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Reformation Sunday (Morning Sermon)

Continuing the series on the story of the Bible, Tyler Helfers examines the rebuilding work of Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem, relating it to the Reformation, and the ways both of these stories in history point to the ongoing work of God to bring spiritual renewal and build his Kingdom. In the end, we are left with the question: How is God at work today, in and through Trinity CRC (and other local churches), to further His work in Ames, and around the world?

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Recovering The Priesthood of Believers

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"This word, priest, should become as common as the word Christian."[1]

This quotation, taken from Martin Luther's collected writings and sermons on 1 Peter, gives us a window into the Reformer's perspective on this oft-neglected Reformation concept. For Luther, all Christians are priests. In fact, all who have been united to Christ are called to a priesthood rooted in the church and situated between God an the world; a priesthood arising out of 1 Peter 2 that must be recovered for continued Christian witness in our increasingly diverse, biblically illiterate, post-Christian Western culture. 

Examining 1 Peter 2

The Church: Spiritual Household of a Holy Priesthood
In 1 Peter 2, the apostle makes two allusions to the Old Testament that would have resonated with the original hearers. The first of these is found in verses 4-5, where he refers to Christ, the living Stone, with whom the believers, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. Peter is drawing on the Temple, which was the house of God, his representative dwelling place among the Israelites. Then, in Christ, the Lord dwelt among his creation as never before: in the form of a man. And now, by virtue of their union with Christ, these believers--and you and me--are dwelling places of God's Spirit. Thus, the church--both the gathered people and space--becomes the spiritual household where God is present  

It is in this context--that of the church--that Peter explains they are to be a holy priesthood. Peter, and Luther for that matter, didn't view the priesthood of believers to be an individualistic thing, but rather something that took place in community. Reformation scholar, Timothy George, explains it this way:

For Luther, the priesthood of all believers did not mean, "I am my own priest." It meant rather: In the community of saints, God has so tempered the body that we are all priests to each other. We stand before God and intercede for one another, we proclaim God's Word to one another and we celebrate God's presence among us in worship, praise and fellowship.[2]

So the focus is on our offering ourselves up on behalf of one another for the building up of Christ's body, each individual part. 

Another way I've often heard it put is that the church is to be an embassy of the kingdom. What does an embassy do? It serves the people of that country in a foreign land. Thus, the church is to be a place where weary Christians and struggling saints can take refuge in the midst of a troubled world; a place that attracts the lost and the lonely, the poor and needy, the despised and rejected. The church is to be a place, and a gathering of people, of the Kingdom who extend the grace of God in word and deed to one another.

This means, as Christians, we have an obligation to one another as members of the church. We are to be priests standing before God and interceding for one another (prayer); speaking and performing God's Word into one another's lives (discipleship); and intentionally gather to praise the Lord and celebrate His grace as a community (worship). When it comes to the church, we must move beyond a consumer mentality to one of sacrificial giving, and view her not as a voluntary association of people with similar interests (not to mention socio-economic levels or ethnic background), but rather, a divinely gathered people called to do life together. 

Such a view has a significant impact on what shape Christian education takes, what resources we avail ourselves of, and how we teach and train up the next generation of the church to live as faithful followers of Christ on mission with God. 

The World: The Scope of Our Priesthood
However, there is another facet to the calling to be a priesthood. Once again, Peter employs language that would have been familiar to his audience: that of Exodus 19, in which God tells Moses that Israel will be his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. 

Israel, as a people, was to serve as a priesthood on behalf of the world. They were to intercede for, and offer themselves in service (both word and deed) to the nations. In this way, they would be a blessing to the world. Yet, throughout the Old Testament, we find Israel turning in on itself, forgetting her God, and forsaking the nations around them. And though there are glimmers of this priestly work found in Elijah and Jonah, the people largely fail in this calling.

However, Jesus Christ, as representative Israel, perfectly fulfills this role of intercession and sacrificial service on behalf of the world. Nowhere is this more clear than in his atoning work on the cross--dying to satisfy the debt of sin and rising from the grave to break the power of death and evil for (ultimately) people from all tribes, tongues and nations. 

Which brings us back to Peter. Having been united to Christ, or as the apostle puts it, built as living stones into him, the church has received this responsibility to universal priesthood on behalf of the world; a responsibility to proclaim to the nations the goodness and grace of our God who delivered us out of darkness and into His wonderful light. 

