On the “Who is Reformed?” Question: Choosing a “What” Over a “Who”

 

With the growth of Reformed ideas comes a jockeying to define what “Reformed” is and is not; or more frequently, who is and who is not. One hot topic has been whether Baptists have a right to plant their flag on Reformed turf. Those who answer in the negative are typically under the mistaken impression that they own the title and deed to the bulk of Reformed real estate. Many well-known authors and speakers have fallen into the hands of self-appointed Reformed gatekeepers who frequently give a thumbs up or thumbs down on others’ Reformed status.

Counting myself squarely in the “Reformed” camp, I have wrestled with how to sort out this question of who is and isn’t Reformed, and I’ve recently realized that, in one sense, it’s kind of a stupid question. People in generally Reformed circles have a complex set of overlapping, intersecting, and systemically complex beliefs, so asking them to stand single file in one of only two lines does not reflect that complexity.

Instead of placing someone in the Reformed bin or in the non-Reformed bin after a clunky evaluation process, we better serve the person and his or her nuances by evaluating specific beliefs. That method of evaluation should involve a comparison of beliefs to Reformed confessions and creeds, as well as those works that have endured within the Reformed tradition. And for a reminder, all those Reformed confessions and books are only as true as the biblical passages and principles from which they are derived. Pondering whether someone is Reformed is like asking whether someone is “biblical.”

Consider a few benefits to evaluating (when necessary) the beliefs of a person rather than that person in his or her entirety:

  1. Accuracy. The label “Reformed” is not able to bear the burden of accurately encompassing a person whose set of beliefs may include both Reformed beliefs and non-Reformed beliefs. Having to choose one label for such a set of beliefs sacrifices the accuracy of that label to some degree.
  2. Anti-aristocracy. Conversations surrounding this topic often implicitly devolve into who gets placed within the inner circle and who has to look in from the outside; who receives admission to the club and who gets bounced. Speaking of Reformed beliefs rather than Reformed people eliminates a measure of elitism.
  3. Accessibility. Because people often do not express every belief they hold, limiting the “Reformed” label to beliefs rather than people focuses the discussion on that which is public. If Chuck has expressed his appreciation for the practical benefits of predestination within his prayer life but hasn’t said much on the covenants, or baptism, or Old Testament typology, or complementarianism, is Chuck Reformed? Not a great question. Is Chuck’s belief about God’s sovereignty Reformed? That’s better.

I hold this general principle loosely, and at a basic level I’m simply seeking to make a linguistic, terminological point rather than a doctrinal one. I certainly call myself Reformed in ordinary language. I have said things like “B.B. Warfield is Reformed,” “many Reformed theologians…” and other obviously appropriate statements. I subscribe to the Westminster Standards. But when we observe significant swaths of churchgoers who are on their way to a more robust Reformed theology, a complexity that accompanies the current theological flux within Reformed circles should be reflected in our use of the “Reformed” label.

 
 
 

24 Responses to “On the “Who is Reformed?” Question: Choosing a “What” Over a “Who””

  1. Gus Garcia says:

    Brotha Jared,
    As a “reformed Baptist” I salute you! Furthermore, I have benifited immensely from all you guys at reformed forum especially Christ the Center, which is the hottest show next to the moritification of spin. Thanks for the love
    Grace and peace from Lost Angeles.
    Ps. I await Dr. Scott Clark’s response.
    -Gus

  2. “One hot topic has been whether Baptists have a right to plant their flag on Reformed turf. Those who answer in the negative are typically under the mistaken impression that they own the title and deed to the bulk of Reformed real estate.”

    I love and respect my “Reformed Baptist” brethren and mean no disrespect toward them, but it seems to me that the label is clearly problematic. The issue is not about trying to be elitist or “aristocratic” or to look down one’s nose at brethren with whom we differ; the issue is about using theological terms with historical and theological accuracy. For example, if a Baptist came to embrace a Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper, would it be accurate or helpful to describe him as a “Lutheran Baptist”? If a Presbyterian came to embrace an Mennonite view of pacifism, would it be helpful or accurate to describe him as a “Mennonite Presbyterian”? The point is that, contrary to mushy postmodern thinking, words can and should have objective meaning, especially words that are historically and theologically significant.

    As you know, being “Reformed” means a lot more than simply embracing the doctrines of sovereign grace (i.e., the five points of Calvinism), as vitally important as the TULIP doctrines are. Historically the “Reformed” label also encompasses a particular understanding of covenant theology (which included infant baptism), ecclesiology, worship, sacraments, etc. It’s not a label that can be accurately used to describe the selective, pick-and-choose, cafeteria-style approach to doctrine of many evangelical brethren who want to wear the “Reformed” label. Personally speaking, I think it would probably be more accurate to describe our RB brethren as “Sovereign Grace Baptists” instead of “Reformed Baptists.”

    • ctrace says:

      Grow your churches by births, because ritual baptism regenerates. You can be in the Covenant of Grace, and not in the Covenant of Grace at the same time, this is sound doctrine. Repeat to yourselves: this is sound doctrine. Classical Covenant Theology is the servant of infant baptism. Infant baptism is the hinge upon which swings all of biblical doctrine. Regeneration by the word and the Spirit is mystical hoo-hah. Repeat to yourselves: mystical hoo-hah.

