward in affirming and acting in faithfulness to way, the truth, and life revealed within their pages.  

 

[1] Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 17.
[2} James K.A. Smith, "Buried Treasues: On the Riches of the Reformed Tradition," The Banner 146, no. 1 (January 2011), 33.
[3} Allan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today: A Fresh Look at the Belgic Confession (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 5-7.
[4} Ibid. 

 

 

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Cinema Gratia: Zulu Dawn

"Have we weaknesses, Quartermaster?"

We take a break from our ongoing series for a one-off that sees the return of Cinema Gratia. This time, we look at the 1979 film, Zulu Dawn.

Recounting true events, albeit with a dramatic flair, the film tells the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana; a battle in which the British suffered one of the greatest defeats of a modern army against a technologically inferior enemy [1].  Like a black wave, the 20,000 strong Zulu army swept over the 1,700 soldiers of the 24th Regiment, NNC (Natal Native Contingent), and other volunteers. When it was all said and done, 858 men of the 24th Regiment were dead, along with nearly 500 hundred volunteers and blacks [2].  

The film is charged with social commentary, walking a tightrope between nostalgia and derision, as it takes on issues of colonialism and classism in Victorian life.  A slow burn, Zulu Dawn gradually (forebodingly) builds to the climactic final battle at Isandlwana, delivering a set-piece that helps to convey the chaos, violence, and overwhelming sense of doom experienced by the British at Isandlwana. Even more, it displays an anti-war sentiment that was prevalent in films during the 70s. It was not a threat from the Zulus, but rather, politics and greed, that fueled the British invasion. And when it's all said and done, the film leaves the viewer asking: Who really wins in war?

Yet, perhaps more than anything else, Zulu Dawn, is a cautionary tale, warning against the folly of a false sense of superiority and the blinding power of pride.

No one epitomizes this in the film more than Lord Chelmsford. Peter O'Toole portrays him as the arrogant aristocrat who underestimates his enemy's military capabilities, and rejects the wisdom and insight of his allies due to rivalry and his own inflated sense of military prowess. At one point, Chelmsford compares the Zulus to children in need of the kindness of their chastisement, and in another scene, explains to a newspaper reporter that his only fear is that the Zulus may refuse to engage in open battle. Later, when challenged to reconsider his treacherous plan to split his force in two by Colonel Durnford, Chelmsford scoffs, posing the question: "Are you dictating the strategy of this war, sir?"

Throughout the proceedings, and the gleeful, adventurous way most of the British go about the invasion, the words of Proverbs 16:18 reverberate in the mind:

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

These words prove true, as Col. Pulleine (left in charge of the column at Isandlwana) fails to prepare adequate defenses, and, trusting in the technological advantages of his men, establishes too long and thin of a line to face the advancing Zulus. Due to the smoke, ammunition shortages, and the calculated strategy of the Zulus, the line proves unable to hold the hoards of warriors at bay.  Only hours later does he realize his mistakes, and, resigning himself to death, writes a final letter home before being stabbed by one of the Zulu warriors.  

Isandlwana.jpg

The quartermaster, in a conversation with one of his men (Pullen) puts it best:

Zulu may not wear shoes or trousers and the like but it don't mean to say they got no brains. They'll watch us and wait and find our weaknesses.

Pullen replies with a question that goes unanswered: Have we weaknesses, Quartermaster? Yes, but not what you might think.  The Zulus had only to watch and wait for their weaknesses--not guns or courage, but rather pride and superiority--to show themselves in order to create the right moment to attack.  

Zulu Dawn has criticized for not giving equal time to both the British and Zulus, but I think this was intentional.  The film beckons us to identify with the British, but not in a heroic, honorable way. Rather, we're to consider how we reflect the same pride as Chelmsford, blindly trusting in our own strength and knowledge. We should see the ways we are more than capable of channeling the same sort of demeaning attitude (as the colonials did) towards those different than us, assuming that we are superior--be it socially, morally, or otherwise. And we should recognize the ways we can all too easily be motivated to sin and injustice by greed, power, and glory.  As a result, we're often led to our own destruction, bringing harm on those around us in the process. Have we weaknesses? Yes, we are flawed men and women in need of God's grace and renewing power.   

