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Congregationalist Casino Night

Thursday, August 19th, 2010 by Eric Landry

How bad is the rot in American Christianity? Is our heterodoxy, compromise, and worldliness a modern problem or does it perhaps go deeper, down into the DNA of a faith tradition formed more by revivalism than historic faith and practice? Over at Steadfast Lutherans, our friend and Modern Reformation contributor Mollie Z. Hemingway posted an article first published in the Lutheran magazine Witness back in 1916.  The author of the article surveys a number of ministers and practices across the nation and asks, “Is this Christianity?” Here’s a sample:

The Episcopal Churchman, commenting upon the tendency towards sensationalism in the Reformed sects, later suggested that the streets may yet be brilliant with everchanging electric signs flashing forth, “The Congregationalistic Casino,” “The Baptist Hall of Joy.” “The Gospel Free Lunch and Picture Show.”

Leaving off comment about “Reformed sects,” it is interesting to note that the article wasn’t too far off. Casino Night has descended at First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. Here’s Pastor Jack Schaap playing emcee to the congregation:

Tragic Church Signs

Friday, June 25th, 2010 by Eric Landry

Welcome to a new segment on the White Horse Inn blog: “Tragic Church Signs.”

The first installment comes courtesy of the comment string in a recent MockingbirdNYC blog post.

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If you’ve seen a Tragic Church Sign, send it in!

Video Posted: Horton at Saddleback

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010 by Shane Rosenthal

AN UPDATE FROM MIKE HORTON:

I had a great time at the Lausanne “Global Conversation” held at Saddleback Church and hosted by its pastor, Rick Warren.  It was a privilege to be part of a distinguished panel of evangelical leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Before the panel discussion, Rick Warren interviewed me for his Purpose-Driven network.  In the first interview he focused on my books and the work of White Horse Inn.  In the second, he focused on the question, “What is the Gospel?”  I appreciated the generous spirit in which Rick asked the questions and encouraged me to lay out the case we have for a new Reformation.  It’s great to be able to discuss our differences as well as our common convictions in a spirit of friendship as well as mutual challenge.  Our mission at White Horse Inn is to go to any forum that invites us where we have a chance to clarify what we are convinced is the proper message and mission of the church.  Thanks for your prayers—and for making such opportunities possible.  May God continue to open doors for an ever-wider hearing!

Michael Horton recently participated in a panel discussion on global evangelism at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.  It was part of the 12 Cities / 12 Conversations tour sponsored by the Lausanne Movement, and a video of this conversation is now available online.   In addition to Horton, other panelists include Skye Jethani, Jim Belcher, Jena Lee Nardella, Miles McPhereson, Soon Chan Rah, and Kay Warren. FYI, the discussion doesn’t get rolling until around 16 minutes into the video (after all the introductory remarks).

lausanne-saddleback

What’s the point?

Friday, May 7th, 2010 by Eric Landry

I wasn’t really prepared for something this good, but this article by Andrew Root at the Youth Specialties website is gold. Read it if you’re in youth work, or regularly preach or teach God’s people, or wonder why you don’t seem to fit in with the dominant Christian culture of giddiness.

Here’s a teaser:

I wonder if one reason even good kids know little about the Christian faith (as the National Study on Youth and Religion pointed out), may be because they sense there is little to know, for Christianity from the perspective of the shiny and happy is about being good and avoiding bad. They don’t see Christianity as living into an altogether different reality, where from death comes life, where the God of glory is found in shadows, in brokenness and yearning, rendering brokenness and yearning impotent to determine our destiny. From the perspective of trying to keep kids away from the bad, Christianity is about avoidance.

(ht Mockingbird)

Christian Radio as a Means of Grace

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010 by Eric Landry

I don’t listen to Christian radio often, but occasionally I indulge.  I admit I sometimes enjoy the upbeat Christian pop music, and every once in a while the radio personalities have some interesting things to say.  While listening to one of my local Christian radio stations one afternoon, I heard a statement that struck me as somewhat odd.  The announcer guaranteed that listening to their station for three hours each day would improve my walk with Jesus.  Later on, I was promised that three hours per day of this station would improve my relationship with my spouse or children (again, guaranteed!).  At the time this seemed strange to me, if only for practical reasons.  What if I just happened to listen to the three worst hours each day?  Or what if I only listened to music, and never heard a single sermon, devotional, or piece of inspiring advice?  But really, the issue was not a practical one, it was theological.  A radio station that plays some upbeat music and the occasional sermon or talk  show is not the place I think of going to when I want to change my life.

