Category Archives: Confessions

“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation wasn’t only about theology.  It was also, and perhaps most centrally, about doxology.  It was about the right giving of glory, about worship.  That was the central thesis of Carlos Eire’s 1986 book, War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.  It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really drove the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

At the heart of the Reformed drive to purify Christian worship was a principle.  That principle was sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Our worship is to be governed only according to the Word of God.  God alone has the prerogative to determine how we are to worship him and his prerogatives are expressed in the Scriptures.

That key principle found expression in the Reformed confessions.  For instance, article 7 of the Belgic Confession says that Scripture is sufficient for our faith and practice.  Then it adds, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  Later, in article 32, the Confession insists:

We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.  Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the conscience in any way.

Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in QA 96, “We are not to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  That is the most succinct expression of the Reformed principle of worship.  In more recent times, it’s been called the regulative principle of worship.  It’s simply the application of sola Scriptura to worship.

Naturally, there is a background to this in the pre-Reformation church.  In the medieval church, things had been added and subtracted from Christian worship.  This had been done on human authority, without any divine approbation from the Scriptures.  When the Reformation arrived, people again became attuned to the Scriptures and they realized that the church’s worship had become idolatrous.  Worship was in need of renewal according to the Bible.

A noteworthy example of this is found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession.  This article first speaks in general terms about the meaning of Christian baptism.  Baptism has replaced circumcision.  Baptism is the means by which we are “received into the church of God.”  Through baptism we are set apart from the world.  Then the Reformed churches confess this:

For that reason he has commanded all those who are his to be baptized with plain water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Notice especially the mention of “plain water.”  Those two words are pregnant with meaning.

“Plain water” is directed at the ways in which Rome had added to baptism.  In his book Flesh and Spirit, Steven Ozment describes how baptism was administered by Rome around the time of the Reformation:

The traditional service of baptism began with the priest blowing gently under the eyes of the newborn and commanding the devil, “Flee from this child, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  The child then received the mark of the cross on its forehead and chest and a pinch of consecrated salt in its mouth, this time accompanied by the words, “Take the salt of [divine] wisdom, and may it atone for you in eternity.”  Thereafter, the priest imitated Christ’s healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:33-34) and a blind man (John 9:6) by dabbing a mixture of his own sputum and dirt in the child’s nose and ears, while pronouncing a double command, the first for the child, the second for the devil:  “[Dear child] receive the sweetness [of God]…devil, flee, for the judgment of God is near.”  The priest then anointed the child’s chest and shoulders with olive oil and placed a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam — the holy chrism — on the crown of its head.  The final acts of the service belonged to the godparent, who took the naked, baptized child from the priest and clothed it in the traditional white shirt or gown (the Wester, Alba, or Westerhemd) — symbols of purity and acceptance into the body Christian– which the godparent provided for the occasion.  The godparent then named the child, often after the godparent.  The service concluded with the placement of a candle in the combined hands of the child and parent(s), who were exhorted to “receive the ardent and blameless Light [of God].”  (page 78)

That was a long, complicated description, wasn’t it?  And how much of it is commanded in Scripture?  You can see why the Belgic Confession says so much with two words about baptism:  “plain water.”  That’s how Christ commanded baptism to be done, so that’s how we do baptism.  It’s simple and biblical.

With 500 years since the Reformation, is this Reformed principle of worship still relevant?  Look around.  You’ll see Protestant churches that add and take away from Christ’s commands for worship here, there, and everywhere.  Sadly, there are churches where there is no biblical preaching to speak of.  There are churches which neglect the sacraments.  There are churches which substitute dramatic productions (on the stage or on the screen) for preaching.  In some “Presbyterian” churches, they’ve at times added liturgical dancing.   There have even  been “Reformed” churches where they decided to preach on The Simpsons rather than the Word of God.  It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened!  For this reason, we need to learn again from the Reformation about worship.  We need to go back to the faithful summary of Scripture in our Reformed confessions.  When we do that, we will worship God only as he commands in his Word — no additions or subtractions.


Laying On of Hands Revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the Belgic Confession article 31 and what it used to say about the laying on of hands.  You can find it here.  I noted that the Confession, in its earliest editions, said that not only ministers, but also elders and deacons should be ordained with the laying on of hands.  However, this was dropped at some point, and today’s Belgic Confession editions don’t include that.  At the time, I posited that perhaps the change was made with the revision of the Confession at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.

I had opportunity to revisit this question today.  I was reading Calvin’s Institutes and in 4.3.16 he also says that all office bearers should be ordained with the laying on of hands.  That got me to thinking about the Belgic Confession again.

I went over to the Post-Reformation Digital Library to see if they might now have a link to a 1566 edition of the BC and — jackpot!  They’ve got it.  You can find it here.  Here’s what I found when I looked at article 31:

For those who don’t understand French, there’s no mention here of the laying on of hands.  This means that, yes, the mention of this was dropped early on — at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.  It’s also another reminder that the Belgic Confession we have today is not entirely the Belgic Confession written by Guido de Brès in 1561.