In the end, Zulu Dawn is not a great film. There is so much more that could have been explained, characters who could have been fleshed out, and plot-lines that are never resolved. Yet, one of the things I enjoy most about a historical film like this is seeing how contemporary filmmakers look back on past events.  Additionally, I enjoy knowing that history need not repeat itself if (by the Spirit of God) we will humble ourselves and seek the way of wisdom, truth, and grace. So take heed of the warning of Zulu Dawn, or you may find yourself faced with impending doom, death, and destruction.  

 

[1] Tony Pollard, "The Mountain is their Monument: An archeological Approach to the Lanscapes of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879," in Fields of Battle eds. Peter Doyle and Matthew R. Bennett (Dordtrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 118.  
[2] Ian Knight, Brave Men's Blood (London: Greenhill Books, 1996), 68. 

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But into What? (Pt. 3)

"According to the command of Christ:
     Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and who after repeated personal and loving admonitions,
     refuse to abandon their errors and evil ways, and who after being reported to the church, that is, to those ordained by the church for that purpose, fail to
     respond also to the church's admonitions--such persons the church excludes from the Christian community by withholding the sacraments from them, and
     God also excludes them from the kingdom of Christ. Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members
     of Christ and of his church."
     
-Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 85

We continue our series on reforming the church, this week addressing a subject that is the elephant in the ecclesiastical room: church discipline.  Once considered one of the marks of the true church, discipline has, in many churches, fallen to the wayside.  Though there are a number of contributing issues--including the misuse and abuse of church discipline--two stand out: the rejection of authority and a deficient understanding of the purpose of church discipline.  By resolving these issues, and renewing the gracious practice of church discipline, the church can better serve its members as well as strengthen its witness to the good, gracious, and holy Triune God at work in the world. 

Authority

At its heart, the issue of church discipline is one of authority. We live in a society that, generally speaking, despises authority and exalts individualism and self-determination.  As John Stuart Mill wrote in, On Liberty, "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [1]"  No external authority--be it the government, religion, work or family--has the power or right to tell us what to think or how to behave; it is up us, as individuals, to come to our own conclusions. And unfortunately, this same perspective has crept into the church as well, contributing to the degradation of the church's health, and bringing in a host of false teachings.*  

Yet, as the church, we confess with the Heidelberg Catechism that, "I am not my own, but belong--body and soul, in life and in death--to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.[2]" Unlike human institutions--man-made organization and social clubs--the church is a people called, gathered, established, and sustained by the Triune God, and subject to His authority.  Rather than striving to live according to the norms and customs of the culture of our age, we must pursue obedience to the Lord, His Word and His ways.[3] This means submitting ourselves to His Word and Spirit, as well as those who have been ordained by God to serve as leaders in the church under Christ; shepherds, appointed by the great shepherd, to watch over, and care for, the flock. Thus, the confession, in laying out the obligations of church members, declares:

But all people are obliged to join and unite with it [the church], keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline...[4]

Church Discipline

This leads us to the subject of discipline.  Broadly understood, discipline is the training, or formation, of the church so that as a community--and the individuals therein--she may faithfully fulfill her purpose in God's redemptive plan, and display the good news of Christ and the Kingdom of God to the world. More narrowly, church discipline is a restorative and (re)formative practice that rebukes sin and corrects false teaching.  The practice of church discipline is a sure sign of Christian love, helping fallen sinners back to their feet, and guiding those who have wandered into false teaching back to the way of truth and life found in obedience to the Word and Spirit.[5]  Herman Bavinck presents a vivid description of both the wide and narrow scopes of church discipline in his Reformed Dogmatics:

