Tag Archives: Heidelberg Catechism

Clearing the Confusion on Regeneration

With my preconfession students I’ve been surveying what we call the Order of Salvation — theologians usually use the Latin term Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps involved in salvation.  The Reformed Order of Salvation looks like this:

  • Election
  • Effectual Calling
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

I’ve been devoting a class to each of these.  Last week, we looked at the topic of regeneration.  Unfortunately, there’s often a bit of confusion in our Reformed churches on what regeneration involves.  In this post, I briefly want to address that.

It’s always important to begin with a definition.  We are speaking here about regeneration in this basic sense:  God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  A more thorough definition can be found in chapter 3/4 of our Canons of Dort, particularly article 12.  It is the “new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…which God works in us without us.”  It is a “supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious and inexpressible work.”  If we look at Canons 3/4, article 11, we find that this regeneration or conversion is a comprehensive act of God upon the human subject.  It includes the enlightening of the mind, as well as the opening, softening, and circumcising of the heart.  It also instills the will with new qualities, makes it come alive, makes it good, willing, and obedient.  It is a radical change in a person which leads onward to faith and a transformed life.  From all this, it is clear that the church confesses that regeneration is not a process, but an event which takes place logically prior to God bringing a person to saving faith.  After all, “raising from the dead” is not a process.  Either you’re dead or you’re alive.  At one point Christ was dead in the tomb, and the next moment he was raised to life.  The same thing happens in regeneration as described in chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort.

This is precisely the point where confusion often sets in.  We have sometimes been taught that being born again/regenerated/converted is not an event, but an ongoing daily process for believers.  We’ve heard things like, “We must be born again every day.”  Is that wrong?  Is regeneration a process throughout our lives or an event that takes place prior to saving faith?

The misunderstanding partly arises because there is some overlap with the terminology used for our progressive sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification is most definitely an ongoing affair.  We are always works in progress, until the very moment we are called to glory.  Now sometimes our confessions use the terminology of regeneration to describe sanctification.  You could think of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 88:  “What is the true repentance or conversion of man?  It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  Notice the word “conversion,” the same word used in Canons of Dort 3/4, article 11 as a synonym for regeneration.  But in the Catechism it’s being used to describe the process of sanctification.  It’s the same word, but used in a different sense.  Notice how the Canons use “conversion” to describe an event that “God works in us without us.”  However, the Catechism in QA 88 uses “conversion” to describe a process that includes our actions — QA 89 speaks of us hating sin and fleeing it.  We are to apply ourselves to these things and work with God in them.  In other words, we are passive in our regeneration, but active in our sanctification.

But, to be clear, the Catechism also speaks of regeneration as a definite one-time event.  We find that in QA 8, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  There regeneration is viewed in terms of the Order of Salvation — this is regeneration as an event in which we are passive.  That’s evident from the fact that the proof-text for the second part of the answer is from John 3:3-5, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about being born again.  Being born again there is an event — just as you are physically born once from your mother, so the Spirit gives spiritual birth but once as an event.

Perhaps the clearest place in Scripture that speaks of regeneration as an event is 1 Peter 1:23, “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”  “You have been born again” are the key words here.  In Greek, this is written in the perfect tense, which means that the action is completed, but has effects into the present.  Peter’s readers are not being spoken of as being born again as a process day after day, but as people who have had a radical change in them by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

In terms of Reformed theology, nothing I have written above is anything new or innovative.  For centuries, Reformed theologians have properly distinguished regeneration as an initial sovereign act of God which has renewed the mind, will, and heart from sanctification as a continuing action in the life of the Christian.  Understanding the Reformed Order of Salvation helps keep this important distinction clear.


Now Available: To Win Our Neighbors For Christ

To Win Our Neighbors for Christ

Now available from Reformation Heritage Books!

In many modern histories of Christian missions, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century is depicted as a movement lacking missionary zeal. It has virtually become a given that the Reformation was not oriented to the church’s missionary task. In To Win Our Neighbors for Christ, Wes Bredenhof answers these charges, proving that it is a mistake to say the Reformation and the confessional documents it produced have nothing to say about missions. The author demonstrates that the Three Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort — properly understood, have much to offer the study of missions. More importantly, they encourage us to care about a world lost in unbelief, making us more mission-oriented and outward-looking.

