Category Archives: Confessions

Pastoral Q & A: Early Infant Loss and Salvation

One of my congregation members submitted this question:

What happens to miscarried babies/stillborns or little children that die too young to profess their faith?

The question has to do with Christians and early infant loss.  This something many of us (including my wife and I) have experienced.  Many of us have lost covenant children before they ever took a breath outside the womb.  Some of us have lost covenant children after they were born, too.  All these losses are painful.  When you have a child in the womb, or a newborn in the crib, you have hopes and dreams for him or her.  An early infant loss is often difficult, both for mothers and fathers.
        What happens to the souls of these babies?  What will happen to them at the resurrection when Christ returns?  Christians ought to remember that God has a covenant of grace with them — this covenant includes our children.  The Holy Spirit says in 1 Cor. 7:14 that the child of even just one believing spouse is holy.  That is covenantal language (cf. Deut. 7:6).  When such children are taken out of this world in their infancy, Christian parents need not doubt their final destiny.  We ought not to doubt their election and salvation.  In fact, we can and should be confident like David in 2 Samuel 12.  When the little child died who had been conceived in that adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, David expressed his confidence that this child went to be with God.  He said in 2 Samuel 12:23, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”  David was sure that when he died, he would be reunited with his son.  That solid confidence comes from the covenant of grace that God makes with believers and their children.
          The Canons of Dort speak to the issue as well.  This is what Reformed churches confess from the Scriptures:
We must judge concerning the will of God from his Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents.  Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy. (Canons of Dort 1.17)
To be clear, we do not teach that salvation is an automatic thing for all the children of believers.  Under normal circumstances, a covenant child grows up and reaches an age of accountability (which varies from child to child).  They then become responsible for believing God’s gospel promises for themselves and, if they do not, they will face God’s covenant judgment.  Canons 1.17 is speaking about the (for us) exceptional circumstance where a child does not grow up and is never faced with the personal responsibility to repent and believe.  In that circumstance, because of God’s covenant mercies, we believe that the faith of the parents covers for the child.
          What a comfort that gives us when we face the tragedy of early infant loss!  Our children belong to God and if they are called out of this life in their infancy, in his grace he takes them home to himself.  That little child you lost is now in the presence of God, praising him with his angels and waiting for the day of the resurrection.  When Christ returns, that child will be raised perfect and glorified, to spend eternity in the new heavens and new earth.  God took your child directly to himself, sparing him or her from having to bear the brokenness of this world under the curse.  It was a loss to you and it hurts.  Death is an enemy and it does not belong in this world.  Yet here too we can say that Christ has conquered death and removed its sting.  We can and will grieve, but we ought not to grieve as those who have no hope.  Our hope is in God and in his gospel promises for us and our children.
        Recommended readingLittle One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, Glenda Mathes, Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2012.

Women in Office = False Church?

It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office.  I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there.  That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church?  That question needs to be answered carefully.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches.  Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it.  That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years.  A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.

I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia.  This would have been in the early 2000s.  Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as:  do you now view the CRC as a false church?  No URC person would say that.  It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church.  At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.

I think I can see why they said that.  Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church.  Let me explain.

Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church.  Let’s use that as our starting point.  What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?

  • It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
  • It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
  • It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
  • It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
  • It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five.  Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false.  In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church?  Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too.  However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom).  A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.

But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true.  Let’s review the marks of a true church:

  • It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
  • It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
  • It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?

“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general.  I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29.  I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.”  Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.

What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”?  Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them?  Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration?  We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.

Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true.  When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures.  When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place.  But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears.  So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.

All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office.  The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ.  This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.

That still leaves the question hanging:  if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what?  It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:  the sect.  The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either.  In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands.  Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists.  He never calls their groups “false churches.”  Instead, consistently, he calls them sects.  If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all.  I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word.  I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN.  I don’t want to see them become a sect.  I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches.  We must keep praying!


Absurdity

Can we pray to Jesus?  This is a question that I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay.  It’s a question that I have to keep coming back to, because the answer sometimes given to that question is not only wrong, but harmful.  Some say that since Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer for us to pray to the Father, we must therefore only pray to the first Person of the Trinity.  The Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father,” and therefore we may not pray to Jesus.  Case closed.

However, if such voices are wrong, they fly against what we confess in article 32 of the Belgic Confession.  There we confess that we must not deviate from what Christ has commanded for worship.  Then read this carefully: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  So, if someone says that we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says that we are allowed to pray to Jesus, that person is introducing a human law which illicitly binds and compels our consciences.  There is a lot at stake here.

There are several ways I could address this question.  I could point out the proper explanation of “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (see here).  I could mention the explicit biblical passages where prayer to Jesus is not only observed, but even invited (John 14:14, Acts 7:59, 1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20).  I could discuss again how the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, answered this question using an essential theological distinction.  I could point out the practice of the early church with church fathers such as Augustine, the practice of the medieval church with Anselm of Canterbury, the practice of the Reformation church with William Farel, or the post-Reformation church with Thomas Watson.  We could note that the Athanasian Creed speaks of worshipping the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, noting how this has been understood throughout the history of the church.  We could note the prayer-like hymns we sing which address Jesus — and to which most people don’t give a second thought.  There are all these different ways of going at this issue.