[The church of Christ] experiences conflict from within and without, is prey to all sorts of attacks by sin and deception, and at all times runs the danger of straying to the left or to the right. The church is a field that needs to be constantly weeded, a tree that must be pruned at the proper time, a flock that must also be led and pastured, a house that requires constant renovation, a bride who must be prepared to be presented as a pure virgin to her husband. There are the sick, the dying, the tested, the grieving; those who are under attack, conflicted, in doubt, fallen, imprisoned, and so forth, who need teaching and instruction, admonition and consolation.[6]

And though it can be viewed in a negative light, the goal of church discipline is always redemptive; the bringing of the wayward sheep back to the fold.  "The focus must always be on restoring the fallen member to a right relationship within the church," writes Ray Penning.  He goes on to say:

Church leaders come alongside the wayward member, teaching, encouraging, helping, and, when necessary, providing discipline. Their intention must always be to restore the relationship. This approach is different than in every other human institution. Other institutions kick members out in order to protect the institution, but the church relies on higher powers to protect her, and protecting her "brand" should never be the first motive. The salvation of the lost is the overriding focus...as the forms in Protestant traditions almost universally speak of the intention that the offending brother "be brought to repentance and recovered to the will of the Lord.[7]

The practice of church discipline is a gift of God's grace for the good of the church, the sanctifying of its members, and the glory of God. Not only does the practice guard against sin and evil that seek to tarnish the church's witness and destroy those who belong to her, but it also helps to train God's people to live as obedient citizens of the Kingdom of God in a world that rejects Him and His authority.  

So where do we go from here?  We must reform our understanding of authority, recognize the loving, gracious nature of discipline, and seek to practice it both personally and communally.**  Practicing church discipline can be difficult, messy, and painful, yet, it is vital for guarding the flock and to seeing renewal in the church in the 21st Century.   

 

 

 

*Not only does it lead to apathy towards holy living and the introduction of false teaching into the church, but, when combined with the consumer mentality, this leads to people leaving and hopping churches at the first sign of disagreement and/or discipline.  

** One of the questions that may arise is what warrants church discipline? Bavinck goes into detail on this in the seven features he identifies in the Reformed church's practice of church discipline, explaining that "the reason for discipline is not an assortment of weakness to which believers fall, nor the appalling sins that a Christian government punishes (though the church then follows, its discipline being necessary as well), but the sins that cause offense among the members of the congregation and are not, or only very mildly, punished by the government.[8]" This gives definition without being too specific as to what warrants discipline.  Furthermore, Andrew Kuyvenhoven makes an insightful comment in his Banner article, stating, "These writings [of the catechism] seem to visualize a sinner as one who espouses an unbiblical teaching or lives an immoral life. Occasionally today's elders still have to deal with such a sinner. But most candidates for disciplinary action are the lax and the indifferent.[9]" 

 

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Elizabeth Rapaport (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979), 9.
[2] Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1
[3] Alan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 108. 
[4} Belgic Confession, Article 28
[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 422.
[6] Andrew Kuyvenhoven, "The Teaching of Comfort (87)," The Banner 121.43 (December 1, 1986), 14. 
[7] Ray Penning, "Church Practices and Public Life: The Public Implications of Church Discipline," Comment, August 13, 2012, accessed May 9, 2017 at https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/3402/church-practices-and-public-life-the-public-implications-of-church-discipline/. 
[8] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 425.
[9] Kuyvenhoven, "The Teaching of Comfort (87)." 

*Photo Credit: Craig Rogers, "10 Things I've Learned From Lambs," Modern Farmer, December 9, 2013, http://modernfarmer.com/2013/12/10-things-learned-lambs/.  

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Following the Inconspicuous Thread: The Book of Ruth

A message delivered by Tyler Helfers at Trinity Christian Reformed Church on Sunday, April 23, 2017.

Set in the time of the Judges, Ruth seems to just be a story about family, loss, and love. However, as we'll see in our message today, Ruth is a display of human virtue, as well as the providential loving-kindness of our God. In inconspicuous ways (as in the case of Ruth), God continues to advance His plans, and knowing that He is at work (even when we cannot tell) can make all the difference in our efforts to live as faithful witnesses today

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What? (Pt. 2)

This is part two in a series on reformation in the church today. You can find part one here. 