      • ctrace:

        (1) Confessional Reformed churches do not deny the great commission or teach an automatic, head-for-head baptismal regeneration.

        (2) Even Baptist churches may include those who are are formal members in good standing (“in the church” outwardly) but who may not be genuinely regenerate (not “of the church” inwardly). The ideal of a perfectly regenerate church membership in this present age is a pipe dream.

        (3) Contrary to your caricature of our position, the Reformed do not teach that infant baptism is the hinge upon which swings all biblical doctrine.

        (4) The Reformed teach regeneration by the Word and Spirit, so the idea that we think it is “mystical hoo-hah” is an ignorant, uncharitable caricature.

        My advice: Try to actually understand what your Reformed brethren really believe and strive to represent your theological opponents accurately before building straw men of their views and thus exposing your ignorance.

  3. Luke Johnson says:

    Thanks for the article, Jared. I’ve been thinking about this question.

  4. ctrace says:

    Obviously I was writing not what you say you believe, but what you actually by default believe, whether you consciously admit it to yourselves or not.

    And the fact that unregenerate individuals may be sitting in a church is not the same as saying one can be *in* the Covenant of Grace and *not in* the Covenant of Grace at the same time. That is ad hoc nonsense that bad doctrine propagates and needs to prop itself up.

  5. “Obviously I was writing not what you say you believe, but what you actually by default believe, whether you consciously admit it to yourselves or not.”

    GW: So, you have the powers to read our minds and hearts, and to “know” what we “really” believe? Instead of interacting with our actual, confessional views, you psychoanalyze us.

    “And the fact that unregenerate individuals may be sitting in a church is not the same as saying one can be *in* the Covenant of Grace and *not in* the Covenant of Grace at the same time.”

    GW: This is a straw man, and misrepresents our view as if it violated the law of noncontradiction. It is possible to be “in” the covenant of grace in one sense (with respect to its external administration) and not “in” the covenant of grace in a different sense (with respect to its spiritual essence). This is not “ad hoc,” but rather a grappling with various biblical data. You may disagree, but don’t misrepresent our views.

    • ctrace says:

      It’s a grappling with nonexistent biblical data. And it’s what enables false doctrine such as Federal Visionism to constantly crop up and cause mischief in your churches and in your seminaries.

      Would Reformed paedo-baptists even bother to counter Federal Vision doctrine if Reformed Baptists weren’t around like pit bulls at the wall of orthodox doctrine? If RBs weren’t around forcing you to at least affect a high valuation for sound doctrine you’d all be 7/8 of the way to Rome by now rather than merely half way.

      Reformed paedo-baptists are weak (if not contemptuous) of the biblical doctrine and reality of monergistic regeneration effected by the word and the Spirit.

      Baptismal regeneration:

      Romanists bring it in through the front door in broad daylight.
      Lutherans bring it in through the back door in broad daylight.
      Reformed paedo-baptists bring it in through the back door in the dark of night.

      You see, there *is* a difference there, but the end is the same.

      • ctrace wrote: “It’s a grappling with nonexistent biblical data.”

        GW: I’d encourage you to read Calvin on the sacraments. You may disagree with his use of the biblical data, but it is certainly not “nonexistent.”

        ctrace wrote: “Would Reformed paedo-baptists even bother to counter Federal Vision doctrine if Reformed Baptists weren’t around like pit bulls at the wall of orthodox doctrine?”

        GW: I certainly appreciate my RB brethren who have stood firm against the Federal Vision (which I also oppose). But there are plenty of Reformed Paedo-baptists who likewise oppose the FV, and the idea that they are only doing so in imitation of their RB brethren is questionable at best.

        Finally, I noticed you did not even bother to respond to my comments on pscyoanalyzing what we paedobaptists “really” believe, and my comments on the different sense in which one can be “in” the covenant of grace. Instead, you change the subject and focus on FV and baptismal regeneration. If you want to interact about this, it would help if you would at least grant me the courtesy of interacting with the content of my comments. Thanks.

  6. “Reformed paedo-baptists are weak (if not contemptuous) of the biblical doctrine and reality of monergistic regeneration effected by the word and the Spirit.”

    GW: Genuinely, confessionally Reformed paedobaptists most certainly do affirm and confess the reality of monergistic regeneration effected by the Word and Spirit, and we would deny your charge as utterly baseless and possibly quite uncharitable. Dear brother/sister in Christ, if you are going to show up here to throw around these kinds of blanket statements, broad-brush generalizations and serious accusations against your Reformed paedobaptist brethren, then you will need to back it up with specific, documented examples. (Quoting from proponents of the Federal Vision would not count, since most of us confessional Reformed paedobaptists regard the FV as a “deformed,” deviant version of historic Reformed theology.)

    Care to offer some quotes (with documented references) by recognized, orthodox Reformed paedobaptist theologians (Calvin, Turretin, Bavinck, Vos, Hodge, Dabney, Warfield, Machen, etc.) which clearly demonstrate that they are “weak” and even “contemptuous” of monergistic regeneration?

