Tag Archives: John Calvin

Angels and Mission

When it comes to angels, there are two extremes.  One is to treat angels like little gods.  Roman Catholicism does this by encouraging prayers to angels.  Another extreme is to neglect angels altogether.  Neither extreme is biblical.

Historically, the Reformed churches have neither ignored the angels nor given them excessive attention.  If you look at the index of Calvin’s Institutes, two-thirds of a page are filled with references to angels.  This soundly reflects the emphasis found in the Scriptures.  Similarly, article 12 of the Belgic Confession has a paragraph devoted to the Scriptural teaching about the creation and purpose of angels.  However, I don’t think many people have considered how the biblical teaching on angels bears on how we think about the missionary task of the church.

Belgic Confession Article 12

Says our Confession, “He also created the angels good, to be his messengers and serve the elect.”  The angels were also part of God’s created work, though we do not know at what point they came into being.  Regardless, their purpose is clear:  they exist to serve God and his people.  Though they were created good, some of the angels have fallen – these we call the devils and evil spirits.   These hounds of hell “are so depraved that they are enemies of God and of all that is good.  With all their might, they lie in wait like murderers to ruin the Church and all its members and to destroy everything by their wicked devices.”  This means that when we consider our missionary task, there is a formidable array of opponents waiting to destroy everything we try to do.  But, on the other hand, the reverse is also true:  we have a redoubtable heavenly host allied with us as, by the power and grace of God, we break ground for his kingdom.  The good angels serve to build and establish the church.  They are there to facilitate our missionary task.

The missionary task was given to the church by our Lord Jesus in such passages as Matthew 28:18-20.  The Scriptures are clear that the angels must always be considered in connection with him.  They exist to serve the church and its task because they first exist to serve our Lord Jesus Christ.  In popular portrayals, angels tend to be individualistic.  They stand on their own.  However, in the Scriptures, angels are first the servants of God, sent out by Christ and therefore under his authority.   This is clear in a passage such as Mark 1:13 where, following the temptations of Satan, our Lord Jesus was served by the angels.

The Service of the Angels

This service of the angels is a feature of the ongoing spiritual battle with Satan and his minions.  In the Old Testament this is most vividly seen in Numbers 22-24.  Dr. J. DeJong describes quite accurately the scene:  “Particularly the first chapter describes the intensity of the struggle with Balaam first being commanded not to go, and then going, and finally a messenger is sent to meet him, an adversary.  We have here an adversary against the Adversary, an opponent opposing the opponent.”[1]  And, of course, in the New Testament we see this battle with Satan and his angels in the Revelation of Christ to John.  The whole Bible makes it clear that we live in a time of spiritual conflict.  One of the preeminent ways our Lord Jesus fights this conflict is through his angelic armies.  These armies continue to serve Christ as he daily gathers his church from the four corners of the earth.

These angels are therefore an integral part of the mission of the church.  Their involvement is not dispassionate.  Rather, the Scriptures make clear that they are emotionally involved with what is going on.  They share in the disappointments and the joys as lost sinners are brought to their master, King Jesus.   Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  When there is joy within the bride of Christ, there is also joy with his servants the angels.   But why?

It’s because, as Christ’s servants, the angels are also participating with the church in the gathering of lost sinners.  Here we can think of their supporting role in the book of Acts.  Angels appear in the very first chapter to comfort and encourage the apostles after the ascent of our Saviour.  In chapter 5, an angel appears to release the apostles from prison so that the intense growth of the church could continue unabated.  He encouraged the apostles to continue preaching to that end.  In chapter 8, an angel goes to Philip and sends him down the desert road to Gaza where he providentially meets the Ethiopian eunuch – thus the gospel begins its journey into Africa.   In chapter 12, Peter is released from prison again by an angel.   Then, in chapter 27, an angel appears to Paul and assures him he will provide a witness before Caesar.

What About Today?

Do the angels continue to form an integral part of the mission of the church?  Though their presence may not be visible to the same degree, we have no reason to believe the angels have withdrawn themselves from the church-gathering work of Christ in this present day.  They serve Jesus Christ and have not stopped doing so.  In fact, the Olivet discourse shows that they will have a role in the last days of this earth:  “And then he will send his angels, and gather together his elect from the four winds, from the furthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.” (Mark 13:27).  In their facilitating and guiding the missionary task of the church today, they are preparing for the great last day of our Lord Jesus.