I had forgotten all about this until just recently.  While indulging in a little Christian radio a few days ago, I heard several “testimonial” advertisements promoting the station.  In one ad, a woman said that she was fighting depression after a divorce, and listening to this Christian radio station lifted her mood and strengthened her faith.  The part about lifting her mood didn’t surprise me, but when she described how listening to this radio station had strengthened her faith I was a bit shocked.  Listening to this radio station apparently took the place of (or was simply more effective than) reading God’s Word, hearing it preached, and having it represented and confirmed for her in the Sacraments.  In short, listening to Christian radio had had the effect of a means of grace.

The next ad I heard was only more shocking.  This time, a woman described a point in her life when she was not a Christian and was struggling with suicidal thoughts.  Somehow (I forget the details now) she was turned on to this Christian radio station, and after listening for a while and feeling better, she decided to give her life to Christ.  There was no mention of a church or pastor being involved, only the radio station.  In this case, Christian radio had not only taken the place of a means of grace (the preaching of the Word), but was apparently responsible for converting a lost sinner.  Yet this too, according to Paul, is the province of the proclamation of the Gospel.

What worries me is not that Christian radio is having a positive effect on people. My worry is that many Christians are increasingly looking outside of God’s ordained means of grace to find what they need.  More worrisome than that is the thought that they are finding their needs met not in faithful Gospel preaching and Sacraments, but in music.  It is surely possible to hear a good sermon, occasionally, on Christian radio (although I can scarcely remember that last time I did).  But in ads like these it is consistently the “uplifting music” that is cited as the main source of help and strength.  There is no doubt that singing heartfelt praises to God can have a therapeutic effect.  Singing praises, however, (or merely listening passively to others singing praises) is not a means of receiving God’s grace, but rather a grateful response to grace already received.  The grace we receive from God comes through his instituted means:  The preaching of his Word, especially the promises of his glorious Gospel, and the Word made visible in the Sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper).  Just as no amount of online sermons can ever replace the experience of gathering with fellow saints in the local church (something that we are in fact explicitly commanded to do), so also no amount of uplifting music can ever replace the true grace of God given by his own specially chosen means.

-David Nilsen (David also blogs at Evangelical Outpost and the A Team Blog)

Great Questions! A Further Response

Friday, April 23rd, 2010 by Eric Landry

Thanks for all the thoughtful interaction regarding my recent blog post.  I’ll pick out Andrew Meredith’s for further reflection:

As part of the so-called “young, restless, and Reformed” movement, I would consider myself an evangelical who has been significantly impacted by the Reformed tradition. Although I have respect for the “Reformed rooms,” I could not agree with the Reformed confessions. My question is twofold: on what basis does one accept these confessions as one’s own belief, and what exactly is there authority in the church?

Many Protestants today—especially in America—view creeds and confessions with suspicion, or at least treat them as suggestive for individual believers rather than as a shared confession of doctrine.  However, this is itself a tradition.  It’s largely shaped by Anabaptist and revivalist sources.

Roman Catholics are bound to the church’s teachings on the ground that they are simply the teachings of the church.  Reformed Christians are bound to their church’s teachings on the ground that they summarize Holy Scripture.

When the practical implications of the Jew-Gentile relationship in the church came to a head, the church of Antioch (probably a group of local churches) appointed delegates (Paul and Barnabus) to a specially called Synod of Jerusalem (Ac 15).  Repeatedly we read that “the apostles and elders,” sent from each city, met to deliberate and they concluded with a consensus statement: the first time “dogma” (dogmata) is used in the New Testament.  Peter did not act as a pope, speaking ex cathedra.  Nor did each local church (much less each member) decide the case.  As Paul, Silas, and Timothy traveled from city to city, they “delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.  So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Ac 16:4-5).  Following this pattern, Reformed Christians believe that the church has real authority from Christ and that the interpretations of Scripture by the church in its representative assemblies are binding—though always open to revision in the light of God’s Word.