    • ctrace says:

      I admire that you didn’t go the usual route of ignore, delete, ban. Usually when one of us comes charging straight on like this on these subjects it’s immediate lights out. You didn’t do that, nor did Camden and company do that (assuming they’ve read this thread), and I admire that.

      I’ve always stated that if paedo-baptists just don’t accept baptismal regeneration to any degree then baptizing infants is harmless, with one caveat… If you don’t then downgrade valuation for the living, quickening word of God. Because it is the word of God that the Holy Spirit usually (usually but isn’t constrained to) uses when regenerating God’s elect. The word of God is the wild card in the process. It is the environment where regeneration potentially happens, when it happens. I don’t see the first, second, third generation reformers downgrading Scripture in this sense, but later on down the line? The very fact that you’ve got modern Reformed Christians mocking and ridiculing Christians who hold to the Received Text/Traditional Text is a give away. And it’s not that they have no problem with Critical Text constructed Bibles, but that they they actually feel a desire or need to mock and ridicule Christians who hold to the manuscripts and translation(s) of the Reformation era. This is what follows when you downgrade the doctrine of monergistic regeneration by the word and the Spirit. If ritual and man can do it, no need for the word and the Spirit.

      Because Reformed systematic theologies are the gold standard for systematic theologies I’m familiar with the internal, external modes of being in the Covenant of Grace; it’s just that the latter mode is a bit empty when one is facing death and hardly worth mentioning in any connection with the Covenant of Grace.

      There are more than a few modern heretics and false teachers that tend to emerge (and even teach for decades) from Reformed seminaries, and I’m sure they are at the same time sitting in Reformed churches. I don’t know what them being ‘externally’ connected with the Covenant of Grace does for them, or anybody else.

      Entrance into the Covenant of Grace is by regeneration. You can’t be sort of pregnant.

      • ctrace: Thank you for your reply. By the way, I can’t ban you from this site because this is not “my” site; I just visit it from time to time.

        By the way, I apologize if I seemed snippy or sharp in any of my comments. It just bothers me when I feel the position I hold is misrepresented.

        About the Word of God: The magisterial Reformers (like the Reformers) and their followers would agree that regeneration (in the sense we are speaking of) is by the Word of God. The Scriptures are the written Word of God, but the “Word” (especially in the sense of gospel) also comes to us in the form of preaching and sacraments. It is primarily through the preaching of God’s Word that the elect are brought to saving faith in Christ (Rom. 10:17). The sacraments as the visible “word” proclaim Christ (1 Cor. 11:26); they externally seal and confirm the faith of believers (as circumcision did in the case of believing Abraham – Rom. 4:11). They are not “good works” or merits we offer to God, but God’s gifts given to us in grace. The bottom line seems to be this: For our Baptist brethren, the sacraments are about what we do for God (baptism being viewed as primarily a symbolic profession of our faith in Christ, and the Lord’s Supper being viewed as our remembrance of what Christ has done for us). For us paedobaptists, the sacraments are primarily about what God graciously does for us in Christ (baptism being primarily a sign of God washing and renewing us through the blood and Spirit of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper being a sign of Christ feeding us with the benefits of His Body and Blood). The Baptist view is ultimately man-centered, and thus caters much better to synergism and Arminianism, whereas the Reformed view is God-centered and thus supports Divine monergism and consistent Calvinism.

        “Because Reformed systematic theologies are the gold standard for systematic theologies I’m familiar with the internal, external modes of being in the Covenant of Grace; it’s just that the latter mode is a bit empty when one is facing death and hardly worth mentioning in any connection with the Covenant of Grace.”

        GW: You yourself acknowledge that God uses external means (namely, the Word) to communicate His grace to us; so you too acknowledge (at least to some degree) this internal/external mode. God ordinarily chooses to work internally through external means. I agree that the external means of grace in themselves cannot bring comfort to a sinner on his deathbed; but when faithfully administered and blessed by the Spirit of God, they can be of great comfort for they focus the sinner’s attention upon Christ and His all-sufficiency. On the other hand, I can think of few things that would strip a convicted, terrified sinner on his deathbed of hope than telling him to look within himself to see if he has the marks of regeneration and is thus “really” connected to the covenant. What he needs to hear is the external Word of the gospel, pointing him outside of himself and his “fruits” to the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving fruits.

        Regarding your comments about the Received/Traditional Text, I’m not quite sure what that has to do with the discussion on this thread about whether or not “Reformed Baptists” may properly be described as “Reformed.” Reformed paedobaptists hold a range of views on the issue of textual criticism and textus receptus vs. eclectic or critical text.

  7. Geoff Willour wrote: “The magisterial Reformers (like the Reformers) and their followers…”

    I meant to say “like Luther and Calvin” in the parenthesis.

  8. ctrace says:

    I appreciate your response, but I have to be honest and state that I never find you paedo-baptist guys to be on-the-mark in your responses and arguments.

    To be honest the only way I can see wisdom in the *total* Westminster Standards approach (i.e. including sacramentology) is if one goes into the deep mysteries of time and possible recurrence of time and lives of unbelievers (I know that probably sounds like an electric guitar in the middle of the slow movement of Beethoven’s 9th, totally out-of-place here). That idea posits that the intermediate state for unbelievers is Hades (not hell or the lake of fire) and there is recurrence in and out of it until the end of all time or the consummation. Not reincarnation, the same life, the same birth, the same death (not numerous deaths, one death), i.e. living time, yet being dead in your time, dead in sin. Only regeneration by the word and the Spirit gets you out of it. The first resurrection is after a regenerated person dies and goes to be with God in heaven. That would be the intermediate state for believers.

