Category Archives: Confessions

We Distinguish: Elements/Circumstances

Many moons ago, in the days of Pine, Lynx and dial-up modems, there was an online discussion group known as Ref-net.  I can’t say I was among the first participants of this e-mail forum, but I’m quite sure I got in while it was still made up mostly of Canadian Reformed university students.  We were exploring what it means to be Reformed Christians in cyberspace.  All sorts of ideas were up for debate, including public worship.

Through the Ref-net I met a friend from South Africa who introduced me to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  Though it was right there in the Three Forms of Unity, I had never really noticed it before.  Its presence is clearest in Heidelberg Catechism Answer 96, “We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  This is one of the rudiments and distinctives of Reformed worship.

I became involved in a number of discussions about Reformed worship on the Ref-net.  These ranged from general wrangling about the RPW as such to specific polemics on applications of the RPW to questions like psalm-singing and “days of commemoration.”  One of the objections I heard to the RPW in general was that it was impractical.  If we’re to worship God only as he has commanded, then where has God commanded us to worship at 9:30 AM?  Why do we sit in pews when God hasn’t commanded that?  In these and many other ways, no Reformed or Presbyterian church really follows the RPW.  To the lurkers it must have appeared as if this objection had just detonated the RPW into oblivion.

However, this gotcha moment didn’t last very long.  It was quickly noted that the RPW comes with an indispensable distinction.  When it comes to public worship, Reformed theologians have often distinguished between elements and circumstances.  Elements are the things God commanded in Scripture for public worship, things like preaching, singing, the reading of Scripture, prayers, etc.  Elements are governed by the RPW.  Circumstances are the incidental things which surround the elements.  Circumstances include things like the time of worship, whether one sits on pews or chairs, what temperature the room will be, and far more.  Circumstances are not governed by commands from the Bible, but by wisdom and discretion informed by the Bible.

It’s true that this distinction doesn’t appear in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Since it was written for children, you shouldn’t expect it to.  But Zacharias Ursinus (the main author of the Catechism) does use this distinction in his theological commentary on the Catechism.  It was also employed by Puritans such as John Owen and Jeremiah Burroughs.  Not surprisingly then, it becomes part of the Reformed confessional heritage in Westminster Confession 1.6, speaking of circumstances in worship “which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”         

The historical pedigree of this distinction is sound, but the most important question is whether it’s biblical.  Certainly in the New Testament we see believers worshipping God in a variety of places – homes, synagogues, and even the temple.  We see believers worshipping God at different times:  evening, late evening, and morning.  This sort of variability observed in Scripture is what undergirds this distinction.  Outside of the elements commanded for worship, God grants liberty to his church to order the circumstances wisely.

This distinction doesn’t instantly solve every question in Reformed worship.  There are disagreements amongst Reformed and Presbyterian liturgists about what constitutes elements and circumstances.  Probably the most well-known example has to do with musical instruments.  Some, such as myself, would contend that musical accompaniment (done judiciously) is circumstantial.  Others would maintain it has the character of an element and, since it is not commanded in the New Testament, it cannot be justified by the RPW.  Note:  both sides fully affirm the RPW.  However, they differ at the application of it, specifically when it comes to defining elements and circumstances.  And no, it’s not a matter of “strict” RPW versus “loose” RPW.  You either hold to the RPW or you don’t. 

While those disagreements can be quite intense at times, we do well to note the broad consensus existing amongst confessionally Reformed churches.  There’s unanimous agreement that things like the time of the worship services and the type of seating are circumstantial.  Whether you worship in a custom-built church building or use a school gymnasium – God-pleasing worship in Spirit and truth can happen regardless.  Conversely, we all agree that what matters are the God-commanded elements.  Without elements like the reading and preaching of Scripture and prayer, you simply don’t have Reformed worship.  You have something less than authentic Christian worship.  Because of our love for the Saviour and what he’s done, we want to follow his Word carefully when it comes to the content of our worship.  But we’ll also be careful about imposing our own opinions where God has granted liberty to be different.

For more on Reformed worship, check out Aiming to Please: a Guide to Reformed Worship.


We Distinguish: Broader/Narrower

It was March of 2001 and I was a newly ordained missionary serving in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  My sending church, the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church, was about 100 km to the south.  For the first couple of years that I served as their missionary, the church was itself vacant.  So, especially in the early days, before we had worship services on the mission field, I preached in Smithers about once a month.  So I found myself preparing my first sermon on the summary of God’s Word in Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Lord’s Day 3 says that “God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness….”  In my sermon, I asked the question whether unregenerate human beings today still bear the image of God.  In other words, are even unbelievers today made in the image of God?  My answer was “No.”  I said, “Of himself, man no longer reflects God’s image.  He rather reflects the image of his new lord and master.”  I wasn’t totally wrong, but I wasn’t totally right either.