This past Sunday, we were witness to God's gracious working among His people. We (the congregation) watched as He placed the covenant sign on, and sealed his covenant promises unto, our daughter, Karina, in the sacrament of baptism. And, at the same time, we experienced the work of the Spirit in our lives, reminding the church that we exist, apart from any work of our own, as God's covenant people. A people chosen and called by the Father; a people redeemed by Christ and renewed by the Spirit; and a people commissioned and sent out by this Triune God.  As we'll see, a renewed emphasis on this beautiful truth--that we are the covenant community--has significant implications for our worship and discipleship. 

laying the groundwork

A covenant is a "bond-in-blood sovereignly administrated,{1]" or, put another way, a relationship between parties involving promises and responsibilities, blessings and curses. And though there are numerous covenants found in the pages of Scripture, the Bible is unified around a single, progressively unfolding divine covenant (the Covenant of Grace) in which God sovereignly works, establishing the terms, upholding the obligations, and fulfilling His promises to redeem a people, renew all things, and dwell among them. We are a part of this story. The church, from its Old Testament beginnings all the way up to this day, is the recipient of God's promise given in the gospel and the ordinary means of grace (Word, Baptism, Lord's Supper).  

Notice the language I am using: we, the church, us. Everything is framed in terms of the community.  All too often, we fall prey to the wider culture's individualism, emphasizing one's "personal relationship with God," to the detriment of the corporate (and cosmic) scope of God's relation to His creation. As Richard Pratt writes, "As important as individuals are in the Bible, covenant theology highlights our corporate relationship with God...No biblical covenant was made with just one person. [2}"  While we must acknowledge and remember that the promises of God in the gospel extended through the Word and Sacraments must be received individually (by faith), as Reformed Christians, we should emphasize the covenant community in all aspects of our lives. I will highlight just two below:

Worship

Many services give the allusion of community, while in reality, they convey the same sort of individualism that we see at work in the world: a variety of service styles to satisfy everyone's taste; darkly lit auditoriums and brightly lit stages to hide those around you and fix your gaze up front (the emphasis is upon the personal experience of God in the music); overly loud music that drowns out the chorus of the saints; messages that forget to include "we" and "us" and fail to connect with doing life together as the people of God; children who are entirely absent from the service and (though not a part of the service) age-segregated Sunday school and/or small groups. 

A covenant community engages in covenant renewal worship.  The service reminds us that we are in covenant relationship with God, and centers around His meeting with His people to dispense His grace, and the people of God responding in praise, prayer, and action. Covenant renewal worship images the redemptive drama, reminding us, much like the visible signs of the covenant (baptism and the Lord's Supper), of the grace of God in the gospel and our need to confess both our sinfulness and our faith in the finished, satisfactory work of Christ for us. Such worship should take us out of ourselves, and renew and reorient us towards the community, the Triune God, and the work He is doing among us.[3] 

Living into our identity as a covenant community means welcoming and incorporating those most often neglected--the children, singles, handicapped, and elderly--into the service.  Furthermore, those in the covenant community remember that they are in a long line of saints going back to ancient times and seek to integrate the riches of its heritage into the service. An obvious example of this is found in the musical component of worship: we sing from the songbook of the Bible, the Psalter, as well as hymns passed down by departed brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as contemporary songs that convey the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Triune God, His work and His ways in our own day (not falling into the ruts of blind traditionalism or the trends of the day).  

You can begin to see the way an emphasis on being in covenant relationship with God and a covenant community gathered by God shapes public worship both in style and substance. 

Discipleship

Being a part of a covenant community means discipling those who belong to it in the teachings of that community. Psalm 78 declares: 

He [the Lord God] established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.