Endorsements

“To Win Our Neighbors for Christ is a helpful tool for every Reformed Christian seeking to understand and use our confessions in a missional way. It gives the historical background for each of the three forms of Unity and shows that the original intent of our confessions was indeed to reach the lost with the good news of the gospel. It also shows how we as a church need to have that same desire to clearly articulate these truths to our own generation of souls today.” — Richard Bout, missions coordinator, United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA)

“Full disclosure: Dr. Wes Bredenhof is my family’s enthusiastic pastor, through whom we are fed with pure gospel preaching. His heart pulses with true love for the biblical, Reformed faith and with a deep desire to reach the lost. In this book he shows us that these two things belong together— indeed, that the Reformed confessions themselves encourage mission. I pray that many more believers would see the intricate interconnections of these two pulses, and I’m sure that this book will help them.” — Dr. Theodore Van Raalte, professor of ecclesiology, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

YOU CAN PURCHASE THIS BOOK HERE


Book Review: Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds

9781596384651-Meade-Comforting-hearts-teaching-minds

Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds:  Family Devotions Based on the Heidelberg Catechism, Starr Meade, Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2013.  Paperback, $16.09, 255 pages.

For many Reformed parents, the catechizing of their children begins and ends with catechism classes taught by the church.  This is despite the fact that the third baptismal question is very clear.  Parents first of all promise that they will instruct their children in the “complete doctrine of salvation” as soon as those children are able to understand.  The catechism teaching done by the church is not meant to replace this parental catechism teaching, but to complement or supplement it.  But how do we implement parental catechism instruction in the home?  That’s where a book like this promises to be very helpful.

The same author wrote a similar book based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.   Our family used this book profitably for several years and by the time we were done with it, it was falling apart.  Our experiences with the previous volume led me to have high hopes for this one as a replacement.  After a few months of using it in our family worship, I can report that, overall, it is a worthwhile tool.  However, discernment is needed on some important points.

A week of devotions (Monday-Saturday) is spent on each Lord’s Day of the Catechism.  Occasionally a Lord’s Day will be spread over two weeks.  Each day features a short devotional that can be read in less than five minutes.  The devotionals also include one or more readings from the Bible to show the connection between the Catechism and Scripture.  The devotionals are well-written and often include vivid illustrations.  Most of the teaching given in these devotionals is faithful to the Reformed faith.  While even preschool children can benefit from these devotionals, those benefitting the most will be school age.

Unfortunately, I do have to share two significant criticisms.  I share them in the hope that parents who want to use this book will use it with discernment.  First, parents should be aware that Meade uses the edition of the Heidelberg Catechism adopted by the Christian Reformed Church.  This has a couple of regrettable drawbacks.  First, we want our children to learn the Catechism as adopted by our churches.  This means that parents should keep the Book of Praise at hand and read the Catechism in the Canadian Reformed edition, rather than the text as printed in this book.  The second drawback is more significant.  The CRC edition of the Catechism dropped QA 80 about the Roman Catholic mass.  Meade follows the CRC lead and even states in a footnote, “There has been concern among those who use this catechism that the position of the Roman Catholic Church may not be stated accurately.  Therefore, I have chosen to omit Question 80 altogether” (160).  If Meade had only done some research, she would have discovered that this “concern” was only among some and actually said far more about the CRC than about the Catechism and its portrayal of Rome.  This puts Canadian Reformed parents who use this book in the position of having to teach QA 80 on their own – and they should.

My second criticism has to do with Lord’s Day 27 and infant baptism.  According to the author’s website, she and her husband teach a Sunday School class at a Reformed Baptist church in Arizona.  I would assume that they are also members at this church.  This puts the author in an awkward position when it comes to Lord’s Day 27.  This was not an issue in the previous book on the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which also teaches infant baptism).  It seems to me that the author may have changed her views on this between the two books.  When it comes to Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds, the author is very brief on infant baptism and does not teach it or defend it.  All she does is note that there are differences amongst Christians on this question and encourages families to discuss where they and their church stand on it.  This is not faithful to the intent of the Catechism.  The Catechism was written to teach the Reformed faith and that faith includes the truth that the children of believers belong to God’s covenant and therefore should receive holy baptism.  This is the whole point of QA 74!  Unfortunately, Meade’s Baptist bias comes out elsewhere in her treatment of the sacraments as well.  For instance, in the Friday devotion on Lord’s Day 25, she writes, “Baptism is a sign used once, when we first come to Christ.”  While baptism certainly is a sign to be used only once, there’s no recognition that it’s to be used when Christ first comes to us – and that could be (and often is) as a little covenant baby.  Reformed parents who use this book will have to be cautious about this and intentional about filling out the gaps in Meade’s approach.

