On March 28, Dr. C. Van Dam gave a speech at an office bearers’ conference in Burlington. The speech dealt with the state of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated), the sister churches of the CanRC. The speech is available online here and is well-worth reading, especially the section beginning on page 12, “What Can We Learn From These Developments?”
Back in the early 1990s, a unique effort was made to address several pressing issues facing Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The issues of concern were primarily egalitarianism (leading to women in ecclesiastical offices) and evolution. This period saw a mass exodus from the Christian Reformed Church over these very issues and ones related to them. From concerned CRC and ex-CRC churches, an organization developed which eventually became known as the Alliance of Reformed Churches. The ARC was approached to convene a series of conferences aimed at developing a confessional approach to the above-mentioned issues of concern. The hope was that confessional documents could be developed which would provide the basis for doctrinal unity between various Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America. The ARC agreed to take this on.
The first Confessional Conference was held in July of 1993. Christian Renewal reported on it in the September 13, 1993 issue. Attendance was not all that impressive. Some of the noteworthy individuals in attendance were Dr. John Byl, Dr. Margaret Helder, and Dr. Nelson Kloosterman. Attendees came from Orthodox Presbyterian, Christian Reformed (and ex-CRC), PCA, Canadian Reformed, and other churches. The 1993 meeting reviewed a document prepared by the organizing committee on hermeneutics. Several speeches were also presented on the subject of creation and evolution. The intention was that a confessional document on creation would be prepared and presented at the next conference in 1994.
I have been unable to find much about the 1994 conference. It was scheduled to be held July 13-16. From this report, it appears that it was held, but the attendance continued to be disappointing. Another conference was supposed to be held in 1995 to discuss ecclesiology, but because of the attendance issue, it was scrapped. One never hears about the Confessional Conferences again.
From one perspective, the Confessional Conferences could be regarded as a failure. However, it was not a waste of time or effort. Today we still have two important documents that came from these conferences. These documents should receive more attention. The first is a Reformed Confession Regarding Hermeneutics. The second is a Reformed Confession Regarding Creation. These are both drafts primarily written by the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are precise and faithful summaries of biblical teaching on these important issues. They feature affirmations of the correct teaching and denials of various false teachings. They are well-worth reading and studying.
Why did the Confessional Conferences fail? Obviously the attendance was an issue, indicating a general lack of interest in North American Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Worse yet, there was especially a lack of interest from the membership of the Alliance of Reformed Churches itself — the very organization which agreed to organize these conferences. Moreover, the ARC was the vehicle engineering the launch of the United Reformed Churches. That took place in 1996. Much time and energy was being directed towards establishing a new federation and, understandably, there seems to have been little appetite for a broader outlook on unity.
Could an idea like this be revived today? For example, could NAPARC be the vehicle to convene a new series of confessional conferences? We have to be realistic. I rather doubt that the appetite would be there any more today than it was in the early 1990s. Just observe that, since then, there have been further developments in various NAPARC churches. For instance, on the issue of creation and evolution, the URCNA took a position at Synod Escondido 2001. The RCUS has also taken a firm position, as have others. While it sounds like a good idea on paper, the reality is that the desire for developing a common confessional approach to these matters is going to be weak. Churches faced with some of these contemporary theological challenges today are going to be best off investing their time and energy with an “in-house” approach.
Some years ago, I sat through a worship service of a neighbouring church that wasn’t Reformed. What struck me most was where the emphasis fell in their worship. The proceeedings began with music. A band was on stage with singers. They sang several praise and worship-type songs. Eventually, the worship leader said, “Now that the worship is over, our pastor is going to come up and give his message.” The “message” was rather anti-climactic following the emotional “worship experience.” The focus at this church seemed clear enough.
One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is the doctrine of the means of grace. This doctrine, when conscientiously maintained, also makes Reformed worship distinctive. You can tell you’re at a Reformed church when the doctrine of the means of grace is taken seriously and applied to the church’s worship. The focus in a Reformed worship service is on the ministry of the Word and sacraments. Let’s look at how these things work as means of grace and why they need to remain our focus.
The first means of grace is the reading and preaching of the Word of God. Scripture is opened, read, and expounded. The law of God is applied to the congregation. The congregation is made aware of its sin and misery. That has the dual purpose of making us humble in the presence of a holy God and then also driving us to the cross of Jesus Christ. This application of the law takes place with the reading of the Ten Commandments, but also through the reading and preaching of other Scriptures. The gospel is also applied to comfort the congregation. God’s people are encouraged with the promises of his love and salvation in Jesus. This takes place in many Reformed churches with the Assurance of Pardon, but then of course also through the reading and proclamation of God’s Word. Finally, the will of God as expressed in his law is also brought to bear on a thankful congregation. We are taught God’s good will for our lives and shown how to demonstrate our love for this gracious God who has so deeply loved us. This too happens through the reading and preaching of Scripture.