There is an interesting story that has circulated for many years in Reformed churches about a certain preacher in the Netherlands.  If I am correct, the story took place in the 1800s.  This preacher held an evangelistic service in a certain town and then made his way safely home through the dark streets.  A number of years later, a man came to him and told him that he’d become a Christian because of the preacher’s ministry.  He asked if he remembered that dark evening so many years ago.  He did.  He then asked who the other two men were who had been walking with him.  He and a friend were lying in wait to kill the preacher (who had irked them with his message and presence), but the other two had scared them away.  The preacher replied that he had been all alone that evening.  Suddenly, he realized that he had not been alone after all.

Whether or not that story is totally accurate, we can be sure the Scriptural teaching on angels means that missionaries are never alone.  Certainly, we have the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and guides us with the Word.  But we also have the angelic host who protect us.  In so doing, they serve Jesus as he gathers his church through us.  They not only protect, but in ways unknown, they also engage the enemy in offensive battle.  While we do not want to speculate, we do know that the angels are fighting the spiritual war in the spiritual realm – and their victory is assured.

The biblical teaching on angels gives insight and strength, not only to the missionary (and those who support him), but also to the mission congregation.  New believers can know that their struggles are the concern of their Lord Jesus and he will support them with his angels.  But the mission congregation can also find strength in this teaching when they gather for worship.  Sometimes, especially at the beginning, mission congregations can be small.  Such a congregation does not worship alone.  Our Lord Jesus is there with them (according to his promise in Matt.18:20), but we also learn from such passages as Hebrews 12:22 that his holy angels are present too.   In his Institutes (3.20.23), Calvin writes:  “God willed to appoint the angels to care for our salvation.  Consequently, they attend sacred assemblies, and the church is for them a theater in which they marvel at the varied and manifold wisdom of God [Eph.3:10].” An acute awareness of this fact can be an immense support for young believers who often feel the isolation and loneliness which true faith can bring.

The bottom line is that angelology (the doctrine concerning angels) is a matter of comfort for all of us, and also when it comes to our missionary task.  When faced with our spiritual struggles (not against flesh and blood), we can recall the experience of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:16-17.   They were surrounded by a heavenly army of angels, prepared to fight the Lord’s battle.  Angels continue to do battle today; they continue to serve our Lord Jesus.  A heavenly host is warring together with us.  We know that the power of God is on their side and ours and thus we can have both courage and optimism in our work of proclaiming the gospel to lost sinners.

In different ways, Jesus Christ continues to gather his church:  He sends his Spirit.  He sends men.  He also sends angels.  Thus, the glory belongs not to the angels, nor to us, but to our faithful Saviour, the Shepherd who gathers his sheep.

[1] “Angels and their Role in Pastoral Care,” by Dr. J. DeJong, in Koinonia 19.1 (Spring 2002), p.11.


Calvin’s Magnum Opus: A Critical Essay

A “magnum opus” is an author’s greatest work.  When it comes to John Calvin that should obviously be a reference to his Institutes of the Christian Religion.  This work is one of the classics of Protestant theology.  It is often referenced but seldom read as a complete work from front to back.  I first purchased my copy of the McNeill/Battles edition before starting pre-seminary studies in university.  Over the years I have read bits and pieces and there, often as a need or interest required.  But until this past year I have never read the Institutes through from beginning to end.

In this essay, I will share some of the highlights of my complete tour through this theological masterpiece.  I have points both of appreciation and critique.  I doubt anything I say here will be new – the volume of literature on the Institutes is vast and surely someone, somewhere has made similar observations.

I read the two-volume McNeill/Battles edition published in the Library of Christian Classics.  This edition is based on the final version Calvin published in 1559.  I also occasionally referred to the older editions of Beveridge and Allen, and even sometimes checked the original French and Latin.

Calvin originally wrote the Institutes in 1536 as a sort of catechetical handbook.  It was never designed to be a systematic theology – such a creature did not yet exist.  It was also not designed to be a book of extensive commentary on Scripture.  No, its original purpose was catechetical – to summarize the teaching of Scripture on essential matters of faith and life.  As the work progressed to its final form in 1559, it did however take on a more systematic form (the technical term is loci communes).  In some places there is limited commentary on Scripture – for example, when dealing with the Ten Commandments (2.9) or the Lord’s Prayer (3.20.34-49) – and there are extensive references to Scripture, but generally Calvin leaves biblical exposition to his commentaries.