We need more books like this, tools to help us catechize our children as we promised to do.  We need books like this written by men and women who share a wholehearted commitment to the Reformed faith – with no reservations about any points of doctrine.  While I believe this book could be used with profit (and we certainly are profiting in our home), it should only be seen as a stop-gap measure until something better comes along.


Heidelberg Catechism Themes and Divisions Version 2.0

One of the most popular pages on Yinkahdinay is this resource with themes and divisions for preaching on the Heidelberg Catechism.  I’m beginning to roll out version 2.0 of this resource.  You can see an example here with Lord’s Day 4.  I’ve added some new themes, but also added the Bible readings where I can.  The update to the new version is going to take some time.  I will generally work on this project as I work my way through the Catechism in my own preaching, so please be patient.  I hope this resource can continue to be helpful for my colleagues and others who are called to teach or preach the Catechism.


Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (2)

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1.

How Do Our Confessions Answer?

Since I phrased my thesis in terms of the confessions, it makes sense to start there.  There is a lot that could be said.  Appeal could be made to Lord’s Day 12 of the Catechism and how it speaks of the three-fold office of Christians.  As prophets we are to confess the name of Christ.  Who are we to confess the name of Christ to?  This obviously has an outward looking orientation.  We could go on and think of Lord’s Day 32 and how winning our neighbours for Christ by our godly walk of life is part of the reason we must do good works.  There again at least part of the perspective is looking outward.  Or we could spend some time on Lord’s Day 48, dealing with the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.”  We confess that this includes asking our heavenly Father to “preserve and increase” his church.  The word “increase” there refers to numerical increase and that implies a certain orientation among those who pray along the lines of this petition.

We could move on from the Catechism to the Canons of Dort and the same perspective is in evidence there.  It comes in connection with the doctrine of election.  There are those who say that election knocks the motivation out of outreach.  Maybe you’ve heard Reformed churches mockingly referred to as “the frozen chosen.”  But that can only be true if we don’t take our own confession seriously.  We believe and confess that God uses his church and her witness to draw in the elect.  Election becomes evident (or comes to expression in history) through evangelism.  Article 5 of chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort is clear enough on this point:

The promise of the gospel is that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life.  This promise ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe.

Our confession says that we have a gospel promise which we are obligated to announce universally, to all peoples, all men.  The language is undeniably clear.  So also if we take the Canons of Dort seriously, they should produce an outward looking orientation in the church.

Indeed, we could spend a lot of time on what the Canons and Catechism have to say about this.  But I want to focus our attention on the Belgic Confession this morning.  Let me first explain the rationale for doing that.  The period of about 1950 to 1990 was one of widespread deconfessionalization in the Christian Reformed Church.  For many CRC members (but by no means all), the confessions became museum artifacts, pieces of CRC history and heritage, rather than a living expression of the biblical faith of the church.  In that 40 year period, many claimed that the CRC had basically become a Dutch ghetto.  The perception was that the church was turned in on itself, too often only inward looking.  Discussions took place at various levels and in various venues about why this was.  Blame was often assigned to the Three Forms of Unity and especially the Belgic Confession.  One CRC seminary professor (Robert Recker) wrote that with the Belgic Confession we’re faced with a church “talking with itself rather than a church before the world.”  Influential figures in the CRC agreed with Recker.  So, in other words, if you want to know why the CRC became a Dutch ghetto turned in on itself, look no further than the Belgic Confession.  Then the solution also begins to suggest itself: we can hold on to the Confession as a museum artifact, something that shows something of our history and where we came from, but for today we need a new confession which will really help us be an outward looking church.  That partly accounts for the development of the “Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God.”  This new confession in the CRC was adopted in 1986 and its history is rooted in dissatisfaction with the Three Forms of Unity on certain points.  That included a perception that the Belgic Confession is an exercise in ecclesiastical navel-gazing.  That historical episode puts the question squarely before us this morning:  what orientation does the Confession provide for the church?