In the following years, as I continued my study of Reformed theology, I came to recognize that the answer I gave in that sermon was far too simplistic.  It didn’t tell the whole story.  It didn’t do justice to all the biblical data.  It neglected an important Reformed theological distinction that comes from the biblical data.

Genesis 1 tells us that God created humanity in his image.  Our Catechism defines this in the words of Ephesians 4:24, “in true righteousness and holiness.”  That could give the impression that “true righteousness and holiness” exhaust what it means to be created in God’s image.  However, one must remember that the Heidelberg Catechism was written for children.  It wasn’t written as a textbook for systematic theology.  Like primers do, our Catechism sometimes leaves us short of the full picture. 

To get a fuller picture, we need to account for the other places in Scripture which mention humanity’s creation in the image of God.  There are several that could be mentioned, but the one that most caught my attention was James 3:9, “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” The term “likeness of God” is roughly synonymous with “image of God.”  James is appealing back to Genesis 1:26, 27 to argue that if you curse human beings you are cursing God.  This is not because human beings once bore God’s image, but because they still do right now.  All human beings are image-bearers. 

This parallels Genesis 9:6, another striking passage:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”   There the exact language of Genesis 1 is used to argue that if you kill a human being, you are attacking God.  That’s what makes killing a human being so heinous.  That’s what gives every human life its enormous value and dignity.  It’s because all human beings are image-bearers.

So is the image of God in fallen humanity gone or still present?  To resolve this question, Reformed theologians concluded that Scripture must be speaking of the image of God in two distinct senses.  These two senses were eventually labelled “broader” and “narrower” (though other terms have been used).  Herman Bavinck explains:

…Reformed theologians continued to speak of the image of God in a broader and a narrower sense.  In Holy Scripture they read that man, on the one hand, is still called the image of God after the fall and should be respected as such (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9); and that, on the other hand, he had nevertheless lost the primary content of the image of God (i.e. knowledge, righteousness, and holiness) and only regains these qualities in Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p.550)

So in the broad sense there are, to use the words of Zacharias Ursinus, “remains and sparks” left of the image of God.  According to Ursinus (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp.31-32) these consist of:

  1. “The incorporeal, rational, and immortal substance of the soul, together with its powers…”
  2. “…many notions and conceptions of God, of nature, and of the distinction which exists between things proper and improper…”
  3. “…traces and remains of moral virtues, and some ability of regulating the external deportment of life.”
  4. “The enjoyment of many temporal blessings.”
  5. “A certain dominion over other creatures.”

Now, as stated by Calvin and others, even these “remains and sparks” have been drastically affected by the fall into sin.  Yet, while corrupted, it can still be said that “God’s image has not been totally annihilated and destroyed” (Institutes 1.15.4).  However, after the fall, the narrow sense of the image of God (or the moral/ethical sense) has been completely lost.  It only begins to be recovered in a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now why does all this matter?  First, because this is foundational for a Christian understanding of human worth and dignity.  All human beings have worth and value because there is a sense in which they bear God’s image.  All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity because they’re image-bearers in the broad sense.  From the unborn to the elderly, one and all carry the likeness of their Creator – not in all respects, but those which they do are of enormous value. 

Second, this distinction gives us some direction when it comes to considering the universal love of God.  Like many Reformed folks, I struggled for some years with understanding the love of God for humanity in general.  Can we say that God loves humanity as a whole?  Wolfgang Musculus, a Reformed theologian from the 1500s, said “Yes.”  He said that on account of humanity continuing to bear the image of God in the broader sense.  God loves humanity in general because there he still sees his image.  Similarly, John Calvin wrote this remarkable passage:

All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred.  With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.  But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love.  (Institutes 2.16.3) 

God finds something to love in us by virtue of what remains of his image in us.  God’s love is thus on account of God’s creation.  It all goes back to him.

Come 2006 I was serving my first congregation as a pastor.  I had the opportunity to revise my 2001 sermon on Lord’s Day 3.  I corrected my earlier theological blunders.  As I look at it now, it’s still a flawed sermon in some ways, but at least I was now on the right track concerning the Reformed doctrine of the image of God.  Through this experience God taught me that a preacher has to always keep studying theology.  We can never stop learning – none of us.  Even though we’re created in the image of God (broader), even though we’re being restored to the image of God (narrower) in Christ, we’re still finite creatures whose knowledge and understanding is incomplete.


