The Radical Duality of Anabaptist Ecclesiology (Bavinck)

(This is a repost from August 2015)

One thing that Herman Bavinck did so well was put his finger on the pulse of the radical Anabaptist theology in the post-reformation era.  Here’s one of his many penetrating insights into the Anabaptist dualism.

“Anabaptism proceeded from the premise of an absolute antithesis between creation and re-creation, nature and grace, the world and the kingdom of God, and therefore viewed believers as persons who in being born again had become something totally different and therefore had to live in separation from the world.  Its program was not reformation but separation: Anabaptism wanted a separated church.  For centuries [they said] there had been no church but only Babel, and Babel had to be abandoned and shunned.  In Munster it was said that there had been no true Christian in 1,400 years.  The true church was a church of saints who, after making a personal profession of faith, were baptized, and who distinguished themselves from others by abstaining from oaths, war, government office, and a wide assortment of worldly practices in food and drink, clothing, and social contact” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.292).

This is pretty significant to understand, especially in light of an earlier post here concerning the conversion experience.  Over and over Bavinck reminds us that grace restores nature; it does not work against or remain outside, above, or beside nature “but rather permeates and wholly renews it.”  In other words, conversion experiences are as diverse as the scores of people who have been converted: there is no one conversion that trumps the others.

This is where the conversion experience and the doctrine of the church go hand in hand: if one sharply distinguishes grace from nature, he sees conversion as a separation from (or destruction of) nature instead of a renewal/reformation of it.  When it comes to the church then, it has to be made up of only those who are separated from nature and show it by their sharp distinction between themselves and everything else.  In pretty blunt terms, it is as if conversion is a lightning-bolt-supernatural-shock which results in something totally different, and those who are totally different make up a totally different church (almost an a-natural church).  In Reformed terms (and Bavinck’s terms), this is a dualistic principle that underlies more than a few sects that emerged within Protestantism following the Reformation.

What is the Reformed response?  It is quite detailed, but the first thing to note with Bavinck is the organic working of grace, the way grace restores and works through, in, and with nature.  We see this principle 1) in the writing of Scripture (God didn’t destroy the personalities of the author, but used them for his purposes), 2) in the unfolding promises of his covenant of grace (his ordinary way of working is through the natural means of parents and their seed), 3) in conversion (which is a renewal [not destruction] of the imago dei), 4) in sanctification (God reforming his people – including their various personalities and emotions), and 5) in the church (he uses natural things like speaking, bread, wine, and discipline – the 3 marks of a true church – to help his people).  These are just five areas – there are more.

There is a pastoral side to this.  Just as with conversion we don’t always need to see the “hell to heaven” experience that one can pinpoint (though those are fine), so too with sanctification and the doctrine of the church.  In a church, we’re going to find a whole bunch of people with different personalities, different ways of struggling with sin, different methods of speaking about Jesus, and so forth.  Since grace renews nature, we should expect to see one parishioner fight sin with tears, another fight it with a more upbeat attitude, and yet another fight it quietly behind the scenes while a fourth sings a favorite Psalm to combat sin.  When I counsel a believer who struggles with some type of addiction, for example, though we follow general Scriptural principles, he may not fight that addiction like I would.  This sometimes frustrates me, since I tend to be Luther-like, fighting sin with fists flying.   When Bavinck reminds me that grace restores nature, I can rest at night knowing that God’s gracious renewal gives us the same weapons to fight, but we all use those weapons in different ways.   Just because the sinner-who-is-a-saint doesn’t throw fists at sin like I do doesn’t mean he isn’t fighting it!  Just because a church is made up of people who are at different stages of struggling and have different methods of struggling doesn’t mean the church is impure!   A church is made up of sinners using the same weapons to fight sin, only they wield the weapons differently.  Grace renews nature!

This post is too long already, but this topic also has implications for preaching.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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One of the Marks: Christian Discipline

 One of the three marks of a true Christian church is discipline.  That is, a true Christian church will follow Christ’s command in Matthew 18 and discipline an unrepentant sinner (see also 1 Cor. 5:1-5).  Now, not every church disciplines unrepentant sinners.  Some churches are ignorant of Christ’s command, others are afraid to discipline because it might mean people leave.  Still others think God will sort it all out so the church shouldn’t worry about it.  However, no matter how difficult it is, no matter if it means people leave, the call of Christ is clear: unrepentant sinners must be reubked and disciplined (Mt. 18:17).  D. M. Lloyd-Jones was emphatic on this point:

The third mark of the Church, and the one I am most anxious to emphasize, because it is so sadly neglected, is the exercise of discipline. Now if we had asked at the beginning: ‘What are the three essential marks of the Church?’, I wonder how many would have mentioned the exercise of discipline? There is no doubt at all but that this doctrine is grievously neglected. Indeed, if I were asked to explain why it is that things are as they are in the Church; if I were asked to explain why statistics show the dwindling numbers, the lack of power and the lack of influence upon men and women; if I were asked to explain why it is that so many churches seem to be incapable of sustaining the cause without resorting to whist drives and dances and things like that; if I were asked to explain why it is that the Church is in such a parlous condition, I should have to say that the ultimate cause is the failure to exercise discipline.  David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 14.

But why do (or should!) churches discipline unrepentant sinners?  The Bible gives several reasons.  Here are some reasons found in 1 Corinthians 5 (I’ve summarized them from Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism):

  1. So that the obstinate sinner may be put to shame and convicted to the point of repentance (1 Cor. 5:5).
  2. So that other Christians do not stumble because of the person’s sin (1 Cor. 5:6).
  3. To teach other Christians that sin will be disciplined (1 Cor. 5:6).
  4. So that the church may not be disgraced on account of public scandals (1 Cor. 5:7).

Also, one of the major reasons why churches should discipline unrepentant sinners is for the glory of Christ.  We don’t want his name dragged in the mud because some in his church are allowed to live in a way that profanes his holy name.

On a positive note, a church disciplines unrepentant sinners out of love for the sinner and for Christ!  We want the sinner to repent, his people to be edified, and we want Jesus’ name to be hallowed.  Indeed, Christian discipline is a mark of a true church.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

 

What Are First Fruits?

I’m still making my way through this helpful book: Images of the Church in the New Testament by Paul Minear.  One image he talks about is the image of the first fruits.  This is a rich theme in the Bible that applies to various concepts in the Old and New Testaments (see Gen 49:3, Ex 23:16, Lev 2:12, Jer 2:3, Rom 8:23, 1 Cor 15:20, etc).

Here’s how Minear nicely summarizes the different nuances of the meaning of first fruits:

It recalls a pattern of Jewish thought in which the first produce, whether of grain, flocks, bread, or children, was specially given by God and therefore must be given back to him as a token of total indebtedness.  This conception had played a central role in national festivals and in temple liturgy.  In Christian imagination the picture fused together several basic conviction:

1) God’s lordship over all and his gift of all.
2) The Passover requirement of the sacrifice of the first-born.
3) Man’s dedication to God of all his ‘produce.’
4) The appearance and presentation of the first fruit as a pledge of the coming harvest.
5) The power of the first to represent all others in the series.
6) The power of the first to sanctify and to cleanse the whole series.

These assumptions permeate the following appearances of the idiom in the New Testament: Christ is the first fruits of the dead (1 Cor 15:20-23); the Spirit, which is at work within the Christian community, is the pledge and guarantee, the ‘down payment’ of the coming redemption, which is designed to reach the whole creation (Rom 8:23; cf. also ch 11:16); the first converts in a providence embody the promise and power of salvation for the whole province (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15); the Christian community as a whole is begotten in order to serve as the first fruits of all God’s people (James 1:18; cf also Rev 14:4).

Minear then notes how “first fruits” is a biblical way to think about Christ’s church: “It locates the historical present of the church as lying between what God has done and what he will surely do.  It suggests that God is now active in social history.  It identifies Jesus Christ as the agent through whom God’s hand is at work” (Minear then cites Eph 2.10, Rev 3:14, Col 1:16).

So the imagery of “first fruit” is found in the OT and ultimately fulfilled in Christ, the Spirit’s work, the church, and God’s mission to the world!

Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, p 112-113.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Saying No to Church = Divorcing Christ from His Bride (Murray)

Some people today believe they can be a Christian without being part of a church.  I know of people who call themselves Christians yet purposely do not associate with a local church fellowship.  This is an unbiblical attitude that results in an unbiblical lifestyle.  Hebrews 10 talks about not forsaking the assembly, and 1 John says that people who went out from the Christian group were really not part of the group (Heb 10:25 & 1 John 2:19).  John Murray gave a good reminder of the tight bond between Christ and his bride, the church:

“We cannot think of Christ properly apart from the church.  All the offices he exercises as head over all things, he exercises on behalf of the church.  If we think of the church apart from Christ, or transfer to the church prerogatives that belong only to Christ, then we are guilty of idolatry.  But if we think of Christ apart from the church, then we are guilty of a dismemberment that severs what God has joined together.  We are divorcing Christ from his only bride.  The central doctrine of the Christian faith should remind us of the evil of such divorce, for this doctrine is that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it’ (Eph. 5:25).”