    Anyway, I know that sounded crazy, but that is the only way I can see a usefulness for doctrine such as being in and not-in the Covenant of Grace, or of baptizing infants yet supposedly not believing that ritual effects regeneration, etc.

    I know regeneration because I’ve experienced it. I don’t and have never been through any of the hand-wringing one hears and reads of where people wonder if they are regenerate or not. And I *have* experienced what is called spiritual desertion, but that is God talking to you, giving you a message, making things a little uncomfortable for you for whatever reason, and I’ve never associated it with “am I regenerated or not”.

    My remark about the Received Text was about valuation for the word of God (I stopped capitalizing ‘word’ in that phrase because someone told me when you capitalize it it should refer to Jesus solely, to each his own discernment on that). I suspect when one disassociates in a real way, just even by small degree, regeneration from the living words of the Old and New Testament then you move towards the Romanist territory where cleric and ritual are exalted above the living words of the Bible and the Holy Spirit Himself. And I see easy acceptance of what I consider to be very shabby manuscripts – Sinaiticus and Vanticanus – as such a downgrade in valuation of the living words of the Old and New Testaments. That was my point there.

    I’m not sure you’re being fair to Baptists, especially obviously Reformed Baptists, in saying they are man-centered regarding the two sacraments. This notion, too, of the sacraments being what God does for us I believe is a recent epiphany in the Reformed world. I think Michael Horton hits on the point all the time, but in a way where it’s like it’s just been something that has recently come to consciousness. So it might be unfair to cast Baptists in an opposite light historically in that context as well. I’m with early Zwingli on the sacraments: they are there for people who need the visual. (He was more insulting in the way he put it.)

  9. ctrace wrote: “I know regeneration because I’ve experienced it. I don’t and have never been through any of the hand-wringing one hears and reads of where people wonder if they are regenerate or not.”

    GW: Thank you for your response. You can be grateful that you’ve never been through the “hand-wringing” of wondering whether or not you are, in fact, regenerate. As one who has experienced Puritan-induced doubts and terrors of the soul through an over-emphasis on looking to one’s personal experience and “fruits,” I can assure you it is not pleasant. It was only as God through His Word and sacraments directed my faith outside of myself and to Christ alone that I found (and continue to find) relief and peace of conscience. While I don’t deny believers have a personal “experience” of regeneration, such an experience varies according to the different personalities of different believers. (Not all believers have a crisis conversion experience where they can pinpoint the exact time and date of their new birth.) Furthermore, such an experience of regeneration can be counterfeited by the devil, or by self-deception; so looking to find ultimate assurance of regeneration to one’s personal experience or in the fruits of regeneration can be dangerously misleading. The Spirit assures us of our adoption through the objective Word (read, preached, and signified in the sacraments). As I believe Calvin once said, we can only discern our election as we look outside ourselves to Jesus Christ alone. The Word and sacraments direct our faith to Him; not to the act of hearing the Word itself or to the sacramental rituals as such.

    • ctrace says:

      This is where I have to part company with you. When I hear such a thing from a Pastor it reminds me why there are so many of us street Calvinists who stay away from the physical churches. First of all, when you write ‘crisis experience’ as if that is the supposed norm you are mocking the very notion of regeneration by the word and the Spirit. You might just as well taken a cue from somebody like Westminster California’s R. Scott Clark and said ‘burning in the bosom.’ You don’t want your position to be close to deism. Yes, people have different experiences of regeneration; and people who grow up going to a church will be different by default; but anybody can look back over their life and see a clear before and after. Do you pray? That alone shows a new nature. Prior to regeneration your fallen nature refuses to recognize anything higher than it. Prayer by default recognizes something higher than ourselves, God Himself. What created us is higher than us. Do you value the Bible as something more than just any other book? Do you read it? Complete. Dedicated readings? Do you find that you have a love for other Christians when before you mocked them? These are all very easy to discern signs of regeneration. The Faith is not a hall of mirrors.

      • ctrace writes: “This is where I have to part company with you. When I hear such a thing from a Pastor it reminds me why there are so many of us street Calvinists who stay away from the physical churches. First of all, when you write ‘crisis experience’ as if that is the supposed norm you are mocking the very notion of regeneration by the word and the Spirit.”

        GW: Be assured that I was not trying “mock” you or “the very notion of regeneration by the word and the Spirit,” and I apologize that you got that impression. Please do try to read my comments more carefully, and in context, and be willing to give me the benefit of the doubt before assuming the worst spin on my words.