Out of a perceived "irrelevance", a desire to "innovate", and/or a lack of trust in historic practices, we have largely abandoned catechism, mentorship, and intergenerational fellowship.  Instead, we've resorted to entertainment, morality training, and giving tips for personal piety (prayer and Bible study).  Because of this, many young people fail to see the significance of the church and its teachings, or how to persevere in faithfully following Christ throughout all of life. Renewing an emphasis on being a covenant community means taking up these tools as rich resources for discipleship and spiritual transformation.  

Catechesis is a means of teaching youth the truths of our faith, and ingraining them on their hearts and in their minds so that they bubble up in the time of need. It is a means of connecting them to our historic heritage of faith going back, in our case, to the Reformation. Yet, it is also a means of teaching them the way in which their answers (in word and deed) are "a participation in their vocation as divine imagebearers," reflecting their God to the world around them.[4]

In addition to this, a covenant community recognizes the value of mentorship. In a culture that seemingly despises the elderly, the covenant community embraces the wisdom and experience they can pass on.  Not only that, but a covenant community encourages people to build relationships with those unlike themselves so that they may each be built up into the fullness of Christ. I, a twenty-something, have benefited immensely from conversations and reading the Bible with men who have followed Christ longer that I've been alive. There is a refreshment that can come to weary saints from the excitement of children and new believers. Young parents have as much to gain from the insights of empty-nesters as they do from their peers.  And teens struggling with bullying, peer pressure, sex, and decisions about their future can find comfort and encouragement from college students and young professionals pouring into their lives.   

When we lose sight of the fact that we are a covenant community, we rob ourselves of some of the most powerful resources available to us for our spiritual formation.  We lose sight of the fact that we are in covenant relationship with God in Christ and the way this informs our services of worship. We lose sight of the value of all those who comprise the community and the way in which we were called and gathered to sharpen one another to the glory of God and the good of the church.  And in losing sight of our identity as a covenant people, we distort the witness of the church as an alternative community, a (re)newed community in Christ.  

So, may we seek to renew our emphasis on, and live into our identity as, a covenant community.  

(Next week, we will continue this series, looking at The Gracious Use of Church Discipline

 

 

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 4.  
[2] Richard Pratt Jr., "Reformed Theology Is Covenant Theology," Tabletalk Magazine (June, 2010), accessed May 2, 2017 at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/reformed-theology-covenant-theology/. 
[3} Robert Sherman, Covenant, Community, and the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 84.
[4} Steve Macias, "Becoming Your Catechism," Kuyperian Commentary, January 25, 2017, accessed May 3, 2017 at www.kuyperian.com/becoming-your-catechism/. 

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Reformed and Always Reforming, But Into What?

Church Ceiling

Semper Reformanda. A phrase attributed to the Reformation, generally believed to have arisen in the Twentieth century, and often misused and abused. Rather than being a slogan reminding us that we are always being governed and (re)shaped by a higher authority than ourselves--namely the Word and Spirit of God--it has been turned into a clarion call for novelty, innovation, and the deforming of the church.

In its simplest form, the phrase can be traced back to 1674 to a Dutch pietist, Jodocus van Lodenstein, who lived during what is referred to as the Dutch Second Reformation. This was a time in which Reformed ministers turned their attention not to the external components of the faith, but rather to the internal side of the Christian religion[1]. 

For these ministers, the external components--doctrine, worship, and church government--had been effectively resolved in the Reformation, as leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli pointed the church back to Scripture, and confessional documents were written to summarize its teachings. What was still needed, however, was a reforming of the people's lives by God's Word[2]. Thus, the slogan in its entirety: Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. The church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God.

Today, however, a case could be made that the original intent of this phrase has been lost. Instead of emphasizing the ongoing necessity of internal reformation according to the Word and Spirit, the slogan is employed as the impetus for enacting external changes on the church's doctrine, worship, and government, driven more by personal agendas and cultural cues than by Scripture and our confessions. 