When we think of the Belgic Confession today, we typically think of a section at the back of our Book of Praise.  This is true of all our confessions.  For us, they’re embedded in a rather large book.  However, around the world, in different places, these confessions are being printed separately in convenient, cost-effective formats.  For example, there is the Heidelberg Catechism in Spanish produced by CLIR in Costa Rica.  There is also the Belgic Confession in Russian, produced by the Evangelical Reformed Church in Ukraine.  Both are in a convenient and cost-effective format so that believers can share them with others.  There’s an outward looking, evangelistic intention here.  They didn’t make these booklets for church members, but so that church members could share their faith with outsiders.  That fits precisely with the history and original intentions of these documents, especially the Belgic Confession.

When the Belgic Confession was first published in 1561, it didn’t appear as part of a Book of Praise.  It was published as a booklet in a convenient, cost-effective format.  It was designed for mass distribution, not just amongst Reformed believers, but also with their friends, family, and neighbours.  We know of two printings of the Confession in 1561, from two different Huguenot cities in France, Rouen and Lyons.  Only one copy remains of each of those printings.  We might ask why.  We don’t know how many copies were involved in those first printings – it’s impossible to tell.  We do know that the printing from Rouen included at least 200 copies.  We know that because there is a report from the Spanish authorities saying that they found some 200 copies in the library of Guido de Bres.  The Spanish authorities burned those.  But other copies were circulating; we just have no idea of how many.  We do know they were printed cheaply and quickly.  There are a couple of possibilities to explain why we only have one copy from each of the two printings in 1561.  One would be that the Spanish destroyed most of them.  Another might be that they were so widely used and distributed that they fell apart and didn’t fare well over the following decades and centuries.  It could be a combination of both and maybe there are other factors besides.  What is clear is that, from the beginning, it was designed as a document with an outward orientation.  The format speaks to that.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included this page of Scripture passage encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

Early printings of the Belgic Confession included these two pages of Scripture passages encouraging believers to profess their faith before men.

This is confirmed when we look closer at the Confession as it first came off the press.  On two of the first pages of the booklet, we find a collection of Scripture passages.  Over these passages were these words, “Some passages of the New Testament in which the faithful are exhorted to render confession of their faith before men.”  Then followed Scripture passages:  Matthew 10:32-33, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, 1 Peter 3:15, Romans 10:10, and 2 Timothy 2:12b.  Each of these passages has an outward perspective.  The point being made is that confession of faith is inherently an outward action.  We confess our faith “before men,” to the world.

Oftentimes when we think of the Belgic Confession, we think of it merely as an effort to gain tolerance for the Reformed faith.  The Reformed Churches in the Low Countries were persecuted by the Spanish led by Philip II, and they wanted to reassure the authorities that they were not rebellious.  Instead, they were simply God-fearing people who believed what the Bible teaches.  In this understanding, the Confession is simply a defense.  But this understanding doesn’t do full justice to the original intent of the Confession.  It was not simply to gain tolerance that the Confession was written, it was also to win converts.  There was an acute self-awareness that the Reformed churches existed in the midst of unbelief and their confession was addressed to that lost world in darkness.  Throughout the Confession, you find the words “we believe,” and those very words signify that there is a body of believers confessing together, confessing together to a pagan world in need of the gospel.  Whenever you see a believing “we” in the Confession, you should also think of the lost “them.”

Based on these general considerations, P. Y. DeJong was exactly right when he wrote a commentary on the Belgic Confession and entitled it The Church’s Witness to the World.  Earlier I mentioned the deconfessionalizing of the CRC, but you may remember that I was careful not to paint everyone in the CRC black.  In that forty year period, there were men like P. Y. DeJong who stoutly resisted the deconfessionalization of the church.  They argued that the Confessions were misunderstood and undervalued.  Later, men like P. Y. DeJong would become founding fathers of the United Reformed Churches.  Having been through a struggle in the CRC, they maintained that the Confessions, when they’re rightly understood, do not produce ecclesiastical scoliosis, a dysfunction where the church is curved in on itself.

But that’s about the broad nature and historical intent of the Confession, what about the actual content of the Belgic Confession?  Does that say anything to the question before us this morning?  Since we’re speaking about the church, let’s just focus on the ecclesiological articles of the Confession, articles 27-32.

Click here to continue reading part 3…

Bibliographical note:  the quote from Robert Recker comes from his article, “An Analysis of the Belgic Confession As To Its Mission Focus,” Calvin Theological Journal 7.2 (November 1972): 179.