The First Mark and Mission

1561 Belgic Confession with proof-text referring to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20.

Of the Belgic Confession’s articles on the doctrine of the church, article 29 is probably the most well-known amongst Reformed church members.  It describes the marks of the true and false church.  First among the marks of a true church is “the pure preaching of the gospel.”  What does this mean for mission?  What does this mean for our churches in relation to the lost around us in our own communities?

Historical Background   

In the early 1950s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) was beginning to develop a deeper conviction about its responsibility to spread the gospel at home and overseas.  To be sure, missionary consciousness was part of the CRC’s fabric from its beginning in 1857.  Initially, prayerful and financial support were given to Dutch and South African mission works.  It took some time for the CRC to develop its own missionary efforts.  There were extensive discussions at early CRC Synods about whether mission should be a denominational, classis, or local affair.  Eventually, the CRC settled on a denominational approach to mission.  The CRC Synod of 1880 appointed their first missions committee, then called the “Board of Heathen Missions.” In 1888, the decision was made to begin mission work among the American Indians.  In 1896, the CRC finally began work among the Navajo and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest.

The CRC began overseas work in Nigeria a few decades later.  It was one of the missionaries to Nigeria who really began to stir up discussions about mission in the CRC.  Unfortunately, Rev. Harry Boer would go on to become infamous for his objections to certain points in the Canons of Dort, but for our interests here, we can note his role in stimulating CRC interest in spreading the gospel in the mid-twentieth century.          

In 1952, a Christian Reformed consistory overtured the CRC Synod to “to draw up a creedal statement concerning missions.”  The CRC Synod declined to do so, on the grounds that “The work of Missions is included in the connotation of the first mark of the church, namely ‘the faithful preaching of the Word.'”  This was the earliest rumblings of dissatisfaction in the CRC with the Three Forms of Unity regarding mission — a history that I have traced and evaluated in one of the chapters of For the Cause of the Son of God.  Interestingly, the CRC Synod appealed to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Speaking through its Synod, the CRC in this era considered that the Belgic Confession spoke to the missionary task of the church. 

However, this was not a unanimously held position in the CRC.  Later in 1952, Harry Boer published his response to the Synod’s decision.  He pointed out that the CRC edition of the Belgic Confession then in use did not support the grounds for this decision.  The relevant part of article 29 of that edition reads, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these:  If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein…”  Boer built his case on the word “therein.”  He noted that the earlier Dutch and Latin translations did not have that word.  He did not mention the earliest French editions of 1561/62, but they do not have it either.  While Boer was wrong about the Belgic Confession in many respects, he did get this correct.  There was a problem here with the old CRC edition of the Confession.

When the CRC published a new edition in 1985, this problem was corrected.  The Canadian Reformed Churches also had “therein” in their first English edition.  I suspect that it originally came from the English text adopted by the CRC in 1912.  But when a new edition of the Confession was adopted by the CanRC in 1983, “therein” was gone. 

Several North American Reformed churches continue to use the English text that basically dates back to 1912 and includes “therein” in article 29.  Among these are the Heritage Reformed, the Free Reformed, the Protestant Reformed and the Reformed Church in the United States.  Until this is corrected, Boer’s point sticks among these brethren:  one cannot appeal to the first mark of the true church in article 29 as a place where the Belgic Confession speaks about mission.

Biblical and Reformed = Missional

One might also ask whether it is even biblical to restrict the mark of a true church to what goes on in established congregations in their public worship services.  This is a place where the original 1561 Belgic Confession can help us.  Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, is one of the proof texts for this statement in the original confession as penned by Guido de Brès.  In that passage, our Lord Jesus sends his disciples out to preach, teach, and disciple “all nations.”  Through those disciples, our Lord was also sending out his church of all ages and places.  Clearly the original intent of the Belgic Confession was to include the missionary calling of the church under the first mark.  A church that does not faithfully proclaim the gospel inside and outside its membership has a credibility problem when it comes to being a true church.

The Reformed churches in the days of de Brès understood this well.  Being Reformed meant being outward looking.  It meant looking outwards and seeing the vast numbers of lost people who needed the gospel because they did not have Christ and were heading for hell.  It meant that the pastors were compelled by love to take seriously the charge of Paul to Timothy:  “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5).  And they did. 

But this outward looking orientation indicated by article 29 was not limited to pastors.  Martyrology is a genre of religious literature dedicated to the stories of those who have been martyred for their faith.  The most well-known in English is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  The first Reformed martyrology was written in French by Jean Crespin in 1554.  In that first edition, as well as in subsequent ones, Crespin described not only the martyrdoms of Reformed pastors, but of many Reformed church members.  They were often killed for sharing the biblical gospel with friends and neighbours.  Compelled by love, they could not keep silent.  Among them were believers who had been pastored by de Brès, including at least one entire family, the Ogviers of Lille.