However, we know that Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not the only visible expressions of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”  One of my motives for advocating a more inclusive term like “evangelical Calvinist” is that it might relieve some of the stress between people who like some Reformed teachings (such as the doctrines of grace), but, as you say, cannot “agree with the Reformed confessions.”  Evangelical Calvinists can get together at conferences, but we’re all called by Christ to gather regularly for the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Ac 2:39).  We’re free to attend edifying conferences, but we’re commanded to belong to faithful churches.

“Reformed” isn’t just a few doctrines; in fact, it’s not even a long list of doctrines.  It’s a covenantal way of faith and life.  The way our confessions and catechisms talk about even issues like election, justification, and union with Christ is inseparable from the way they talk about sanctification, eschatology, and the nature and ministry of the church.  There are some people who call themselves Reformed simply because they affirm a world-embracing faith, even though they deny the “five points.” There are others who affirm the “five points,” but have an at least implicitly Wesleyan-Arminian view of sanctification or a Baptist view of the status of covenant children or embrace a radical distinction between Israel and the church in Scripture.

If something is taught in Scripture, we are obligated to believe it.  As a Reformed Christian, I believe that our confessions and catechisms most faithfully summarize what is taught in Scripture.  And I confess that together with “a cloud of witnesses”—both in heaven and on earth, across the boundaries of time and place.

It’s wonderful when Christians can affirm “mere Christianity” together.  And it’s great when we can affirm the doctrines of grace together.  However, we aren’t all Lutherans because we believe in justification or Roman Catholics because we believe in the Trinity or Baptists because we believe in baptism.  There is such a thing as the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition.  Piper, Sproul, Horton, nor anyone else gets to define what that is.  We have to submit ourselves to the common confession of Scripture in a communion of saints.

-Michael Horton

The Hallway and the Rooms

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 by Eric Landry

Movements are funny things.  Especially in the Internet Age, they can be like a summer monsoon in the Arizona desert, gathering impressive force with lightening and showers and then dissipating just as quickly.  For example, the Tea Party movement in U.S. politics has been grabbing the headlines recently, but time will tell whether it’s a tempest in a teapot.

All the hoopla over John Piper’s invitation to Rick Warren to speak at an upcoming Desiring God conference points up the vitality and challenges of the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement. Almost as soon as TIME Magazine hailed this as the third of the ten trends shaping our world today (March 12, 2009), fissures and fault lines became apparent.  Currently on Christianity Today’s liveblog, Collin Hansen (author of Young, Restless, and Reformed) has a good summary of the recent debate over the Warren invite.  David Mills over at First Things has just added a thoughtful take on it. Since both of these quote some of my comments from this blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to expand a little bit on some wider concerns.

The Hallway and the Rooms
Evangelicalism is a movement, not a church, and that’s been part of its strength.  In the wake of the Evangelical Revival in Britain and various “awakenings” in North America, a grassroots cooperation in missions and mercy ministries was formed between conservative Protestants ranging from Anglican to Anabaptist.  Ever since Wesley and Whitefield, the evangelical movement has struggled to keep flying with its Arminian and Calvinist wings.  Though dominated ever since the Second Great Awakening by Arminian sympathies, the “New Calvinism” of recent years has been nothing short of phenomenal.

However, evangelicalism—even in its “Calvinist” manifestation—is a movement, not a church. Movements are led by impressive and charismatic figures.  Even Ben Franklin wanted to cozy up to George Whitefield, a Calvinistic Anglican leader of the Great Awakening who was the closest thing to a rock star in 18th-century America.  Yet the tendency, then as now, has been to downplay the ordinary ministry of the church in favor of the extraordinary movements of the moment.