However, today I want to take an approach I haven’t taken before.  It came to me while I was recently teaching a marriage preparation class for a couple in my church.  We were discussing healthy communication in marriage.  I pointed out what Scripture says in Ephesians 5, where the Holy Spirit draws a parallel between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church.  The thing that stood out to me is that Christ is clearly said to have a relationship with his church.  That relationship is spoken of in marital terms.  How absurd it would be for a human marriage to see one spouse being forbidden to speak with the other!  Imagine a human marriage where the husband can speak to the wife, but the wife is not allowed to answer and communicate with her husband.  Yet that’s what we’re left with when we’re told that the church of Jesus Christ may not pray to him.  We have a relationship where the communication can only go one way.  What healthy relationship only has one-way communication?  We realize that healthy relationships see communication going both ways.  If the church really does have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that relationship parallels human marriage, shouldn’t it be expected that the church would pray to Jesus?

As mentioned above, it is not only wrong to conclude otherwise, it is also harmful.  Think about it.  If we cannot communicate with him, how can we really have a relationship with him?  How can we live in union with someone with whom we’re not even allowed to speak?  How can we avoid the danger of turning the person of our beloved Saviour into a theological concept to be analyzed or argued rather than someone to be loved and cherished?  I posit that the challenge of real spiritual vitality goes up exponentially in Reformed communities where they are taught (and then believe) that they may not pray to Jesus.

So, yes, I do pray to my Lord Jesus from time to time.  I don’t pray to him all the time.  Most of the time I pray to the Triune God as my Father.  But I’m taught in Scripture that prayer to my Saviour is also appropriate at times.  I may pray to him in my personal prayers.  I may sometimes also address him when I lead congregational prayer — this is especially if a sermon has been on a text explicitly unfolding some aspect of his person or work (as an example, see the prayer at the end of this sermon).  Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit allows me this privilege of being in a relationship with the Son of God where I may freely speak with him.  He allows you that privilege too and don’t let anyone take that away from you.  Don’t let your conscience be bound by human laws.


Predestination in Mission

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For Reformed people who care about sharing the gospel (which should be all of us!), it is probably a given that election/predestination is not something we incorporate into our gospel message.  We do not go around telling unbelievers about the doctrine of unconditional election.  Instead, we generally recognize that this doctrine is revealed in Scripture for the comfort and edification of believers.  The common way of thinking is that this doctrine is for those already in the church, not for those we are trying to draw into the church.

That way of thinking can be partially credited to 1.14 of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons of Dort say that the doctrine of divine election “should be taught in the church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place…”  For a long time, I have understood this to mean that election/predestination would never have a real place in our missionary message.  By “missionary message,” I mean everything connected to the good news as we communicate it to the unregenerated.

My thinking on this has been upended by Tim Keller.  In his book Center Church, he stirs up a lot of thought in the area of contextualization (see here for some of my work in this area).  This has to do with the communication of the gospel in cross-cultural ministry.  In chapter 10, he discusses “active contextualization”:  entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners.

When it comes to challenging and confronting the culture, Keller relates a discussion he once had with a Presbyterian missionary to Korea.  This missionary was working amongst Korean prostitutes and was not connecting with them.  He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners.  Nothing he said engaged them.  He decided to try something radically different.  He would begin with the doctrine of predestination.  Keller rightly notes that this doctrine is a challenging one for Western hearts and minds.  Westerners value democratic and egalitarian notions.  Many in the West do not want to hear about a sovereign God who chooses some and passes by others.  But what is true for Westerners is not necessarily true for Asian prostitutes in the mid-twentieth century.  Keller writes:

So he told the prostitutes about a God who is a King.  Kings, he said, have a sovereign right to act as they saw fit.  They rule — that’s just what kings do.  And this great divine King chooses to select people out of the human race to serve him, simply because it is his sovereign will to do so.  Therefore, his people are saved because of his royal will, not because of the quality of their lives or anything they have done.

This made sense to the women.  They had no problem with the idea of authority figures acting in this way — it seemed natural and right to them.  But this also meant that when people were saved, it was not because of pedigree or effort, but because of the will of God (cf. John 1:13).  Their acceptance of this belief opened up the possibility of understanding and accepting the belief in salvation by grace.  They asked my missionary friend a question that a non-Christian in the West would never ask:  “How can I know if I am chosen?”  He answered that if as they heard the gospel they wanted to accept and believe it, this was a sign that the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts and that God was seeking them.  And some of them responded. (Center Church, 126)

So there are times, places, and cultures where it might be effective to use the doctrine of predestination as a missionary starting point.  It’s not that this doctrine is the complete message.  Rather, it’s a starting point to bring unbelievers onward to the full gospel of salvation in Christ.

But then what about the Canons of Dort?  Does this approach contradict 1.14?  No, it doesn’t, because 1.14 doesn’t say that this doctrine should only be taught in the church and that it may never be used elsewhere.  There’s indeed room in the Canons for a wise and creative adaptation of this doctrine to the missionary calling of the church.  Because of the pervasive influence of Western culture, perhaps the contexts where this could be done are increasingly few and far between, but missionaries should definitely be open-minded to the possibility that this Presbyterian missionary’s approach could work elsewhere.


Personal Responsibility

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Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian?  Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make.  Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance.  They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty.  After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way.  Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes.  In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60).  Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84).  Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.”  How can that be Reformed?

Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises?  Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty?  Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes?  These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.

One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio).  Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases.  Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.

A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title).  Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular:  Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.  Writes Strauss:

Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives.  With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized.  In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him!  Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)

Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history.  God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.

There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching.  Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people.  Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism.  Strauss elaborates:

…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility.  This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].”  Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)

Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility.  In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.

What about baptism?  Where does that fit in here?  Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally:  if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29).  However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses.  Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability.  Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:

…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security.  People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise.  The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…

This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant.  When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings.  As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.”  (Always Obedient, 30-31)

The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking.  Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.

So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility?  If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder.  Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that.  Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace.  This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view.  Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election.  Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend.  Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere.  That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace.  In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.