Since Christ loved his church that much, so should his followers!  True, the church is not perfect.  But Christ didn’t run away from it or forsake it, instead he loved the church and died for it!  So the Christian must not run away from the church or forsake it, but love it, pray for it, and join with it – out of love for and obedience to Christ.

John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 1, p. 238.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

“A Well-Ordered Church” – A Review

We live in a time when local churches come and go.  Sometimes a person gets a “vision” to plant a church, so they just go ahead and do it with very little planning or purposely formed biblical foundations.  On the other hand, some local churches that have been around for a while simply go on and end up moving away from a biblical foundation.  A biblical foundation is absolutely essential for a true Christian church.  Speaking of church foundations, here’s a good book on the topic: A Well-Ordered Church by Bill Bookestein and Danny Hyde.  This is a readable survey of the biblical principles of a church.  It’s under 200 pages and includes a few study questions at the end of each of the eleven chapters.

There are four main parts to the book: 1) Identity, 2) Authority, 3) Ecumenicity, and 4) Activity.  The first half of the book is structured liked Ephesians 2:20 – Christ is the cornerstone, the apostles and prophets are the foundation.  After talking about Christ the head of the church, the discussion moves to Scripture as the authoritative Word and then talks about the officers of the church who serve under Christ and his word.

The last half of the book talks about the church’s activity, which includes teaching, worshiping, witnessing, and discipline.  Here Boekestein and Hyde highlight the importance of preaching and how the Scriptures inform our worship services (which are aimed at praising and glorifying our triune God).  The appendix is the URCNA’s 17 Scripture based foundational principles for Reformed church government.

I appreciate and recommend this book because it is biblical, outlined/organized well, and an easy read (in the very best sense of the term).  I also thought the discussion on ecumenism was helpful and balanced.  I do wish there was more talk about the sacraments and church membership (though I do realize a book can only cover so much ground).  Even if one disagrees with a few things in the book, I submit that its strengths far outweigh its (very) few weaknesses.

The book will for sure be a help to any one who wants a basic overview of a Reformed ecclesiology.  It would be good to give to someone coming into a Reformed church, or it would be a good read for those who are in Reformed churches and need a readable “study guide” to Reformed ecclesiology.

William Boekestein and Daniel Hyde, A Well-Ordered Church (EP Books: Welwyn Garden City, 2015).

NOTE: I received the book from the publisher for review purposes, but was not compelled to write a positive review.

Shane Lems

Three Great Negations of Presbyterianism

One big part of being Reformed is being Reformed in the area of church polity and practice.  In other words, Reformed churches have a Presbyterian structure which is “re-formed” according to the New Testament model.  Charles Hodge talked about this in his 1855 address called “What is Presbyterianism?”  Here’s a nice summary paragraph from his speech:

The three great negations of Presbyterianism—that is, the three great errors which it denies are: 1) That all church power vests in the clergy. 2) That the apostolic office is perpetual. 3) That each individual Christian congregation is independent.

The affirmative statement of these principles is: 1) That the people have a right to a substantive part in the government of the Church. 2) That presbyters [elders], who minister in word and doctrine, are the highest government officers of the Church, and all belong to the same order. 3) That the outward and visible Church is, or should be, one, in the sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and a larger to the whole. It is not holding one of these principles that makes a man a Presbyterian, but his holding them all.

Charles Hodge, What Is Presbyterianism? An Address (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1855), 6–7.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Calvin on the (Im)Purity of the Church

I appreciate the following comments John Calvin made when discussing Galatians 1:2b.  They go hand in hand with WCF 25.4: “Particular churches… are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”  Here’s Calvin:

We do not always find in churches such a measure of purity as might be desired. The purest have their blemishes; and some are marked, not by a few spots, but by general deformity. Though the doctrines and practices of any society may not, in all respects, meet our wishes, we must not instantly pronounce its defects to be a sufficient reason for withholding from it the appellation of a Church. Paul manifests here a gentleness of disposition utterly at variance with such a course. Yet our acknowledgment of societies to be churches of Christ must be accompanied by an explicit condemnation of everything in them that is improper or defective; for we must not imagine, that, wherever there is some kind of church, everything in it that ought to be desired in a church is perfect.

John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians – 1:2.

shane lems
hammond, wi