According to our Belgic Confession, the navel-gazing, self-obsessed church places a question mark behind its status as a true church.  The ghetto mentality is not Reformed.  When we’re labelled “the frozen chosen” and we deserve it, we’re not being faithful to either our confessions or Scripture.  Instead, being Reformed means being missional, not only in terms of sending out missionaries to distant lands, but being outward looking and caring about the lost right in front of us who need the gospel.


Can Prophets Be Mimes?

What if I told you Christians don’t have a personal responsibility to spread the gospel?  Amongst most Christians such a statement would be met with a raised eyebrow.  But in my little corner of the Reformed world, there are some who hold to this view.  They argue that God has only called ordained ministers and missionaries to evangelize.  Only a minuscule minority of Reformed Christians have ever held such a view.  Of course, the number of people holding to a position doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true.  It’s of far more significance to examine the faithful summary of Scripture we have in our Reformed confessions.  As we do that, such a view of evangelism becomes demonstrably not Reformed.  This view actually runs contrary to what we confess from the Bible.

I’m not going to exposit everything the Three Forms of Unity contain on this point – readers interested in a more fulsome explanation can see my 2015 book, To Win Our Neighbors for Christ.  I’m just going to focus on the Heidelberg Catechism and specifically Lord’s Day 12, QA 32.  As part of what it means to be a Christian, we hold that it involves as a prophet confessing the name of Christ.  This statement has three important features. 

First, Christian prophets confess the name of Christ, the one whose anointing they share.  Christian prophets are not here confessing the name of God as the Triune God, but specifically the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.  This is important because we are specifically united to Christ – “I am a member of Christ by faith.”  Thus, when considering what our prophetic calling involves, we should first think of what it involved for Christ.  If we refer back to Answer 31, we find that he was anointed “to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”  Christ’s prophetic calling therefore involves revelation about redemption.  That revelation involved his actions, especially on the cross, but also in his healings and miracles.  Yet it was his words which provided the necessary context to interpret all of these actions.  His words revealed how he was working out our redemption.  His actions meant nothing without words.  If we are members of Christ by faith (united to him), doesn’t our prophetic calling reflect his?  Aren’t we called to use words to reveal redemption through what Christ has done?

Second, Christians confessing the name of Christ are prophets.  If we survey prophecy in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we soon discover that prophecy is unimaginable apart from words.  It would be unthinkable to have a mime as a prophet.  All the prophets in Scripture used words.  Yes, sometimes prophets also used symbolic actions.  However, just like with Christ’s prophetic calling, those actions only had their full meaning in connection with the verbal ministry of that prophet.  No prophet in Scripture was called to communicate merely by his actions.  Prophecy always involves words.      

Third, we need to think closely about that key word “confessing.”  In normal English usage, to confess something is to communicate something with words.  If I confess a crime to the police, I’m telling them with my words that I did it.  In the original German of the Catechism, the same holds for the word used there: bekenne.  Of even more significance here is the footnoted reference in our edition to Matthew 10:32, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.”  The Greek word for “acknowledge” there is also sometimes translated as “confess” (e.g. in the NKJV).  Homologeo is a word that involves verbal communication.  Sometimes this word can include actions, but it never excludes words.  Thus, to confess the name of Christ necessarily involves the use of our mouths.

When it comes to the original intent and meaning of the Heidelberg Catechism, we’re helped out by the fact that the main author, Zacharias Ursinus, produced a commentary.  On this particular phrase from Answer 32, Ursinus wrote the following:

The prophetical dignity which is in Christians, is an understanding, acknowledgement and confession of the true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.  Or, our prophetical office is:  1. Rightly to know God and his will.  2.  That everyone in his place and degree profess the same, correctly understood, faithfully, boldly, and constantly, that God may thereby be celebrated, and his truth revealed in its living force and power.  ‘Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).       

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p.179.

Notice how Ursinus speaks of the “true doctrine of God necessary for our salvation.”  You cannot communicate that with a wordless lifestyle.  Clearly the main author of the Catechism believed that being a Christian prophet involves speaking about salvation in Christ to others.

This has also been widely recognized in the Liberated Reformed tradition of which I’m a part.  I would simply refer to Professor Benne Holwerda’s 1942 sermon on Lord’s Day 12, published in volume 1 of De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn.  He first says that he’s not talking about mission or evangelism, by which he means mission or evangelism in an organized ecclesiastical way.  Then he says:    

But now I’m thinking about our regular conversations.  The best evangelism is not a tract or brochure, but daily conversations.  We believe in Christ.  But that means, says the second answer, that through faith we share in his anointing of the Holy One and now know all things [pertaining to salvation].  Therefore whoever speaks, let him speak like the words of God.  Not just if it is convenient, not just if you are doing it deliberately, but let every word you say be a word from God.          