Another of the Reformers, John Calvin, understood this responsibility in terms of the church's participation in the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. The church, and each member of her, is called to be a representative of Christ in his redemptive mission in the world.[3] In his commentary on Hebrews, Calvin writes this:

All believers...should seek to bring others into the church, strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, stretch forth a hand to the fallen and win over the outsiders.[4]

In both word and deed, every believer is to go forth into the world, exercising their priestly ministry on behalf of their neighbor to the glory of God. We cannot simply sit back in our pews, waiting expectantly for our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, to come into the church, be discipled, and worship the Triune God. Instead, as the State, nationalism, and self increasingly take the place of God in the lives of those around us, we must go to them, declaring the gospel in powerful words of beauty and truth, as well as in redemptive works of love. We must present a compelling, holistic vision of the Kingdom of God and invite those around us to enter in through the only way, Jesus Christ.  

Conclusion

If we are to be reformed and always reforming, we must take seriously this calling to be a holy priesthood. This is a difficult calling; one that stretches us. And, yet, as I look to the future, I am convinced it is the way to seeing the church in the West flourish; creating a theologically-rich, deeply attractive, culturally engaged, redemptive community. Furthermore, we can enter into this difficult duty knowing that:

[Christ] has made us a kingdom of priests
to serve our God,
and we will reign on earth.
God will be all in all,
righteousness and peace will flourish,
everything will be made new,
and every eye will see at last
that our world belongs to God.
Hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Martin Luther, The Epistle of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106.
[2] Timothy George, "The Priesthood of All Believers," First Things, last modified October 31, 2016, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/10/the-priesthood-of-all-believers. 
[3] George, "The Priesthood of All Believers."
[4] John Calvin, Commentaries, Heb. 10:24.
[5] An excerpt from a Contemporary Testimony of the CRCNA, Our World Belongs to God

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My Groaning Spirit: A Poem/Prayer in Light of Sutherland Springs

 Photo Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Photo Credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

O Lord, it's happened again;
an instrument of violence dealing death.
Blood and bodies litter the floors
of that house of worship
twisted into a macabre house of death.
Unimaginable pain and inconsolable grief
replace the hymns of praise and shouts of joy.
And this is not the first time;
no, it is one in a long line
of incidents laying bear the ruptured reality
of this kingdom (world) belonging to you.

Tears run down my face,
shared with my afflicted sisters and brothers in Texas.
This is not the first time, nor do I suspect the last,
when the pain of such loss stings the body of Christ.
How long, O Lord? When will the mourning be turned to laughter?
When will every tear be wiped away?
How long, O Lord? When will your kingdom fully come?
When will your will be done;
evil and chaos crushed by righteousness and peace?

Remind us that these statements are not mere dreams, 
but promised realities proven by the wounded, yet glorified, Christ.
In a world in need of good news,
move us, O Lord, beyond empty platitudes
to act in ways that bring the gospel to bear on the world today. 
And as we do so, following the way of Christ (and cross)
in powerful words and life-loving deeds,
may we continue to pray:
Come, Lord Jesus. Come. 

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A Quote on the Areopagus

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"The gulf separating paganism and Christianity is clear even in Paul's Areopagus address. Paul appears extremely polite and appreciative in his references to Greek philosophy, but toward the end of his discourse he makes reference to 'repentance' and 'judgment,' and these two words place what he first said in a new light. Paul here issued to the proud and the wise a call to repentance. Their profound notions of the deity stand condemned, and their path leads to destruction, for the deity about whom they spoke such exalted things is not the true God who has shown his mercy in Christ Jesus, but is what Calvin referred to as the umbratile numen, the nebulous all-pervading being, fabricated by us to fill the emptiness caused by our unwillingness to recognize the true God."
-J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions

In the absence of the true God, a vacuum is created in which humanity will inevitably make something else to be god. The only question is what that god will be.  At the Areopagus, the philosophers and leaders of the people of Athens exalted gods reflecting their own image; gods emanating the wisdom and pride of the Greeks. The kingdom of humanity.  And yet, Bavinck, by way of Paul, reminds us that such fabricated gods are, instead, foolishness. Further, what they trusted to bring life and flourishing to the world was only another means of death and destruction. 

True wisdom, fullness of life, and human flourishing come through the recognition--not the rejection or fabrication--of the one true God, who, rather than reflecting our image, creates us in his own. The true God who stoops down to reveal himself, in revelation and redemption, extending his mercy and grace to us most clearly in the person and work of Christ. Through Christ, the Kingdom of God breaks into our world in a way unlike any other, renewing hearts and minds to trust and obey the all-wise King, and beginning his work of making all things new. 

Whose vision and kingdom do you carry within you? The human kingdom, whose wisdom is foolishness and whose gods are impotent to bring the flourishing and life for which we yearn (ultimately leaving us disappointed and disillusioned)? Or the Kingdom of God, whose (perceived) foolishness is true wisdom and whose God is not only capable of bringing renewal to all things and everlasting life, but is already doing so in Christ by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.  