His approach is typically theological with the Scriptures explicitly as a foundation.  However, by way of exception, there are parts that are more philosophical.  For example, in 1.15.6-8, Calvin discusses the soul.  There is almost nothing directly from Scripture in this discussion.  Instead, Calvin works more with philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato.  For a modern reader unfamiliar with Greek philosophy, this discussion is difficult to follow.

Related to that, there are places where Calvin follows Platonic notions instead of biblical ones.  One of the most well-known examples is how Calvin speaks of the body as the prison house of the soul.  He does this in at least four places (1.15.2, 2.7.13, 3.7.5, 3.9.4).  This devaluing of the body does not accord with the biblical worldview.  In Scripture, the body is redeemed by Christ just as well as the soul (1 Cor. 6:19-20), and will be raised at the last day (1 Cor. 15).

Some have claimed Calvin as the high point of the Reformation.  This has been often asserted especially in relation to “scholasticism.”  The old narrative was that the medieval church was plagued with scholasticism.  The Reformers came and brought the church back to the Bible.  Then, sadly, a following generation reversed many of the gains and scholasticism again crippled the church.  In this old narrative, scholasticism is usually not carefully defined.  If we define it as a method of teaching theology which includes clear definitions, distinctions, and argumentative techniques, the narrative shifts rather dramatically.  In fact, if we define scholasticism in this way, Calvin himself has plenty of scholastic method in the Institutes (this was originally something I learned from Richard Muller in his The Unaccommodated Calvin).  I have outlined here the many different distinctions Calvin used and discussed.  Throughout the Institutes he pays careful attention to definitions.  There are numerous places where he employs syllogisms and other forms of logic/reasoning (e.g. 2.5.1).  It would not be fair to say that Calvin is scholastic, but it is completely justified to argue there are scholastic elements in the Institutes.

The attentive reader will pick up on Calvin’s copiousness.  He had read widely.  Throughout the Institutes, Calvin refers to numerous authors going all the way back to the early church.  Two stand out in particular.  The most quoted and referred to author is Augustine.  This is not surprising since Augustine is the most influential of the church fathers on the Protestant Reformers in general.  Most of the time Calvin quotes Augustine approvingly, but there are also occasions where he dissents.  The other author is Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who lived from 1090 to 1153.  While Bernard lived before the worst developments in Catholic theology, he was still not exactly a medieval quasi-Protestant.  Nevertheless, Calvin made use of Bernard’s best insights.  In 2.16.1, Calvin gives this beautiful quote from Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs:

The name of Jesus is not only light, but also food; it is also oil, without which all food of the soul is dry; it is salt, without whose seasoning whatever is set before us is insipid; finally, it is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, rejoicing in the heart, and at the same time medicine.  Every discourse in which his name is not spoken is without savor.

Calvin appreciated Bernard’s fervour for Christ and his felicitous turn of phrase.

Calvin likewise employed language with a skilled eye to felicity.  Trained as a humanist (in the classical sense of the word), Calvin valued beautiful rhetoric.  Throughout the Institutes there are words so well-crafted you may occasionally feel some salty moisture rolling down your cheek.   If you compare these Institutes with those of a later Genevan theologian named Francis Turretin, the contrast could scarcely be starker.  The language of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology is technical and pays little attention to aesthetics.  It is often like reading a car manual for theology.  However, Calvin’s Institutes feature numerous sections like this in 3.2.42:

Accordingly, in brief, hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God.  Thus, faith believes God to be true, hope awaits the time when his truth shall be manifested; faith believes that he is our Father, hope anticipates that he will ever show himself to be a Father toward us; faith believes that eternal life has been given to us, hope anticipates that it will some time be revealed; faith is the foundation upon which hope rests, hope nourishes and sustains faith.

Calvin was indubitably a master of using language to powerful effect.

Regrettably, I have to say I also encountered instances where Calvin uses strong, questionable, or even offensive language.  He uses strong language when it comes to unbiblical and dangerous ideas.  But he also uses strong words for the person of his theological opponents:  “blockheads” (3.20.25), “stupid men” (3.21.7), “swine” (3.23.12), and many other such insults.  I have read enough Reformation literature to know Calvin was not unusual in using this kind of language – and our day tends to be far more sensitive about throwing invectives around in our theological polemics.

I am far less inclined to give Calvin a pass on some other language he uses.  In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!”  (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27).  In each context, it is clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God.  The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French.  In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations.  I have encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès.  I find it troubling and I cannot find a way to excuse it.  I would suppose that, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror — a blind spot.