        From your comments above I think we actually have much more in common than you realize. I agree with you that a desire to pray, a high esteem of the Scriptures as God’s Word, etc., are marks of regeneration. And, yes, to answer your questions, I do pray, I read the Word, and I love God’s Word and God’s people. At the same time, I have to confess (with sadness in my heart and shame) that my prayers are often cold, my reading of the Word is sometimes rote, and I wrestle at times with uncharitable thoughts toward my brethren. Furthermore, even before I heard the clear gospel and was converted I was very “religious” and prayed quite a bit. Even read my Bible with a degree of intellectual interest, and even felt some degree of conviction for my sins. My point is that the “fruits of regeneration” are not always so obvious as you suggest, even among the truly regenerate; likewise, fleshly counterfeits to such fruits exist among the unregenerate. I am not saying this to “mock” regeneration, but to point out that discerning the fruits of regeneration are not always as “easy” as your comments seem to suggest. (Which accounts for why even truly regenerate believers may sometimes wrestle with doubts about their salvation and may be lacking in a fully robust assurance of salvation. And which is also why I stress the primacy of the outward, ordinary, objective means of grace in helping us to gain a fuller assurance of our regenerate condition.)

        One comment you make that I will take some strong exception to is your comment about “street Calvinists” who stay away from “physical churches.” If, by this comment, you are saying that it is OK for believers who are “street Calvinists” (not sure exactly what that’s suppose to mean) to forsake the local, public assembly of the visible church, then we defintely part company on that one. Unless one is providentially hindered from attending a local, visible expression of the Body of Christ (i.e., a “physical church”) by circumstances beyond his control (for example, if one is imprisoned or lives in an area where he has no access to a true visible church), then one is morally obligated by God’s Word not to forsake the public assembly of the church (Heb. 10:25), and to submit to the leadership of the church (Heb. 13:17; a command that implies that one is a member of the church, and thus subject to the godly leadership of that church). A professing believer who refuses to be involved in the “physical church” is not showing the fruit of regeneration at that point, for one of the fruits of regeneration is love for the Christian brotherhood, which implies a desire and willingness to be a vital, living part of that brotherhood. Lone ranger “Christians” who refuse to attend and join a local expression of the visible church are living in open defiance against the Lordship of Christ, and in open disobedience to the requirements of God’s Word; all of which gives us the right to question their claim to be regenerate.

  10. ctrace says:

    On your last paragraph: do you attend a Roman Catholic Church? No? Why not?

    Apply that to churches today, and to your very attitude in your last paragraph.

    Street Calvinists are not lone rangers, we are many. And we tend to communicate one way or another. It’s natural. It just happens.

    Prophets, priests, and kings, on the battlefield, congregating, trading notes, inspiring by each others’ very presence and effort on the Way. In a gathering of kings no one lords it over on anyone else. And no one expects ‘respect’ as a ‘teacher.’ (You’re ordained? Ordained by what?) You either have something to offer that others recognize as valuable or you don’t.

    We also have the accumulated wisdom of Christians that have gone before us, their works vetted by time. We tend to be inwardly motivated to learn. We actively learn.

    Physical churches are not protection from the Kingdom of Satan, nor are they places of learning. They tend to be as worldly as the world. Look at the ‘family time environment’ they’ve become for Reformed types. That’s not the faith. The full armor of God is protection from the Kingdom of Satan, and an active desire to learn from the word of God itself and from the most on-the-mark school of theology (apostolic biblical doctrine recovered during the Reformation era) and most on-the-mark sources in that school is how one learns. Getting to the practical level requires further effort and using what the Holy Spirit Himself gives us: discernment for truth and a desire to find that truth.

    The Bible is not clear on issues of sacramentology and ecclesiology. And when the Bible is not clear on something it is *intentionally* not clear. (When a John Owen, a John Bunyan, and a John Calvin can all disagree you know what I’m saying.) It is because different eras of God’s plan of redemption call for different things in those areas. House church? cathedral? Elijah alone in a cave? big difference. The shallow will resort to man and ritual over the word and the Spirit every time. It’s also what the Devil wants. (See Roman Catholic Church.) God’s elect know the so-called ‘sacraments’ have deeper meaning, deeper application. Coming up with a new theory that “It’s not about you!!!” (Michael Horton’s new mantra to stave off the charges of deism he and his colleagues have been receiving) is not going to work.

    I notice the new catechism the Anglican church has put out, the one edited by J. I. Packer, as a part where it acknowledges the deeper mysteries of the faith, and mentions it in the context of one’s further understanding as one develops and matures in the faith. God doesn’t want you stunted. He also doesn’t want you in shallow environments. He wants you in the full armor of God, on the battlefield, awake, with gratitude over resentment for everything, all the time. In that I can discern all the so-called ‘means of grace.’ Yet as they are at the practical, real level.

  11. ctrace wrote: “On your last paragraph: do you attend a Roman Catholic Church? No? Why not?”

    GW: Because the RC Church does not manifest the marks of a true visible church: namely, the faithful preaching of God’s Word, especially the pure gospel of sola fide; the right administration of the sacraments; and the exercise of loving biblical church discipline (though even in the Roman communion there are vestiges of the ministry of word and sacrament).

    A question for you: Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (ESV) In the context of this passage this is speaking of spiritual leaders in the church (such as pastors and elders). Are you obeying this command of Scripture? How so? Who are your “leaders” if you do not belong in responsible membership to a true visible local church?

