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Semper Reformanda

by Michael Horton

If you’ve been in Protestant circles for very long, whether conservative or liberal, you may have heard the phrase “reformed and always reforming” or sometimes just “always reforming.” I hear it a lot these days, especially from friends who want our Reformed churches to be more open to moving beyond the faith and practice that is confessed in our doctrinal standards. Even in Reformed circles of late, various movements have arisen that challenge these standards. How can confessions and catechisms written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries guide our doctrine, life, and worship in the twenty-first? Liberal Protestants frequently invoked this phrase to justify their captivity to the spirit of the age, but some conservative Protestants also use it to encourage a broader definition of what it means to be Reformed.

But where did this phrase come from? Its first appearance was in a 1674 devotional by Jodocus van Lodenstein, who was an important figure in Dutch Reformed pietism — a movement known as the Dutch Second Reformation. According to these writers, the Reformation reformed the doctrine of the church, but the lives and practices of God’s people always need further reformation.

Van Lodenstein and his colleagues were committed to the teaching of the Reformed confession and catechism; they simply wanted to see that teaching become more thoroughly applied as well as understood. However, here is his whole phrase: “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” The verb is passive: the church is not “always reforming,” but is “always being reformed” by the Spirit of God through the Word. Although the Reformers themselves did not use this slogan, it certainly reflects what they were up to; that is, if one quotes the whole phrase!

Each clause is crucial. First, the church is Reformed, and this should be written with a capitalized “R.” If it is true that Jesus rose from the dead two millennia ago in Palestine, then it is just as true in our time and place. The ecumenical creeds confess the faith that we all share across a multitude of cultures and eras. Similarly, the Reformed standards (such as the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms) summarize what Reformed Christians believe to be the clear teaching of God’s Word. Churches will always be changing in significant ways depending on their time and place, but these communal ways of confessing Christ remain faithful summaries of “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Our forebears who invoked this phrase had in mind the consolidation of catholic and evangelical Christianity embodied in the Reformed confessions and catechisms. There is a reason that this wing of the Reformation called itself “Reformed.” Unlike the Anabaptists, Reformed churches understood themselves as a continuing branch of the catholic church. At the same time, the Reformed wanted to reform everything “according to the Word of God.” Not only our doctrine but our worship and life must be determined by Scripture and not by human whim or creativity.

Interestingly, it is a mainline Presbyterian theologian, Anna Case-Winters, who brings attention to what she calls “our misused motto.” Winters points out that “in the 16th-century context the impulse it reflected was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical, in the sense of returning to the ‘root.’” This was reflected in the rallying cry, sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). The Reformation had no interest in “change” as an end in itself. As Calvin argued in his treatise “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” the Reformers were charged with innovation when in fact it was the medieval church’s innovative distortions of Christian faith and worship that required a recovery of apostolic Christianity. Rome pretended to be “always the same,” but it had accumulated a host of doctrines and practices that were unknown to the ancient church, much less to the New Testament.

Some people today leave out the “Reformed” part or at least interpret it as “reformed” (little “r”): the church is “always being reformed according to the Word of God.” This means that to be Reformed is simply to be reformed and to be reformed is simply to be biblical. All who base their beliefs on the Bible are therefore “reformed,” regardless of whether their interpretations are consistent with the common confessions of the Reformed churches. However, this runs counter to the original intention of the phrase. Doubtless there are many beliefs and practices that Reformed believers share in common with non-Reformed believers committed to God’s Word. We must always remain open to correction from our brothers and sisters in other churches who have interpreted the Bible differently. Nevertheless, Reformed churches belong to a particular Christian tradition with its own definitions of its faith and practice. We believe that our confessions and catechisms faithfully represent the system of doctrine found in Holy Scripture. We believe that to be Reformed is not only to be biblical; to be biblical is to be Reformed. As important as it is to keep “Reformed” in the phrase, an even more dangerous omission is often found among more liberal Protestants who also leave out the “according to the Word of God” clause. And usually it is “always reforming,” instead of “always being reformed.” In this view, the church is the active party, determining its own doctrine, worship, and discipline in the light of ever-changing cultural contexts. Progressivism becomes an end in itself and the church becomes a mirror of the world.

Yet those of us in confessional Reformed churches must also beware of forgetting that our doctrinal standards are subordinate to the Word of God. Christ’s church was reformed by God’s Word in the Reformation and post-Reformation era. It was brought back to God’s Word and the fruit of that great work of the Spirit continues to guide us through our confessions and catechisms. And yet the church is not only Reformed; it is always in need of being reformed. Like our personal sanctification, our corporate faithfulness is always flawed. We don’t need to move beyond the gains of the Reformation, but we do need further reformation. But here is where the last clause kicks in: “always being reformed according to the Word of God.”

It is not because the culture is always changing and we need to be up with the times, but because we are always in need of being re-oriented to the Word that stands over us, individually and collectively, that the church can never stand still. It must always be a listening church. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Personally and corporately, the church comes into being and is kept alive by hearing the gospel. The church is always on the receiving end of God’s good gifts as well as His correction. The Spirit does not lead us apart from the Word but directs us back to Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. We always need to return to the voice of our Shepherd. The same gospel that creates the church sustains and renews it. Our personal conformity to the Word that Paul commands in Romans 12 is never completed in this life, and the same is true of the church in this present age.