For readers today there are some challenges in reading and benefiting from Calvin’s Institutes.  Some of the discussion has less relevance to us.  For example, I found the discussion about the sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church to be one of the most tedious parts of the work.  It may be interesting from a historical standpoint, and it might still be valuable to someone actively engaged in apologetics with Roman Catholics, but for the rest of us, the temptation to skip through this section is difficult to resist.

Persevering readers will encounter some of Calvin’s best and most well-known theological insights.  Among them:

  • The Scriptures serve as spectacles to help us see God clearly (1.6.1, 1.14.1)
  • “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” (1.11.8)
  • Calvin believes the world to be less than 6000 years old (1.14.1, 3.21.4)
  • Justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns.” (3.11.1)
  • Fasting “is an excellent aid for believers today (as it always was)…” (4.12.18)
  • If baptism is to be denied to the infant children of believers because Scripture is silent on the explicit practice, then women should also be denied access to the Lord’s Supper (4.16.8)
  • The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently, preferably every week (4.17.43)
  • Aristocracy, or perhaps a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy “far excels” all other systems of government (4.20.8)
  • Revolts are possible when led by lower magistrates (4.20.30)

Reading Calvin’s Institutes will remind Reformed believers today that Calvin is not the gold standard for what it means to be Reformed.  After all, there are several points at which much contemporary Reformed faith and practice departs from Calvin.  For example, in 4.3.16, he discusses the laying on of hands in connection with office bearers.  This laying on of hands ought to be practiced not only with the ordination of “pastors and teachers,” but also deacons.  Interestingly, the original Belgic Confession also said that all office bearers should be ordained with the laying on of hands.

Let me conclude with noting that the McNeill/Battles edition is generally well-done.  There are comprehensive indices.  There are immense numbers of helpful explanatory footnotes. It must be said, however, that some of these footnotes reflect the editor’s liberal theological bias.  For example, in a footnote in 1.8.8, the editor informs us that Calvin did not hold to the modern view of a late date for Isaiah 45 and its mention of Cyrus.  Well, I guess not, seeing as how Calvin believed the Bible to be the Word of God!   As another example, in a footnote in 4.8.9, the editor claims Calvin does not explicitly support biblical inerrancy anywhere.  While it would obviously be anachronistic to expect Calvin to affirm every jot and tittle of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, there is plenty of evidence to affirm Calvin has far more in common with biblical inerrantists today than their opponents.

For most Reformed people today, Calvin’s Institutes will remain a reference.  No one should expect regular church members to pick it up and read it straight through with profit.  Those who try will almost certainly get frustrated and give up.  We must be realistic.  It is a work from an era in which theologians could expect far more from their readers.  I wonder whether even many of today’s pastors would be able to digest everything Calvin serves up.  Some of his discussions and references certainly went beyond my ken.  We live in a strange time where we have more access to information than anyone else in the history of world, and yet, compared to Calvin from 500 years ago, we are dullards.  Reading through the Institutes certainly drove that point home to me.


Can a Christian Eat Black Pudding?

To my mind, black pudding is one of the few great contributions the Brits have made to global cuisine.  For the uninitiated, we’re not talking about pudding in the sense of a gelatinous dessert.  Instead, black pudding is a sausage, a blood sausage to be more precise.  It’s made with pork blood, fat, and some type of cereal, usually oats.

Some find the idea of black pudding repulsive, but there are also Christians who argue it is unlawful for believers to eat and enjoy it.  I had a seminary professor who held this view.  He believed Christians are permitted to enjoy neither rare steak nor black pudding.  Your steak must be well-done and your pudding white (yes, there is such a thing as white pudding and it has no blood).

Part of the rationale for this view is God’s command to Noah in Genesis 9:4, “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”  The question is whether this was meant to be a binding restriction for all time or whether this was a restriction owing to the circumstances of that age.  Most interpreters tend to the latter view.  For example, John Calvin writes in his commentary, “Yet we must remember, that this restriction was part of the old law.”  In other words, this restriction presaged the Mosaic dietary laws concerning the consumption of blood (Leviticus 17:10-12).  Since Christ declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), these sorts of laws are no longer relevant to us in the same way.