    If you are not a member of a true visible church (one that bears the marks of the church mentioned above) in submission to godly leadership, and there are such churches in your area, then you are disobeying this clear command from the mouth of the Almighty (and related commands). If you are regenerate then the Holy Spirit will (sooner or later) convict you for your disobedience, and you will repent and desire to seek responsible, loyal membership in a local expression of the Body of Christ. If you are unregenerate, you will rage and fume and resist this command of God’s Word and make excuses for your disobedience.

    ctrace wrote: “The Bible is not clear on issues of sacramentology and ecclesiology. And when the Bible is not clear on something it is *intentionally* not clear. (When a John Owen, a John Bunyan, and a John Calvin can all disagree you know what I’m saying.)”

    GW: Granted, Bible-believing Christians have differences on some of the details of these matters. But the Bible IS clear that Christ has ordained a visible order and government for His church. Look at the pattern in the Book of Acts: The gospel is preached, converts are made and baptized, organized churches are established, and eventually local elders are appointed. Consider the proceedings of the Council of Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15 (and whose conclusions were regarded as binding on all of the churches, showing a connectionalism that runs contrary to notions of independency and anti-churchism). Consider also the Pastoral Epistles (First & Second Timothy, Titus), which gives instructions in how things are to be run in the church of God and which lays down qualifications for church office bearers (bishops/presbyters, deacons).

    ctrace wrote: “The shallow will resort to man and ritual over the word and the Spirit every time.”

    GW: Setting the Word and Spirit over against the means of grace that Christ has entrusted to His visible church (i.e., the ministry of the Word and sacraments) is a false dichotomy. No faithful visible church exalts ritual and man above the Word of God. Rather, it faithfully administers the Word through preaching, teaching, church discipline and sacraments. It is not “shallow” to diligently use the means of grace in the fellowship of the visible church; on the contrary, those who would reject the ordinary means of grace and visible church membership are the ones who manifest spiritual shallowness and immaturity.

    ctrace wrote: “Physical churches are not protection from the Kingdom of Satan, nor are they places of learning. They tend to be as worldly as the world.”

    GW: It is true that, in the words of the Westminster Confession, “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.” (25.5) (Christians in liberal or apostate communions should “come out and be separate” from those communions, and align themselves with faithful churches.) But it is also true that, “Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.”

    Regarding “physical churches” not being a “protection from the Kingdom of Satan,” that is not the case if we are talking about local manifestations of the true visible church. When the Apostle Paul ordered the excommunication of the man who was guilty of incest, such church discipline would have the effect of delivering the sinning man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh (although in the hopes that this discipline would lead to his repentance and thus his ultimate salvation — 1 Cor. 5:3-5). To be cut off by discipline, or to refuse through one’s own choice connection with, the visible church, is to live in the realm of Satan. And while Christ alone saves, and not the church, nevertheless as the Westminster Confession of Faith (and all historically Reformed believers) affirms, outside of the church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2). To attack or denigrate the visible church is to despise our spiritual “mother.” Under ordinary providential circumstances, he who does not have the church as his “mother” does not have God as his Father.

    See my blog article “No salvation outside the church?” for further explanation of this: http://lakeopc.net/2013/no-salvation-outside-the-church/

  12. ctrace says:

    Every Romanist e-pologist quotes Heb. 13:17. As a Protestant I direct them to Heb. 13:7 for the reason *why* they would have authority. Because they have the word of God. Back then, not everybody had a nice Cambridge, leather-bound Bible with complete New Testament. Today we do. If one finds authority in anything *other than* the word of God then we are back in the Roman Beast communion.

    Priesthood of all believers, the most hated – recovered – doctrine of the Reformation era.

    You’re a Christian? Then you are a prophet, priest, and king. Jesus Christ says He doesn’t want anybody lording it over anybody else in His Church of which He is King.

    As for no salvation outside a church building, listen to Louis Berkhof: “The Essence of the Church. There is quite a difference of opinion between Roman Catholics and Protestants as to the essential nature of the Church. The former find its essence in the Church as an external and visible organization. And this organization, strictly speaking, does not consist of the whole body of the faithful that constitute their Church, but of the hierarchy, consisting of the priests together with the higher orders of bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and the Pope. They distinguish this body as the “teaching church” from the common body of believers as the “learning” or “hearing church.” This hierarchical body shares directly in the glorious attributes of the Church, such as its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, while the general body of believers is adorned with these only indirectly. Theoretically Roman Catholics still hold to the principle that there is no salvation outside of their external organization, though the facts often constrain them to modify it in various ways. The Reformation reacted against this external conception of the Church and sought the essence of the Church in the invisible and spiritual communion of the saints. This Church includes the believers of all ages and no one else, and outside of it there is no salvation. It is the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, destined to reflect the glory of God as this is manifested in the work of redemption.”

    Berkhof, Louis (2009-10-15). Manual of Christian Doctrine (pp. 280-281). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.

    Listen to Warfield: “Previously, men had looked to the Church for all the trustworthy knowledge of God obtainable, and as well for all the communications of grace accessible. Calvin taught them that neither function has been committed to the Church, but God the Holy Spirit has retained both in His own hands and confers both knowledge of God and communion with God on whom He will.”