Do We Have Free Will?

There is an assumption amongst some Reformed people that free will is a completely unbiblical concept.  This may be owing to the fact that often we only hear about free will in the context of Arminianism.  The Arminians, we’re told, believed in free will and so denied God his full credit for our salvation.  On the flip side, the popular belief with some is that Reformed theology denies there is any free will.  In the popular mind, free will is therefore a bad thing.  This is a far too simplistic approach to the matter.  If we dig a little deeper and think a little more, we’ll soon discover that there is a place for free will in Reformed theology.

We need to begin with a definition and an important distinction.

I’m using the term free will in the sense of humans being able freely to make choices in life.  When I say “freely,” I mean “without outside compulsion.”  These free choices always entail full moral responsibility for the one who makes them.  If these choices were not free, you could not be fully responsible for them.

The important distinction is a four-fold one about human nature.  In Reformed theology, we distinguish between human nature in four states.  In each of these four states, there is something we need to say about our ability to sin.

First, there is our original condition as created by God.  Adam and Eve were created upright (Gen. 1:31).  They were also endowed with free will — they were able freely to make choices.  They would be morally responsible for whatever choices they made (Gen. 2:16-17).  In their original condition, in true righteousness and holiness, Reformed theologians say that they were created able not to sin.  Before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose not to sin.  But if they did choose to sin, they would be held fully responsible for it.

Second, there is the human condition after the fall into sin.  After Adam and Eve misused their free will, corruption has spread to the entire human race (Gen. 6:5).  We are all fallen.  In our fallen, unregenerated condition, we are not able not to sin.  Unregenerated human beings still have a free will, but they can only use it in a sinful way (Jer. 13:23).  As free will is exercised in that fallen human nature, there continues to be full moral responsibility (Acts 3:14-15).

Third, there is the human condition after regeneration.  When the Holy Spirit causes someone to be born again, he creates a massive change which includes our will and our ability with regard to sinful choices.  We are now new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  In our regenerated state, we are again restored to being able not to sin.  This is what the Heidelberg Catechism is getting at in QA 8, “Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  A. Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  Note well:  if we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then we are able again to begin doing good.  We are free to make good and God-pleasing choices.

Fourth, there is the glorified human state.  After we die, or when Christ returns, we will be perfected (1 John 3:2).  We will not only be sinless, but incapable of sinning.  In our glorified condition, we are even better off than Adam and Eve, for we will not be able to sin.  Our wills will still be free, but we will use our freedom to consistently glorify God.

To summarize:

  • Original state:  able not to sin
  • Fallen state:  not able not to sin
  • Regenerated state:  able to sin or not to sin
  • Glorified state:  not able to sin

Taking all that together, we can speak about free will in this way:  human beings are free to do what is according to their nature.  There is free will, but it is always in the context of one of those four human conditions.  For us as we live on this earth now, it is always in the context of the two middle conditions.  If you are not born again by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your sinful human nature.  Your free choices, for which you are responsible, are always reflective of your spiritual state as a fallen human being.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your restored human nature.  You can and do still sin (though you shouldn’t), but you can also say “no” to sin in growing measures (Gal. 5:16 and Titus 2:11-12).

So, where did the Arminians go wrong then?  They didn’t go wrong in speaking about free will as such.  Reformed theology does too — see the Westminster Confession 3.1 or chapter 9 of the Second Helvetic Confession.  The Arminians went wrong in how they view humanity in the fallen state.  They argued that, because of God’s prevenient grace (a grace which comes before salvation), all fallen human beings are able to use their free will to have faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, they credited all fallen people with the ability to do what Reformed theology claims is only possible for the regenerated.  So, in the Arminian view, non-Christians are free to do what Christians are free to do:  believe in the Saviour.  That’s the problem.  That view runs up against Ephesians 2:1 (and other passages) which maintain that unregenerated people are dead in sin.  If you’re dead in sin, you don’t move towards God — you can’t.

Another question people will sometimes raise:  if there’s human free will, then what about God’s sovereignty?  How can we speak about human beings as free moral agents when the Bible teaches that God is in control of everything?  The short answer is that the Bible teaches both human responsibility and divine sovereignty, without directly laying out how these two fit together.  I think the best expression of this is found in Westminster Confession 3.1:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

What this means is that God is completely in control of the universe, yet creatures still have a will, and these two truths are not in conflict with one another.

Last of all, what about article 14 of the Belgic Confession?  It says:

Therefore we reject all teaching contrary to this concerning the free will of man, since man is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (John 3:27).