The other part of the rationale at first glance seems stronger.  In Acts 15, the apostles met together in Jerusalem to resolve some issues vexing the Church.  The issues had to do with the relationship between Christian Jews and Gentiles and observance of the Mosaic laws.  After some debate, James made a proposal which found acceptance with all the apostles and elders.  The adopted written judgment read as follows:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.  (Acts 15:28-29)

My seminary professor believed this sealed the deal.  Surely these are binding stipulations for the Church of Jesus Christ in all ages and places.  Ergo, no black pudding, no rare steak.

But let’s think about this further.  Not all the stipulations in Acts 15 are of the same nature.  What was said about sexual immorality is obviously a matter of God’s abiding moral law — this is the seventh commandment.  However, the three other matters are regulated as a matter of not giving offense to other believers.

In an essay entitled “From Dissension to Joy: Resources from Acts 15:1-35 for Global Presbyterianism” (in China’s Reforming Churches, ed. Bruce Baugus), Guy Prentiss Waters discusses the question of how we can “categorically assign normativity” to Scriptural examples or precepts.  He notes James Bannerman’s insight that things are binding so long as we are in similar circumstances.  The true test is in the question:  “Am I in ‘like circumstances’ as the original audience?” (p.225).  So, when it comes to the stipulation to abstain from blood, we conclude that we are not bound: “The reason is because the circumstances that occasioned the church’s exercise of the power of order in Jerusalem no longer exist today” (p. 238).  In other words, we’re not faced with a significant Jewish population in the Church who would take offense at the eating of blood.  John Calvin commented in a similar vein:

Wherefore, what Tertullian relates, that in his time it was unlawful among Christians to taste the blood of cattle, savours of superstition.  For the apostles, in commanding the Gentiles to observe this rite, for a short time, did not intend to inject a scruple into their consciences, but only to prevent the liberty which was otherwise sacred, from proving an occasion of offence to the ignorant and the weak.  (Commentary on Genesis 9:4)

Thus, I conclude that Acts 15:28-29 does not make it unlawful for Christians today to consume blood.

If you’re not convinced, I have some good news:  even if you can’t/won’t eat black pudding, you can still enjoy your steak rare.  Those red fluids coming out of a rare steak aren’t blood, but myoglobin.  Myoglobin is a protein found in muscles — it turns red when it comes into contact with oxygen.  So even if you believe Acts 15:28-29 to be binding on Christians today, go ahead and order that steak rare or medium rare.  You’re not eating blood.

If you are convinced, then I have even better news:  a great (but simple) recipe to enjoy black pudding.  This is my favourite way to have it for breakfast, a Saturday morning treat!

FRIED BP AND WAFFLES

Serves two.  The recipe is easy to adjust for more.

Prep time:  less than 10 minutes.

Ingredients:

One small black pudding (in Australia usually available from Coles’ deli section)

Two Belgian waffles

Two eggs

Butter

Maple syrup

Instructions:

  1. Cut the black pudding into long, thin (1 cm) slices at an angle
  2. Put the waffles in the toaster
  3. Fry the black pudding till crispy on the outside (in a med-high fry pan, about 2 minutes each side)
  4. At the same time, fry the two eggs to your liking.
  5. By this time the waffles should be toasted, butter them to your liking and then add some maple syrup.  I like to add just enough to fill all the little pockets.
  6. To complete, put a fried egg on each waffle, and then slices of fried black pudding on top.  Enjoy!

An Index of Calvin’s Distinctions in the Institutes

I recently finished reading straight through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  I plan to write an essay on that experience in the near future.  For now, one of the things that struck me was how Calvin worked with various theological and philosophical distinctions.  I catalogued as many as I could discern and you can find them in this document.  There are many of them!  Many Calvin works with in a positive way, but there are also a few he rejects as “wily,” “loathsome,” or “worthless.”  It’s said that distinguishing well is a hallmark of a good theologian — Calvin certainly ranks up there with the best.


Quotable Church History: “The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls”

This is the sixth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.”  This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther.  There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification.  However, so did other Reformers.  For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1).  However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin.  Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638).  In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.”  From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.

To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine.  Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ.  In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner.  Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure.  What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility.  Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection.  That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.

Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel.  Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news.  In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22).  That obviously goes far beyond justification.  The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more.  Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond.  It is of prime importance.  Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us.  This, again, is because of its relational significance.  Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.

Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”?  To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians.  In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision.  Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God.   This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again:  If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9)

Those are powerful words!  If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell.  If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell.  Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake.  A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell.  On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.

In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers.  I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ.  I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology.  I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration.  There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness.  There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father.  There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation.  The list could go on.  If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it.  I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.