Often, it is said, this is for the sake of contextualization. But as A. Craig Troxel points out: "Our changing world and times demand keen sensitivity if we are to proclaim the Gospel effectively. But it is quite another thing to believe that Christian doctrine should be revised as it navigates the world's numerous changing social and historical settings.[3]"

Reformed and always reforming, but into what? Have the changes that have taken place been driven by the lordship of Christ and authority of Scripture, or by the spirit of our age and an implicit effort to keep up with our culture? In our efforts to be contemporary, relevant, and inclusive, has Reformed Christianity, and in particular, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) to which I belong, lost what it means to be distinctly Reformed? Have we, as James K.A. Smith writes, "settled for generic evangelicalism or bland Protestant liberalism?[4]" And where do we go from here? 

In the spirit of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I wish to humbly submit four areas in which reform according to the Word of God could be well served:

  1. Renewed Emphasis on the Covenantal Community
  2. The Gracious Use of Church Discipline
  3. An Evangelistic Confessionalism
  4. Tempered Cultural Engagement

As we look to the future, how do we envision ourselves being reformed? How will we answer the question: What does it mean to be Reformed? Over the next four weeks, I will take up these four areas of reform, tracing them through Scripture, applying them to our current circumstances, and imagining the possibilities that could come of them for the glory of God, as well as our good and joy.  

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[1] W. Robert Godfrey, "Semper Reformanda in its Historical Context," Tabletalk (November 2014), accessed online April 25, 2017 at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/semper-reformanda/. 

[2] Ibid.
[3] A. Craig Troxel, "Reformanda," Reformation21 (February 2006), accessed April 25, 2017 at http://www.reformation21.org/counterpoints/post-32.php.

[4] James K.A. Smith, "Buried Treasures?" Discipleship in the Present Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College Press, 2013), 19.  

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A Doubleshot of Bavinck(s): A Link to My Kuyperian Commentary Post

Last week, I was given the privilege of being a guest writer for the Kuyperian Commentary. You can find the full post here. Below is an excerpt:

Herman Bavinck.jpg

...At the heart of Herman Bavinck’s theology is the principle that “grace restores nature.” According to Bavinck, the religious antithesis should be between grace and sin, not between grace and nature, as posited by the dualistic approaches of both Roman Catholicism and the Anabaptists. Bavinck writes:

Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle…The re-creation is not a second, new creation. It does not add to existence any new creatures or introduce any new substance into it, but it is truly “re-formation.” In this process the working of grace extends as far as the power of sin.

The implications of this are profound and all encompassing. Not only are fallen human beings reconciled to God and restored to fellowship with Him, but also enabled by the Holy Spirit to once again live out their created purpose (vocation). However, the re-forming effects of grace are also extended to the whole of nature, including the world of culture, society, and politics.d

As it relates to campus ministry, the blessing of this principle is twofold. First, it guards against the twin dangers of separatism and secularism. Much of what is encompassed under the banner of “campus ministry” is nothing more than an Anabaptist separatism that Bavinck describes as “[only] rescuing and snatching of individuals out of the world which lies in wickedness; never a methodical, organic reformation of the whole, of the cosmos, of the nation and country.” Thus, ministries engage primarily in evangelism, Bible study, and providing a sub-culture for Christian students (as opposed to a holistic approach to discipleship and working for reformation of the broader campus culture). On the other hand, the principle thwarts the efforts of secularism to relegate faith in general, and the work of Christ in particular, to private life and the heart. As a result of the way in which God is at work, faith cannot help but find expression in the public square, and do so in ongoing, relevant ways that point to Christ and the Kingdom.

The second blessing of Bavinck’s emphasis upon grace restoring nature is that it provides the foundation for a robust theology of vocation; no sphere of life and no field of study lie outside the scope of grace (or the lordship of Christ, a point on which Bavinck agreed with Kuyper). Therefore, students may faithfully fulfill the work God has called them to, whether it is as an engineer or educator, physicist or farmer, politician or pastor. Additionally, as it pertains to vocation, faculty and staff can be encouraged and empowered as they engage in culture-making on campus through their teaching and research...

Again, for the rest of the article, check out the Kuyperian Commentary here. And while you're there, check out some of their other interesting and thought-provoking work.

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