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A Staff, A Stick, and A Song: The Marks of the Church

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The theologian A.A. van Ruler often used three words to describe the church's confessions: a staff, a stick, and a song.[1] Using these three images, van Ruler summarized the various functions of the confessions for the life of the church--leading and guiding her, correcting and defending her, and leading her in praise and worship of the Triune God.  

A Staff,
A Stick,
A Song.

I'd like to borrow these three images to unfold the meaning of the marks of the church as articulated in the Belgic Confession.  The true church, as Belgic Confession Article 29 states, can be recognized if: 

The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults..By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church--and no one ought to be separated from it. 

We find in this definition three marks to correspond to the three images given by van Ruler: the staff of the pure preaching of the gospel; the stick of church discipline; and the song of the sacraments.

A Staff

A staff is an object that guides, and that which serves as the guide for, and foundation of, the church and its role in God's mission is the gospel of Christ and the kingdom. The question is: What is the pure preaching of this gospel that guides the true church? At the heart of the pure preaching of the gospel is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, this is only the narrow lens of the good news found in Christ and the kingdom. The wider lens of this good news is that God's plan to redeem and restore all creation from the sinful rebellion of humankind and its effects has powerfully broken into the world in Christ.[2]

Practically, this mark is significant as a guide in that, in the midst of many ideas and various issues that seek to pull the church's focus elsewhere, it keep the church centered on and rooted in what is most important. The church, and the Christian religion, can be about many things, even good things, but apart from this mark, it will fail to live into God's mission and its calling to witness to Christ and the kingdom. Additionally, the inclusion of the phrase "pure preaching" is a reminder that simply having an orthodox understanding of the gospel means nothing if it is not, in fact, proclaimed.  

A Stick

A stick is an apt symbol for church discipline. A stick can be used for defense, to point something out, or to bring correction. Church discipline does all three. First, church discipline defends the truth, as well as the Lord's reputation, and his desire for holiness in the church.[3] Second, it keeps the church, and in particular its teachers and preachers, accountable by pointing out the true doctrine of God's Word in the midst of many false teachings that seek to sneak in. Third, church discipline can do just that--discipline, or correct those who willfully sin or reject the sound doctrine of the church. Central to this use is that it is always intended to be restorative, with the return of the wandering sheep or the prodigal son as the end goal. 

Contemporarily, it seems appropriate to emphasize church discipline, as the practice seems to have gone out of vogue--whether from its misuse, abuse, or the generally negative perception of the word in today's culture--and numerous teachings that contradict the Word and the confession have led people astray, causing division in the church. In the end, the church needs discipline, for the glory of God, the good of the church, and its gospel witness in the world. 

A Song

This leads to the third mark: the pure administration of the sacraments. The confession identifies two sacraments--baptism and the Lord's Supper--as instituted by Christ in Scripture. As with discipline and the preaching of the gospel, the focus of the sacraments is on the plain and authoritative teaching of God's Word. 

The sacraments serve as a song in that they declare and celebrate the work of God in the gospel, and praise his name for his promises, provision, and presence given to us in such visible ways. There is a doxological character to the sacraments, as we receive them from God and, in response, worship him for these gifts of grace that nourish and sustain our faith. Yet, the pure administration of the sacraments are not simply about praise, but also the means of grace necessary for those who are a part of the church to faithfully live as citizens and ambassadors of the kingdom. 

Conclusion

These three marks--the pure preaching of the gospel, the practice of church discipline, and the pure administration of the sacraments--are doctrinal products of their time, but also very practical for our day. They are a staff, a stick, and a song for the church as she seeks to fulfill the mission given her by Christ in the unfolding of God's redemptive plan; for his glory and the good of God's people. 

 

[1] Allan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today: A Fresh Look at the Belgic Confession (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 5-6.
[2] Michael Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 39.
[3] Daniel Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2008), 398. 

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Some Tips: Doctrine, Discipleship, and Bible Reading

Below are two helpful videos from Dr. Michael Horton (J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California) discussing the significance of knowing what you believe and why you believe it, as well as how to read the Bible.

Areopagus, in all our programming and events, seeks to take a similar path, believing that orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) yields doxological living (life of praise/worship). And, in particular, we arrange our Bible studies so that they will encourage students to explore and understand the original meaning of the text before considering its application to their lives and our engagement with the culture. In doing so, we can further insure that we provide an accurate, intelligent, and joyful witness to the gospel of Christ and Kingdom to the world around us. 

Let us know what you thought of the videos (and how they may be helpful for you in your own discipleship) in the comment section below. 

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With Eyes That See, and Hearts of Love: Wisdom on Sharing the Gospel from J.H. Bavinck

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"A congregation is indeed gathered out of the nations, but it is obligated by God to send forth the gospel message to the nations."
-J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions

As a campus minister, I yearn to see students, faculty, and staff come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I desire to see them discover the wonders of God's grace, generally, in the world--from blooming flowers and athletic prowess to exquisite artwork and the intricacies of engineering--and, particularly, in the redemptive work of Christ--His life, death, resurrection and ascension.  I want them to know that the Kingdom of God has broken into this world, and, as a result, they are witnesses and ambassadors of its King, the Lord Jesus Christ, in their given vocations; in all that they say and do--wherever God leads them. 