I’ve argued elsewhere that evangelicalism is like the village green in older parts of the country, especially New England.  There may be two or three churches on the grounds, but the green itself is a wide open space where people from those churches can spill out in conversation and cooperation. Evangelicalism is not a church, though it often acts like one.  It isn’t the big tent (more appropriate, given the history) that encompasses all of the churches on the green.  It’s just…, well, the green.  When it tries to adjudicate cases of faith and practice through conferences, press releases, and blogs, evangelicalism (including Calvinistic versions) exhibits its movement mentality.

My analogy echoes C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”: a hallway in a large house where believers mix and mingle, often opening the door as non-Christians knock.  But, as Lewis insisted, it’s in the rooms where people actually live as a family—where they sleep, are warmed by the fire, fed and clothed, and grow.  We are formed in the family life of Christ’s body by particular churches, with their distinct confessions and practices.  You can’t live in the hallway.

I’m not against evangelicalism as a village green or hallway.  In fact, I think it’s a wonderful meeting place.  However, when it acts like a church, much less replaces the church, I get nervous.

Young, Restless and Reformed?
Like wider evangelicalism, the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is a grassroots trend among people who are, generally speaking, not Reformed.  I’m energized by this movement every day, as I interact with people from a variety of churches, backgrounds, and traditions who are drawn to the doctrines of grace.  I spend a lot of my time in this hallway and am enriched by it.

Nevertheless, not even a “Reformed” hallway is anything more than a hallway.  “Reformed” has a specific meaning.  It’s not defined by movements, parachurch ministries, or powerful leaders, but by a confession that is lived out in concrete contexts across a variety of times and places.  The Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort) define what it means to be Reformed.  Like Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anabaptism, Reformed Christianity is a particular tradition.  It’s not defined by a few fundamentals, but by a whole system of faith and practice.  If being Reformed can be reduced to believing in the sovereignty of God and election, then Thomas Aquinas is as Reformed as R. C. Sproul.  However, the Reformed confession is a lot more than that.  Even the way it talks about these doctrines is framed within a wider context of covenant theology.

It’s intriguing to me that people can call themselves Reformed today when they don’t embrace this covenant theology.  This goes to the heart of how we read the Bible, not just a few doctrines here or there.  Yet what was once recognized as essential to Reformed faith and practice is now treated merely as a sub-set (and a small one at that) of the broader “Reformed” big tent.  Yet now it would appear that the identity of the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is at stake over whether Rick Warren gets an invitation to speak at a national conference.

Nobody thinks a Roman Catholic person is narrow and exclusive for embracing papacy and the sacrifice of the Mass.  People don’t call themselves Lutheran just because they believe in justification. Baptists (at least historically) do not even recognize as valid the baptism of non-Baptists.  Yet increasingly those who affirm the Reformed confessions are treated with suspicion as narrow and divisive for actually being Reformed.

For centuries, the “Reformed” label has been embraced by people from Anglican, Presbyterian, and Reformed traditions.  Only in the last few decades has it included those who do not embrace a covenantal interpretation of Scripture, which encompasses baptism and the Supper, the connectional government of the church, eschatology, and a host of other issues that distinguish Reformed from non-Reformed positions.  I often run into Christians who say that they are Reformed—and also dispensational or charismatic, Baptist or Barthian, and a variety of other combinations.  Like the term “evangelical,” “Reformed” is whatever you want it to be.  It’s hard to challenge pragmatic evangelicalism’s cafeteria-style approach to truth when “Reformed” versions seem to be going down the same path.

In this situation, whatever divides confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian folks from others who affirm the five points of Calvinism has to be treated as secondary.  Most obviously, the baptism of covenant children and the nature of the Lord’s Supper are treated merely as relatively unimportant.  But the nature of the visible church and its ministry, especially the sacraments, have always been regarded as relatively unimportant in evangelicalism.  By the way, when a Baptist brother refuses to acknowledge our baptism as valid, it’s hardly secondary to Baptists.  I respect those who hold this view at least for the importance that they give to a crucial biblical doctrine.

Evangelicalism’s conversion-centered paradigm is different from Reformed Christianity’s covenantal paradigm.  It’s not just a divergence here and there, but a difference that affects (or should affect) how we understand, experience, and live out our faith in the world.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hang out in the hallway from time to time; we should just be aware that it’s the hallway.