The Belgic Confession does not deny that human beings can and do make choices for which they are morally responsible.  The Confession’s argument is here directed against Roman Catholicism which, like Arminianism later on, runs into trouble on the question of the ability of fallen human beings to choose what is right and pleasing to God.  Rome said that fallen man is not dead in sin, but merely injured and in need of some help.  In spite of the injury, fallen man can use his free will to choose what is good.  So, again, the problem is not free will as such, but how it’s understood.

It’s important to understand these things properly because moral responsibility is at stake.  If human beings have no free will, then we cannot be held accountable for the wrong choices we make.  If human beings have no free will, then you can point your finger at God and say, “It’s his fault.  I’m just a robot and he’s at the controls.”  As it is, the Bible is clear that we are fully responsible for our sinful choices.  And, further, as Christians we need not be fatalistic about our sanctification either (“Nothing will ever change!”).  No, our wills have been transformed so that we are free to follow God.  If you have a choice between sinning and not sinning, by God’s grace you can make the choice to not sin.  The Holy Spirit has given you that ability.  Through him, your will is already free and someday it will be fully free!


Are All Sins Equal?

At the moment, we are in the throes of a debate about marriage here in Australia.  I’ve been through that debate already once in Canada and I’ve observed it take place in the United States as well.  So this feels like my third time around.  Each time I’ve noticed that Christians sometimes soft pedal the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality by arguing that all sins are the same.  In other words, my extra-marital heterosexual lust is no less a sin than the gay person’s homosexual lust.  Sin is sin and it is all equally wicked.

In a sense this is true.  It’s true in the sense of every sin being equally deserving of God’s wrath.  What to us is a small trifling sin is in the eyes of God a tremendous offense.  This is directly related to the holy majesty of the one sinned against.  If you sin even slightly against infinitely holy majesty, you incur an infinite debt.  But this line of discussion can’t go very far since, in the nature of the case, we’re not just slight sinners — see Romans 3:10-18.

As true as it is that every sin equally deserves God’s wrath, it is equally true that Scripture teaches that some sins are worse than others in God’s sight.  This is immediately evident from the Old Testament law.  Some sins, like blasphemy, were punishable with death, whereas others received lighter penalties.  In Ezekiel 8:6, God points out to Ezekiel the great idolatrous abominations in Jerusalem.  Then he says, “But you will see still greater abominations.”  There are great abominations, and then there are greater abominations.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism captures the biblical teaching on this in QA 83:

Q.  Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

A.  Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Westminster Larger Catechism in QA 151 expands on this and explains what the aggravations are.  They fall under four broad categories:  from the persons offending, from the parties offended, from the nature and quality of the offence, and from circumstances of time and place.  So, if you’re an older Christian who should know better or an office bearer, your sin carries more weight.  If your sin was against a weaker brother, your sin is worse.  If you broke several commandments in one go, that’s to be regarded as more heinous.  If your sin was committed publicly, that’s worse than if it was committed privately.

As a quick aside, you might be wondering whether this is touched on in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Well, it is, but just not directly.  Some sins being worse than others is implied in Lord’s Day 36 on the third commandment.  We confess that “no sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the blaspheming of his name.  That is why he commanded it to be punished with death.”  So, blasphemy is worse than, say, adultery or false witness.  Some sins are worse than others.

There is no doubt that Scripture describes homosexual lusts and behaviour as abominable (Lev. 20:13).  The Bible uses strong language about these sins to impress upon us how God regards these things as completely contrary to his design for the human race.  While heterosexual extra- and non-marital lusts and behaviours are sinful, they retain something of what is natural in that they involve the opposite sex.  Homosexual lusts and behaviour are worse because they bring in the additional element of overturning what the Creator God designed to be natural.  This is what the Bible is saying in Romans 1:26-27 — it speaks of trading in natural relations for unnatural.

However, when we speak about sins in terms of their heinousness, we ought always to remember that there is, in Scripture, a sin that is even worse than a homosexual lifestyle.  As Greg Bahnsen once described it, “there is a sin worse than sodomy” in the Bible.  It’s found in Matthew 10.  Jesus sent out his apostles to preach and teach amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — God’s covenant people.  While they did that, the possibility was there that they would meet with unbelief.  In such a case, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left that town — signifying that these people are unclean.  Then Jesus adds in verse 15, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”  Sodom and Gomorrah were notorious for their sexual immorality and “unnatural desire” (Jude 7).  Christ was saying that there is something far worse than what Sodom and Gomorrah did:  to be a child of the covenant and to reject the Saviour.  To have God call you his own, for him to send you the Saviour with the glad tidings of the gospel, and for you to reject him — that is something God calls worse than homosexuality.  It’s a warning to people in the church today.

Realize this:  we all have sins great and small sinking us into the depths.  Yet, no matter what our sins are, there is a Saviour whose atoning work is sufficient to wipe it all out.  The saving work of Jesus is there for all who feel the weight of their sin and long for that burden to be lifted.  Even as we speak about some sins which are more heinous than others, let’s also always speak about the grace which is super-abounding in Jesus Christ.

 


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.