This is, by no means, a unique desire.  In fact, it is one shared by many ministries on the university campus. While we may approach the kerygmatic task in different ways, we all desire to see the gospel go forth, and disciples made. And beyond the campus, this should be the heart of those who make up our churches. If a passion for proclaiming the gospel--the good news concerning Christ and the Kingdom--in both word and deed is lacking in the local church, serious questions must be asked. As J.H. Bavinck points out in his classic book, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, as a people graciously gathered out of the world by the Triune God, we are obligated to take this message forth to the nations. 

And while churches may do this differently, and (campus) ministries use various approaches[1], there are certain rules that Bavinck identifies that transcend all these differences; rules that we should take heed of today, all these years later, as we continue to walk in obedience to the calling given us by our God and King.

1. We must try to see the person with whom we are dealing. 
Bavinck's first point is that we cannot simply get caught up with the surface details of the person with whom we are dealing; their name, position, and arguments.  We need to remember that the person before us is not simply a man or woman (a family member, foreigner, neighbor, co-worker, friend, etc.), but is also a worshipping being and a bearer of culture[2], which is to say, their life is religiously oriented (it is just a matter of what it is oriented around). Beneath the surface are a complex network of fears, desires, hopes, dreams, worries, and, as Augustine so famously stated, a restlessness that only finds its rest in a right relationship with God. With this in mind, Bavinck reminds us: "Behind all such arguments and deliberations there lies hidden a personal meeting with God. [3]" 

2. The approach must be a meeting filled with love.
Oftentimes, we are guilty of approaching people as projects; simply identifying others as the lostblind, and/or foolish. As a result, our engagement with people regarding the good news of the Christ can be far from caring and compassionate, filled with loving patience and grace. I can recount numerous stories from non-Christians who, having not converted in a short period of time, watched their Christian "friends" disappear (presumably to find the sheep God was calling back to the fold).  Bavinck explains:  

Not until I see all things such as stupidity, primitiveness, and deceit as the elements constituting the structures of their flight from God and responsibility, can I begin to have room for love. For then I realize that apart from God's grace, this same flight from God is also the deepest motive of my own life. I try to flee in an infinitely more subtle manner, but I nevertheless flee, until Christ draws me out of my darkness and opens my eyes. [4]

Bavinck's words are oriented toward native peoples in foreign lands, but the same principle can be applied to our own context. We must remind ourselves that this person is a fellow image-bearer of God--one made in His image--and recognize, via our common guilt before God and equal need for His grace, ourselves in those with whom we engage. Meetings and relationships covered in love, care, and compassion are a crucial supplement to words we speak. Again, Bavinck writes:

Our meeting with others must be marked by a certain calm and patience, if we are to understand a person's manner of life, his basic presuppositions, and his secret defenses. In many instances we will have to take a person seriously, even though we sometimes have a mind to strike him abruptly with the sword of God's Word...Our own desire ought never to hinder our proceeding with caution and concern. [5]

3. It must bear the character of an encounter. 
This is defined by Bavinck as "[Moments that take place] if two people permit the light of God's word to shine over their life." It is a moment of two people standing together before God. To put it another way, this rule pertains to the moment in which a person is ready and willing to hear, and we are faithful and prepared, to share the Word of God concerning Christ and His Kingdom. Such moments can arise in corporate settings, such as a church service or campus meeting, but most often occur in the intimate setting of a one-on-one conversation. And they can occur when we least expect them. I would argue this, of the three rules, is the trickiest to identify, and, at times, can even take place without our knowing it, as God works in and through us, the meeting, or the growing relationship. 

So take these three rules to heart as you engage in the task given us by our Lord Jesus Christ to make known the good news. See the person with whom you are meeting; fill that meeting with love; and submit yourself, the relationship, and your discussion, before the Lord God according to His Word. And may He bless us with an abundance of fruit, joy, and thanksgiving. 

 

[1] Bavinck, drawing on Kraemer, broadly identifies two approaches: the spontaneous and the cautious. The spontaneous would encompass what many campus ministries and church evangelistic programs do, in directly calling people to "give themselves to Christ." The cautious, on the other hand, is a longer, prolonged effort of addressing an individual's questions, defenses, and arguments, culminating with the final step: a call to repentance and faith.

[2] Bavinck, J.H., Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: P&R Publishing Co., 1960), 122.
[3] Bavinck126. 
[4] Bavinck, 127.
[5] Bavinck, 128.

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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)

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[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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