Regular listeners to White Horse Inn and readers of Modern Reformation are familiar with our regular reminder that we’re not a church, but a conversation.  Our organization isn’t Reformed, but a conversation between Calvinistic Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans, drawing from our common agreement in the truths rediscovered in the Reformation.  Sometimes views are expressed that I don’t agree with as a Reformed person, but that’s fine.  Even when we defend truths we all agree on in substance, we are coming at it from the depth of our own traditions, which we did not invent.  We’re not looking for a lowest-common-denominator, a quasi-confession for a movement, but are hoping to provoke discussions that lead people back to their rooms with more understanding of the other rooms and resources for vital engagement with the issues of our time and place.  The old-style evangelicalism, where the movement is defined by parachurch conferences, networks, and personalities, is hopefully on the wane, as younger generations enjoy the conversation in the hallway but take the church more seriously.

Movements can serve an important role in shifting broad currents, but they are shallow.  They rise and fall in the court of public opinion, not in the courts of the churches where Christ has installed officers to shepherd his flock.  That doesn’t mean that they are wrong: it’s wonderful when thousands of brothers and sisters encounter the God of glorious grace in a deeper way.  Yet movements can’t go very deep: when they do, differences are bound to emerge.  The usually rise and fall with the personalities who lead them.  Nor can movements pass the faith down from generation to generation.  Only churches can do that.

If Not “Reformed,” Then What?
So I’ve wondered about a new term that we can use for the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement: “Evangelical Calvinism.”  Why not?  It’s the sort of term that can encompass J. I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R. C. Sproul.  Reformed Christians should swell with excitement when brothers and sisters embrace the doctrines of grace and “evangelical Calvinism” distinguishes us from evangelical Arminianism.

I’m suggesting this not just out of a concern to protect the distinctives that I believe are essential to Reformed Christianity, but also out of a concern for the ongoing vitality of the movement toward the doctrines of grace.  Right now, it seems to me, this movement is being threatened by the movement mentality that characterizes evangelicalism more broadly.  The very lack of a doctrine of the church lies at the heart of this.  There are “evangelical Calvinists” from other traditions who realize this.  For example, my friend Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church has a strong Baptist ecclesiology.  In comparison with mainstream evangelicalism, it isn’t “weak” in the least, although it’s also not Reformed.  He hasn’t settled for a movement-oriented evangelical ecclesiology, but bases his ministry in the local church.  In other words, for him, the hallway isn’t a substitute for the Baptist room.

Right now, though, the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is in danger of succumbing to the fate of all movements at their peak: splintering.  Our confessions help us major on the majors, leaving secondary matters open.  Yet the “New Calvinism” movement is already showing signs of stress over questions like the age of the earth. Churches have ways of dealing with questions of fraternal relations and cooperation, but leader-driven movements can’t handle the stress.  Conferences operate as quasi-official church courts, with vigilante benedictions and excommunications determining who’s in or out. It’s like the wild west.

Christ promised to be with his church to the end, expanding his embassy to the ends of the earth. Christ pledged that the gates of hell cannot prevail against his church.  The same promise can’t be invoked for a movement.  May God swell the hallway with new visitors!  And may we all have the charity to come out of our rooms every now and again to bless each other and bear witness together to God’s sovereign grace.  But discipleship has to be formed in the rooms—in real churches, where the depth and breadth of God’s Word is explored and lived.

-Michael Horton

From a Movement to a Church: Part 4

Monday, December 7th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the last part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Earlier installments can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #4: “We can’t go to church because we are the church”

We’ve heard this one a lot lately, but again, it’s not really new.  Many of us were raised with this idea in old-style conservative evangelicalism.  In one sense, there is much to commend this view.  The church is certainly not a building.  In fact, there is no holy place on earth except for the temple consisting of living stones built up into Christ (1 Pet 2:4-10).  However, the way it is often argued goes beyond this insight. Some who invoke this phrase today tell us that the Reformation was wrong when it defined the church by the marks of preaching, sacrament, and discipline.  This put the focus on the church as a place where certain things happen instead of a people who do certain things.  How should we respond?