Scripture is a means of grace because this is how God plans to bless his people when he meets with them. His intent is to bless them through his Word. Through his Word, the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard. It’s heard as he rebukes, as he comforts, and as he instructs. When done faithfully, we do not not merely hear a human voice when a minister preaches. Faithful preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God — “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as it what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The other means of grace is the administration of the sacraments. Reformed churches administer the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, following the command of Christ and his apostles. Baptism is administered as the sacrament of initiation. Through baptism, we are publicly admitted into God’s covenant and church. Through baptism, we are given the sign and seal of God’s covenant promises. God is demonstrating a gracious stance towards those who receive baptism. However, at each baptism, the entire congregation is encouraged with God’s grace. We are all visually reminded of how our gracious God first approached us and took us for his own. You see, baptism not only speaks to those directly involved in the baptism (the one being baptized, the parents), but the entire congregation!
The Lord’s Supper is administered as the sacrament of nutrition. It is common for many to view the Lord’s Supper merely as a memorial, akin to placing flowers on the grave of a departed loved one. The Reformed view includes a memorial aspect, but it is far richer. At this sacrament, Jesus Christ is truly present in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit. He is present to bless believers who partake of the bread and wine in faith. He will refresh and nourish them, strengthening their faith. Through the Lord’s Supper, we are truly fed by our Saviour himself.
The sacraments are means of grace because this too is how God wants to bless his people as they meet with him. He wants to continue giving them the opposite of what they deserve in view of their continuing sinfulness. He claims these sinful people for his own and he nurtures them with spiritual food and drink. Moreover, our gracious God knows that the Word is often received with weakness. Hearing alone is difficult for us as sinful creatures. So, in his grace, he adds these two multi-sensory sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Now why are these means of grace at the center of a Reformed worship service? Why are these things the focus and emphasis? It goes back to the covenant of grace. The covenant is a relationship between God and his people. Who stands in the center of this relationship? Not me or you. No, Jesus Christ stands in the center as the Mediator of the covenant. He is the one who “greases the wheels” of this relationship. If a worship service is reflective of this covenant relationship, shouldn’t Christ and his ministry stand central? Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ as he ministers to us with the Word and sacraments, as he “greases the wheels”? There is a distinctly Reformed logic to our focus on the means of grace and it has everything to do with the covenant of grace.
Yes, of course, there is still a place for our response in prayer and song. The covenant relationship is two-sided and God expects that his people will respond to him. By virtue of the covenant, there must be a back and forth in our worship services. That’s not an issue. No one has ever said that prayer and song should be done away with in Reformed worship. The question is: where is our focus? What is at the center? What is the main attraction in a Reformed worship service? The distinctly Reformed answer, drawn from Scripture, has always been: the means of grace, Word and sacrament ministry. With an emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry, the means of grace, your worship will be Reformed — which is to say, biblical.
Look at the picture above. What do you see? Some of you will automatically see a beautiful young woman from a different era. Others will see a decrepit old lady. If you look long enough, you will soon see both. This is a powerful illustration of how different people will see the same picture and see different things. Though you see something different from the next person, you’re both right. People can reach different conclusions and no one is wrong. We’re just seeing the same thing from different perspectives. Similarly, people will read the same Bible passage and reach different conclusions. Yet, no one is wrong. Two readers can reach two different conclusions and they can both be right. Just like with the illustration above, parts of the Bible lend themselves to more than one correct conclusion. As we come to see that, we come to embrace one another and live in unity together, not merely tolerating one another, but actually affirming one another.
Really? If you think that Bredenhof has finally come to his senses, you need to read further. If you think that I’m buying into that manner of thinking, I can assure you I’m not.
To begin with, we need to recognize something about that illustration above. It was designed so that people would reach two different conclusions. Whoever created it did so with the intention of portraying both a young woman and an old lady. This illusion was no accident. Because of the intention of the creator, the person who says that it only portrays a young woman is just as wrong as the person who says that it only portrays an old lady. The person who says that it portrays a young woman is just as correct as the person who says that it portrays an old lady, but neither is as correct as the person who says that it portrays both. The intention was to get people to see both.
But what if the person who created a portrait only intended it to be understood one way? What if his intention was to portray one thing and one thing only? Now, what if a vast majority of people had an eye-defect which prevented them from seeing only the one thing that the creator intended to portray? This eye-defect is what creates illusions. But then, further, what if the artist had a pair of corrective lenses that he could give to viewers of his portrait, so that, with these lenses, they see only what he wants them to see? With these corrective lenses, viewers would comprehend the sole correct meaning of the portrait. That changes the situation quite drastically, doesn’t it?