De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn (vol. 1), p.175 (translation mine)

Holwerda was clear that the prophetic calling mentioned in Lord’s Day 12 couldn’t be isolated from words.  It involved “the best evangelism” – using our everyday conversations to speak about the Lord. 

There’s a sense in which we shouldn’t even have to be told of our calling to evangelize.  When you’re a Christian and you know lost people, you care for them, and it should be a natural thing that you think about their eternal destiny and want to tell them about Christ.  It should be the natural outgrowth of our love for people and our love for the Lord.  Yet Scripture still lays out this calling for us – and our confessions reflect it.  Why?  Because even as Christians we’re weak and sinful.  We can be inclined not to love our neighbour and not to think about the eternal destiny of the lost apart from Christ.  When we’re told that we don’t have a personal responsibility for evangelism, all that does is reinforce these sinful and weak remnants of our old nature.  Such an attitude proves right those who say Reformed believers are the “frozen chosen.”  Worst of all, this approach dishonours our Saviour because it gives the impression that the good news about him isn’t worth sharing.  Therefore, it’s not only un-Reformed, it’s un-Christian and ungodly.          


Discern the Doctrine of the Trinity

Athanasius, who warred against Arianism and lent his name to the Athanasian Creed.

How well do you know your Christian truth from error?  Are you able to discern when the theological wool is being pulled over your eyes?  In this series of blog posts, I want to cover some common errors that are easily overlooked.

We’ll start today with the doctrine of the Trinity.  It doesn’t get any more basic than this.  It’s crucially important to follow the biblical teaching regarding God.  Numerous battles have been waged in ages past to get this right.  The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is found in its most precise form in the Athanasian Creed.  There Bible-believing Christians confess that there is one God who eternally exists in three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  To deny this is to deny the Christian faith and to endanger one’s salvation.  A lot is at stake!

When someone is in error regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, that error is labelled as a heresy.  Heresy is serious, soul-endangering error.  When we think of heresies in this area of theology, usually our thoughts go first to Arianism.  Arianism denies that God is triune.  Instead, Jesus is a creature — an exalted, almost god-like creature, but still a creature.  The Holy Spirit is the impersonal power of God.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern-day Arians.  It’s fair to say that we quickly realize this one as a heresy and dismiss it as unbiblical.

The other common error is not so easily detected.  Consider this quote from a church’s statement of faith:

Our God is One, but manifested in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, being coequal.

Or this quote from another church’s statement of faith:

We believe in one God revealed as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Does that sound orthodox to you?  To many people it does.  It looks like all the elements are there.  We have one God, three persons.  We have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It may look orthodox at first glance.  But if you look closer, there’s a hitch.  The hitch is in the words “manifested” and “revealed.”  Those words indicate the presence of heresy.

This is the heresy known as modalism.  Like Arianism, this heresy dates back to the early church.  It’s commonly associated with Sabellius.  Sabellius believed in monotheism (one God), but he also recognized that the Bible spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  How do you reconcile those two truths?  Sabellius taught that God is one, but he manifests or reveals himself at different times in one of three different ways.  Sometimes he manifests himself as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Holy Spirit.  It’s like God has three different masks he wears.  Sabellianism or modalism was recognized in the early church as unbiblical and heretical.  The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons who are the one true God.

Where do you find modalism today?  Mostly in what are called “Oneness Pentecostal” churches.  The churches quoted from above are Oneness Pentecostal.  One of the largest Oneness Pentecostal churches is the United Pentecostal Church.  They’re found globally, in Canada, Australia, and many other places.  The UPC statement of faith says it plainly:

There is one God, who has revealed Himself as our Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is God manifested in flesh. He is both God and man.

Another way of detecting modalism is in the administration of baptism.  Many (but not all) Oneness Pentecostal churches baptize only in the name of Jesus Christ.  They do this because they reckon that baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ is also baptizing in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Orthodox Christianity considers such baptisms to be invalid.

Modern-day modalism testifies to how ancient Christian creeds (and the biblical truths they contain) have been so often forgotten or forsaken.  Those creeds and their formulations came to us via many hard-fought battles.  The church strove to express biblical truth with careful precision.  Today these creeds give us a ready tool to detect unbiblical teaching when it comes to the basics of who God is.  It’s the height of foolishness to think we can do without them.