First, notice where the emphasis is placed in this construction.  Whereas the marks of the church identified by the reformers focus on the church as a place where God is active in serving his people with saving benefits and then sending them out into the world as renewed neighbors, the new phrase makes the church (or at least individual Christians) the active agent.  In other words, the emphasis falls on our doing instead of receiving that which God has done and is doing for us.  Not surprisingly, this emphasis picks up a lot of collateral confusions along the way, like the call to “living the gospel” or “being the gospel.”  Have we forgotten that the gospel is the Good News about God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ?  It is for us, but it is not about us.  The gospel is concentrated entirely on Christ’s doing, dying, and rising, not on our experience, piety, or acts of service.  The gospel creates faith and obedience, but only because it the gospel itself is the announcement of Christ’s obedience, death, resurrection, ascension, and return.  Of course, the public service includes the response of the covenant partner in spoken word, prayer, and song.  Nevertheless, it’s always just that: a response to God’s act of judging and promising, through Word and sacrament.

Second, besides confusing our work with Christ’s, this formula confuses the church-as-gathered with the church-as-scattered.  The church has to be a place where God does certain things (such as judge and absolve sinners) before we can be a people who do certain things.  Our obedience is “the reasonable service” that we render “in view of God’s mercies” (Rom 12:1-2).  The church as an official institution is Christ’s embassy on earth, with his ministerial authority to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mat 16:19).

However, the church is not only made up of officers—pastors, elders, and deacons.  Gifts have been given to every member for the good of all.  Furthermore, common gifts have been given to believers and unbelievers to fulfill their creation callings.  So the church as gathered is visible in the so-called “marks” of preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline, while the church as scattered refers to individual believers engaged in their ordinary callings throughout the week as parents, friends, co-workers, employers, employees, citizens, and volunteers.  The church, then, is both a place where the Covenant Lord speaks a new creation into being and a people who spill out into the world as heirs of that new creation.

The church as an official embassy of Christ’s kingdom does not have the authority to issue public pronouncements on every conceivable topic or to order the world’s affairs.  However, Christians may work together, or alongside non-Christian neighbors, to love and serve their neighbors, to engage in political action, and to pursue particular programs for community improvement.  Again, it’s a matter of respecting the “common” without trying to make it “holy.”  The commission of the church-as-institution is limited to the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline (which includes the physical as well as spiritual care of its members).  The activity of Christians, however, is much broader as they engage in their myriad vocations in the world.  And where God has not clearly directed our steps, believers have the Christian liberty to use their own sanctified common sense in the way that they raise their kids, vote, entertain themselves, and volunteer their time and talents.

The rediscovery of the doctrines of grace, nicknamed by TIME and Christianity Today as “the New Calvinism,” promises to reinvigorate Reformed and Presbyterian churches that too often take this treasure for granted.  At the same time, having been reared in individualistic evangelicalism, I have been regularly overwhelmed with the godly wisdom in churches that have been baptizing, teaching, and caring for the flock in body and soul from womb to tomb.  That’s where evangelicalism is weak.

At Pentecost, Peter declared, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:39).  Focusing on covenant nurture across the generations, older Reformed churches help us to understand what it means to deliver God’s promise to “you and your children.”  “New Calvinists” can help us become more intentional in our mission “to those who are far off,” reaching those outside the covenant community.  Let’s do this together!  As the movement matures, my hope is that it will draw more deeply and broadly from the Reformation’s wells.  If “Reformed” simply identifies someone who believes in God’s electing grace, then Thomas Aquinas was Reformed.  However, just as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and other traditions are defined by their confessions, Reformed Christians confess their faith together through carefully considered statements.  Under the normative authority of God’s Word, the Three Forms of Unity (consisting of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms summarize this consensus.