Let’s go to the Bible for an illustration. In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, the apostle Paul writes that the Thessalonian Christians are waiting for the return of Jesus from heaven. He adds that this Jesus is the one whom God raised from the dead: “…whom he raised from the dead…” Now someone might approach that passage and say, “It’s like the illustration of the old lady and the young woman…” To which we must immediately reply, “Oh, you mean the illusion of the old lady and the young woman?” Someone might say, “You could take this literally and say that Paul believes that the heart of Jesus started pumping blood again on Easter Sunday, but you could equally say that Paul is teaching that Jesus came to life again in the hearts of his disciples. Both could be correct.” Really? What this fails to see is that we are not dealing merely with the words of man, but the infallible Word of God. The nature of God must factor into this. The God of truth does not lie or create illusions. The problem is with man. The problem is that we have not only an “eye-defect,” but also a heart-defect. Since we are inclined to hate God, we are inclined also to misread his Word and see what we want to see.
God corrects our heart-defect with his Spirit. His Holy Spirit, who inspired the Word in the first place, gives us the desire to understand God’s Word as he intends it to be understood. God has promised that the Spirit of Truth will lead us to his truth (John 16:13). Therefore, the Christian says, “Father, help me with your Spirit to understand what you mean in your Word. Help me not to see illusions, but the true reality.” This is a prayer that pleases God and will be heard by him.
God answers our prayer and helps us to see the true reality with his “corrective lenses.” His Spirit leads his children to put on these corrective lenses so that our “eye-defect” can be addressed. What are these corrective lenses? It’s the rest of his Word. If we’re looking at 1 Thessalonians 1:10, a faithful Christian is going to go elsewhere in Scripture to help us understand this teaching in the correct way. For example, we go to 1 Corinthians 15. In that passage, the Holy Spirit is adamant that Jesus rose from the dead and this was not felt in the hearts of his followers, but seen with their eyes (1 Cor. 15:3-8). In John’s gospel, the disciples touch Jesus and he eats with them — this did not happen in their hearts. There is only one correct understanding of 1 Thessalonians 1:10 — Jesus physically rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. This was history. This is no illusion. It really happened as plainly described by God in his Word.
There are still difficult passages in Scripture where we struggle to reach the correct conclusion. As a preacher, I have occasionally encountered passages where I have to honestly say, “I’m not sure.” There are some passages where faithful Christians do reach different conclusions, even with the Spirit filling them and leading them to put on the corrective lenses. But that still does not mean that all the different conclusions are equally legitimate. Some are wrong and some are right or some are more wrong and some are more right. Even if we can’t perceive it, this is the way things are. The God of truth is still speaking in this Word and his intention is not to offer illusions to confuse us, but absolute truth to encourage us (John 17:17).
The most important thing to realize is that the Bible is ultimately not a human book. In the final analysis, this is God’s book. Yes, there are 66 books where various human authors were involved, but behind them all was one Author. In every chapter, every verse, even every word, this one Author has his intentions. The unregenerate will not discern those intentions, certainly not with any consistency. Christians can and will. Our calling as Christians is to prayerfully follow the Spirit by putting on the corrective lenses of the Word, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and thereby striving to faithfully discern what our Father intends to say. The inerrant Word must always be our guide, also when it comes to understanding the Word.
“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” Psalm 36:9
Today I’d like to go back again to the archives of Association of Christian Reformed Laymen, published in A Handbook of CRC Issues, 1968-1978. I came across an article written by one of the founding fathers of the United Reformed Churches, Rev. P. Y. De Jong. In this article, he describes how the Free Church of Scotland went from vibrant Reformed faith at its founding in 1843 to widespread theological indifference or liberalism in 1900. De Jong’s conclusion is especially noteworthy for our day:
No church can take out insurance premiums against the rise of false doctrine, paying these once in two or three years and then sitting back with the comfortable thought that all will go well. Unless all professors, ministers, elders, deacons, church school teachers, and members are alert, the devils will slip in their deadly falsehoods in disguise. And usually they will try to make us believe that “these new things” cannot really be so bad as some alarmists are saying.
They have won over many a church and denomination by these tactics.
Do not let it happen to the one to which you belong. The price for yourself, your children, and grandchildren is much too painful to pay.
De Jong was right. He’d read about what happened to the Free Church of Scotland and he experienced what happened in the Christian Reformed Church. There’s a pattern that emerges and, if you’re paying attention, you can learn to discern it.