    I used to have a quote from John Bunyan where he set an Anglican judge straight who, with furious authority, was demanding to know why Bunyan hadn’t joined himself to a local church. Bunyan said he didn’t see it commanded in Scripture. The incensed judge was part of the ecclesiastical structure of authority who had sentenced Bunyan to prison for many years for preaching in the open air and other grievous ‘anti-Christian’ crimes.

    Let’s remember that’s we’re not Romanists. There is salvation outside buildings. We have a Father in heaven, the invisible Church of which Christ is King is not our ‘mother.’ Romanists have a ‘mother church’, Protestants are born of the word and the Spirit.

    • ctrace wrote: “Priesthood of all believers, the most hated – recovered – doctrine of the Reformation era.

      “You’re a Christian? Then you are a prophet, priest, and king. Jesus Christ says He doesn’t want anybody lording it over anybody else in His Church of which He is King.”

      GW: Yes, I agree with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and believe that in Chirst I am a prophet, priest and king. And I agree with the substance of the quotes from Berkhof and Warfield regarding the essence of the church being internal and spiritual. At the same time, the Reformers never understood this doctrine as something that undermined the visible organized church, its ordinary ministry of word and sacraments, or its government by pastor/bishops and elders. Calvin wrote (in Institutes Book IV.I.4 in the section “The visible church as mother of believers”): “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother (he is speaking of the visible – NOT the invisible – church – GLW) conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matt. 22:30]…Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation…(Calvin quotes various Scriptures to support his argument – GLW)…By these words God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.” (p. 1016, Volume 2, Edited by John T. McNeill, The Westminster Press)

      ctrace wrote: “Let’s remember that’s we’re not Romanists. There is salvation outside buildings. We have a Father in heaven, the invisible Church of which Christ is King is not our ‘mother.’ Romanists have a ‘mother church’, Protestants are born of the word and the Spirit.”

      GW: You twist my words. I have never defended “no salvation outside of church buildings.” The visible church is not a building, and to suggest that that is what I was saying is to demonstrate that you are either not really reading my comments carefully and in context, or you are not really interested in considering what I have to say.

      What I do affirm is that there is no “ordinary” possibility of salvation outside of the fellowship of the visible church, which is a gathering of God’s professing people where the Word is preached, sacraments are administered, public prayer is offered, and discipline & order are maintained. Such a visible church can meet in a cathedral, in a home, or in the catacombs. The meeting facility is irrelevant.

      The “invisible church” is simply the church as God sees it; but it comes to visible manifestation in this present age in visible organized churches (churches that we can see, with real flesh and blood people who assemble together to observe the ordinances of God). Most of the New Testament Epistles were written to visible churches with actual addresses (the church in Corinth, the church in Rome, the churches of Galatia, etc.), not to some disembodied “invisible church” that can only be infallibly known to God.

      So, back to my questions based on Heb. 13:17 – Who are YOUR spiritual “leaders”? How are YOU obeying this commandment? Which local visible church of Jesus Christ do YOU belong to? And if you don’t belong to a local biblical church, why not? Are you too good, too “spiritual” for the visible church? Are you too high and holy to be involved with ordinary, flawed sinners like us regular church members? It’s easy to criticize the visible church today (which I concede is rife with many problems, weaknesses and flaws) from a comfortable distance. But if you think the visible church today is so flawed, then why not get connected with a local body and seek to contribute your spiritual gifts to the body so you can be part of the solution?

  13. ctrace says:

    You’re a selective quoter of what I write. Let’s talk of your notion of authority. By your reading of Heb. 13:17 you put authority in man. As demonstrated (referencing Heb. 13:7) I put authority in the very word of God. So does the entire biblical witness.

    You give lip service to this that and the other, but then u-turn and come back to the demands we have heard emanating out of the dark recesses of that condemned building in Rome.

    Again, issues of ecclesiology and sacramentology will tend to be all over the board because the Bible is simply not clear on them (and intentionally so, as explained above), and also because the reformers 1) had difficultly scraping all the fat and grease off their plates after exiting the Roman Catholic domain; and 2) considered the various ‘anabapstist’ confusions to be as evil if not more evil than Rome. A questionable conclusion, but it influenced their scatter shot statements on sacraments and church polity.

    Having said the above the reason I admire Calvin is because he understood regeneration by the word and the Spirit. Foundationally he had it right, even if politically he was a bit overwrought. Then you find Calvin in less known works sounding a bit more early-Zwinglian on the subject of sacraments: “In popery, baptism is like a charm, because they think there is no salvation, except by the water. [Y]et it is a diabolical opinion that baptism is able of itself to save us.” John Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians, Banner of Truth, pg. 580. In fact his 40th Sermon on Ephesians is a bit of an embarrassment for any who would state Calvin was more like that Anglican judge I described above than like John Bunyan when all is said and done. There’s a difference when you’re in a war to the death, and a two-front war at that, than when you are free to be less political and base your statements less on the real and dangerous contingencies of war.

    I’ve never felt moved of the Spirit to join a church. I have felt moved of the Spirit to read the Bible and to get an understanding of God’s plan of redemption, parts in relation to the whole. Once regenerated I found myself in the Church of which Christ is King. And, as stated, regenerate Christians find each other, even when we aren’t trying. We talk, we inspire each other, we commune. When Jesus said wherever two or more meet in my name He meant it. I have felt moved of the Spirit to learn spiritual battle, and to find sources that teach me of such battle and of the battlefield itself. This is part of the Spirit’s work inside a Christian. The body of Christ is described just as that, with some being the hand, the arms, the eyes, etc.