Ecclesiology is a significant part of the churches that emerged from the Reformation.  Anglican theologian Paul Avis has observed, “Reformation theology is largely dominated by two questions: ‘How can I obtain a gracious God?’ and ‘Where can I find the true Church?’  The two questions are inseparably related…” According to the churches of the Reformation, the true church is found “wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are properly administered.”  Our challenge today is to move from a Reformed movement to Reformed churches.  We must question not only the human-centered doctrine that dominates so much of American religion but the methods and form of life that arise naturally from such doctrine.  There is a particular kind of piety and conception of mission that is generated by the doctrines of Scripture.  At least since the Second Great Awakening, the Reformation and its confessional distinctives have played a less discernable role than pietist and revivalistic emphases.  In fact, at the end of his US tour, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could summarize his observations concerning American religion generally as “Protestantism without the Reformation.”  So let’s have a new Reformation that recovers the God-exalting, Christ-centered, grace-proclaiming faith and practice that will bring renewal not only to Reformed churches but, we pray, to the wider body of Christ around the world!

-Mike Horton

From a Movement to a Church: Part 3

Monday, November 30th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the third part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Parts one and two can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #3: The outward form, structure, and methods of the church are not nailed down in Scripture

I’m a typical American.  I like to “get ‘er done,” as they say.  We’re practical, can-do folks.  Let’s not spend a lot of time thinking about what we are doing.  Let’s just do it!  Many evangelicals assume that the Bible gives us a clear message, but then leaves the methods of delivering it up to us.

However, even in the Great Commission the command to “Go into all the world” is followed by the specific components of this calling: namely, to preach the gospel, to baptize, and to teach everything he has revealed.  Acts 2 tells us that the community created at Pentecost was dedicated to “the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (v 42).  These are all communal, structured, public activities.  (In Greek, the definite article in “the prayers” suggests that early Christian worship carried on the form of the synagogue liturgy with respect to corporate prayers.)

Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles busy themselves with the elements of Christ’s commission.  In fact, the diaconate is established so that they can give themselves entirely to the ministry of Word and sacrament (Acts 6).  Then, everywhere they have a nucleus of converts, the apostles ordain ministers and elders.  “This is why I left you in Crete,” Paul reminds Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Tit 1:5).  While Paul the Apostle could invoke a direct commission from the risen Christ, he bolstered Timothy’s confidence by reminding him of the calling and gift he received “when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14).  Eventually, this ordinary ministry will replace the extraordinary ministry of the apostles.  The former will build on the foundation of the latter.  Not only are local churches to be organized with pastors, elders, and deacons; they are responsible to each other in a wider fellowship of mutual encouragement and admonition.  When the churches in Antioch brought the case of Gentile inclusion to the whole church in Acts 15, the “whole church” was represented by “the apostles and elders” from each local assembly.  The result was a written decision that was expected to be received by every local church.

Then when we get to the Epistles, specific offices and qualifications are clearly stated, especially in the pastoral letters.  Clear instructions are given for the meaning and regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10-11), for church discipline (Mat 18; 1 Cor 5-7), and for public worship (Ac 2:42-45; 1 Cor 14:6-39) and the diaconal care of the saints (Ac 6; Rom 15:14-32; Gal 6:10; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13).  We are even told why we sing.  Why does God need to tell us why we sing?  Because singing in corporate worship is not mere exuberance, entertainment, or pious expression of our own thoughts, feelings, and commitment.  Rather, the purpose of the singing is the same as the preaching, the sacraments, and the prayers: “…so that the Word of Christ may dwell in you richly…” (Col 3:16).  Christ cares so much about every aspect of his visible church because he knows how prone we are to wander and to set up idols, demanding our own forms of worship.  Not only the message of Christ, but the means of grace that he has appointed, are calculated by the Triune God for delivering Christ to sinners—including believers—throughout their pilgrimage.  The same gospel that brings those “far off” to Christ also brings to Christ those who are near to the covenant promises: “you and your children” (Ac 2:39).

A major heresy swept the ancient church in the second century, known as Gnosticism.  Trying to assimilate the gospel to Greek thought, the Gnostics drew a sharp division between spirit and matter, invisible and visible, outer and inner.  It was not the external ministry of Word and sacrament or external ministers like pastors and elders, but an inner ministry of the Spirit through spontaneous ecstasy and enlightenment, that the Gnostics extolled.  Paul’s agitators in Greek-dominated settings (such as Corinth and Colossae), whom the apostle had sarcastically dubbed “super-apostles,” were likely forerunners of this sect.  However, Jesus did not found a mystical sect of the inner light; he founded a visible church, where he has promised to deliver Christ and all of his benefits through the public ministry of Word and sacrament and to guard his sheep through loving discipline and care of body and soul.

Christ is not only our prophet and priest; he’s also our king.  As such, he has not only determined our personal piety but our corporate practices as his body.  Jesus did not redeem his sheep only to make them “self-feeders.”  The Spirit disrupts our lives and disorganizes the ordinary course of this present age, but only to re-organize and re-integrate a new society around the Son.

As I observed above, I’m as pragmatic as the next American.  However, this is not a benign character trait, especially if it keeps us from taking seriously Christ’s claims as king of his church.  American evangelicalism is deeply indebted to the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Finney.  The classic American pragmatist, Finney saw the doctrines of original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural character of the new birth as obstacles to genuine revival and society’s moral improvement.  His “new measures” (such as the “anxious bench,” a precursor to the altar call) supplemented and eventually supplanted the ordained means of grace. Revival was as normal as any other programmed event, dependent on the most effective means of persuasion that could be imagined by a clever evangelist.

Just as the Spirit’s inward call is often contrasted with outward means, evangelicalism celebrates the charismatic leader who needs no formal training or external ecclesiastical ordination to confirm a spontaneous, direct, an inner call to ministry.  Historians may debate whether the Protestant enthusiasm is more of a consequence than a cause of the distinctively American confidence in intuitive individualism over against external authorities and communal instruction, but the connection seems obvious.  In Head and Heart, Catholic historian Garry Wills observes,

The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers.  They were validated by the crowd’s response.  Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance.  The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made.  This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning.  This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished.  The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry.

Wills repeats Richard Hofstadter’s conclusion that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” Where American Transcendentalism was the version of Romanticism that attracted a wide following among Boston intellectuals, Finney’s legacy represents “an alternative Romanticism,” a popular version of self-reliance and inner experience, “taking up where Transcendentalism left off.”  Emerson had written, “The height, the deity of man is to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force”—no external God, with an external Word and sacraments or formal ministry.  And revivalism in its own way was popularizing this distinctly American religion on the frontier.

Writing against Charles Finney’s “new measures,” a contemporary Reformed pastor and theologian, John Williamson Nevin, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table.  In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.”  Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” He was certainly right and we can’t just staple the five points of Calvinism to an essentially Pelagian methodology.

-Mike Horton

From a Movement to a Church: Part 2

Monday, November 16th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the second part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Part one can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #2: “Getting saved” doesn’t mean “joining a church”

Although evangelicals are used to hearing this contrast between a personal relationship with Christ and joining a church, it has no basis in the New Testament and in fact runs counter to specific examples.  From the day of Pentecost itself, “What must I do to be saved?” is answered in the Book of Acts by the call to repent and believe the gospel and to be baptized.  “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).  Public profession of faith is essential (Romans 10:10).  We have no access to hearts and surely there are instances (like the thief on the cross) where baptism and formal church membership are impossible.  However, it is a public profession of faith, not merely a private testimony of a personal relationship with Christ, that is required.  Not all who are outwardly members of the visible church are inwardly united to Christ.  This has been true in Old and New Testaments, as Paul reminds us especially in chapters 2 and 9 of Romans.  The body of elders who examine such professions is no more competent to judge hearts than the rest of us, but a credible public profession means that we cannot exercise vigilante judgments about the state of fellow members.

The apostles addressed concrete churches in specific locales and not only their leadership but the whole fellowship of communicant members.  Paul addresses the Corinthian church as those “who are called to be saints,” and on the basis of their visible membership calls them to discipline their worship and their erring members.  Believers are called to submit themselves to the spiritual leadership of pastors and elders whom God has placed over them (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17).  This is not “Churchianity.”  It’s Christianity.

-Mike Horton


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