    There is much to the model of church you hold to that is not biblical but merely of tradition. Sermons, for one, are an impractical way to learn or teach anything. One man talking to a passive group in itself can hardly be found to be in the biblical framework. The making of church a family thing is remarkably unbiblical (and I’m not talking about having families present, but defining your environment as a family environment, etc.). Jesus Himself would be suspect in such church environments. The notion of ‘lay’ people, language used by just about every Protestant cleric I’ve come across. It is wholly unbiblical. The keeping of people at a nursery level. Taking the metaphor of sheep literally. The Bible tells us we are kings. Kings aren’t sheep. And in that metaphor Jesus is the Shepherd. And the only ‘vicar’ of Christ on earth is the Holy Spirit. No man. The whole notion of minsters ‘mediating’ the faith between
    God and ‘sheep’ is as unbiblical as it gets. There is one Mediator between God and man, and that is Jesus Christ.

    I assume now you will carefully cut and paste little portions of what I’ve written, and it will go on and on, but I think it’s clear where we stand.

  14. Dear ctrace: I have appreciated our dialogue, but I am sorry that we are having so much trouble communicating with each other. Given this difficulty, this will probably be my last communication with you in this context (I’ll let you have the last word).

    I notice once again that you dismiss my appeal to Heb. 13:17 and accuse me of being a “selective quoter.” But I did not merely cite this verse in my overall argumentation; I also referred you to the pattern in the Book of Acts and to the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), which clearly refer to a leadership structure in the New Testament church (elders/bishops and deacons), ordinances for public worship (for example, 1 Tim. 2 requires intercessory prayer in the church, and prohibits women from exercising official teaching authority), and so forth. I mentioned the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15). You respond, not by actually interacting carefully with these Scriptural considerations, but by ignoring them, claiming (wrongly) that I have Romanist leanings, and talk about “lording it over the flock.” (By the way, I believe that leaders in the church should be “servant leaders,” not prelates or popes who demand that their subjects bow and kiss their rings. Faithful church officers will seek to lead by example and to lay down their life for the “sheep” entrusted to their care – 1 Pet. 5:1-2.) It’s a bit frustrating to try to have a dialogue with someone who simply refuses to interact with one’s actual arguments, and who instead constantly constructs straw men of his opponent’s arguments.

    The early church in Jerusalem (made up of converts won to Christ by Peter’s Pentecost sermon) sets the authoritative pattern for what the church does when it gathers for worship: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) “The apostles’ teaching” involved the preaching and teaching of the Word. (Listening to the faithful preaching of the Word is not merely a “passive” activity, as you suggest. It is an active, reverent, worshipful listening to God’s Word.) “Fellowship” may involve acts of religious worship, or perhaps the collection of alms. In this context “the breaking of bread” is probably referring to the Lord’s Supper. And the definite article in “the prayers” likely indicates corporate, liturgical-style praying (which is what these Jewish converts to Christ were used to in their synagogues). Basically a Word and sacrament ministry under the oversight of special officers (in these circumstances, the apostles). Sounds like the basic elements of a church worship service to me.

    ctrace wrote: “I’ve never felt moved of the Spirit to join a church. I have felt moved of the Spirit to read the Bible and to get an understanding of God’s plan of redemption, parts in relation to the whole. Once regenerated I found myself in the Church of which Christ is King.”

    GW: My friend, here’s the problem: The Spirit “moves” us by the Word, and the Word commands us to obey our spiritual leaders (real, servant leaders who lead by the Word of God, not false shepherds who lead by the words of men). Such obedience implies some kind of leadership structure in the church and special church officers (like pastors, elders and deacons, which the New Testament mentions on numerous occasions). The Holy Spirit will not “move” you to disobey the very Word He inspired (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God is a God of order, and the Spirit brings order out of chaos; so the Holy Spirit is not opposed to order and structure in His visible church. And it is not the Holy Spirit who “moves” you to feel spiritually superior to church members in faithful churches by judging them to be unworthy of your association and fellowship. The Spirit of God does not inspire or cater to such mystical elitism. I am not God and cannot pronounce judgment on your soul, but if you have no desire to obey God’s Word in its clear requirement to be connected to an expression of the visible church, then you can have no genuine, biblical right to feel assurance that you belong to Christ’s invisible body, and the credibility of your profession of faith is suspect. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” I would urge you, dear sinner, to repent of your unteachable attitude and hardness of heart, and to seek out a faithful biblical fellowship in your area where you can be spiritually shepherded by faithful servant leaders who will watch out for your soul as faithful undershepherds of Christ.

    I would also encourage you to read “Why We Love The Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion” by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009). You can order it here: http://www.amazon.com/Why-Love-Church-Institutions-Organized/dp/0802458378

    Thank you again for this interaction. I wish you all the best.

    In the service of King Jesus,
    Geoff Willour

  15. ctrace says:

    At some point discover the Way. It’s through the Wicket Gate. Be sure to avoid the twin detours of the Slough of Despond and the Village of Morality…

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

 

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