This perspective keeps us from making tradition infallible but equally from imbibing the radical Protestant obsession with starting from scratch in every generation. When God’s Word is the source of our life, our ultimate loyalty is not to the past as such or to the present and the future, but to “that Word above all earthly pow’rs,” to borrow from Luther’s famous hymn. Neither behind us nor ahead of us, but above us, reigns our sovereign Lord over His body in all times and places. When we invoke the whole phrase — “the church Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God” — we confess that we belong to the church and not simply to ourselves and that this church is always created and renewed by the Word of God rather than by the spirit of the age.

 

From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.

 Original article can be linked from Ligonier Ministries.

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Foreword:  This is the last installment on the series  from Modern Reformation, Nov./Dec. Vol. 5 No. 6 1996 issue. To see the complete list and full articles, go to ‘Categories’ from the sidebar and choose the section on The Life of A Justified Sinner. – EmmausTrekker

 

By Dr. Michael S. Horton

Everyone knows St. Augustine , that fourth-century giant, as the doctor of grace. To a large extent, the Reformation was simply a recovery of and improvement on Augustine’s system. Few quills have graced the subject of guilt and grace like the Bishop of Hippo’s. And yet, Augustine’s own conversion was not so much due to the guilt of his sins, as to their power. You see, Augustine had been a member of a heretical sect known for its immorality. The immediate point of contact for him was the indomitable tyranny of sin. Theologians have distinguished three aspects of sin: its guilt, its power, and its presence. The moment we place our confidence in Christ’s saving work, we are instantly justified, liberated from the condemnation which the guilt of our sins deserves. Further, because of the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work, we are not only given the faith to believe, resulting in our justification; we are also given the gift of repentance, resulting in a life of sanctification or growth in Christian maturity. And yet, we know the struggle of Romans 7 all too well. Though we are justified and are being sanctified, we are engaged in a war and will know no peace until we are finally delivered from the presence of sin altogether in the New Jerusalem.

Know The Enemy
The unholy trinity most often identified in Scripture is well-known to most of us: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

First, the world. Now, be careful with this one, because it is not the world per se that’s the problem, but the world as it has come to be shaped by the warped hands and minds of sinful human beings. As God created it, the world was a good place–“very good,” God said. The Creator placed Adam in the garden as the worldly custodian, to insure that all creation served and praised its glorious Maker. But we know the story: Adam and Eve failed God in this task and the entire creation was placed under a curse to bondage and decay. The second law of thermodynamics was one physical aspect of this curse. And yet, God did not leave it this way. In the very day on which God pronounced judgment, He also promised redemption (Gen. 3:15). From Eden , history unfolds in successive stages of redemptive acts pointing to the ultimate act of redemption in Christ’s self-sacrifice.

But we very often forget that the world itself was included in this promise of redemption. It wasn’t just for Christians that the “new creation” or the “new age” dawned. In Romans chapter eight, St. Paul informs us, “The whole creation is on tiptoe” waiting to see our redemption. “The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited–yet it has been given hope.” That’s right, even creation itself has been given the promise of redemption. “And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!” ( Rom. 8:20-21, Phillips).

Therefore, the world has now become the theater of war. Just as Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait made that state the theater of conflict, so too Satan has invaded this world through the disobedience of our first parents. The world is our enemy, therefore, not in the sense that we are hostile to its culture, its music, its science, its art, its civic and social life–for we were created to participate in these activities. Rather, it is the world as dominated by alien forces hostile to the reign of Christ which presents some of our most urgent challenges.

This is why the Apostle warned, “Do not be conformed to this world’s pattern of thinking, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). Hence, we “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Every method, belief, outlook, agenda, must become a POW of Jesus Christ. Our beliefs and attitudes must pass His inspection. Some years ago, the National Council of Churches, often railed against by evangelicals as liberal, made the remark that, “The world sets the church’s agenda.” But today, it is often evangelicals themselves who are taking in uncritically the popular trends and fashionable thoughts which make it difficult sometimes to discern where Christianity ends and pop culture begins.

If the conflict with the world is a war without, the conflict with the flesh is the war within. St. Paul makes it the subject of his seventh chapter of Romans. “We know,” he says, “that the Law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” At this point, Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles, does not experience the “victorious Christian life” so many Christians are promised these days. He feels like a POW in the battle with sin. One minute, in Romans six, we find him fighting and overthrowing attacking forces in hand-to-hand combat. The next, in Romans seven, he is a prisoner. This is the nature of the Christian life. This is the course of sanctification. What many Christians today regard as a “carnal Christian” is really either an unbeliever or, like the rest of us–a struggling saint. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out . . . When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!” (vv. 21-24).

The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not, as is often suggested, that the former lives a “victorious life,” or that he “lives above all known sin.” Rather, it is that the Christian is at war within, while the non-Christian is not even aware of any conflict. The Christian houses two hostile forces. He is at once “justified and sinful,” pro-God and anti-God. And this war with oneself will never be resolved until we reach the Promised Land. As Alexander Whyte, the Presbyterian pastor of the previous century informed his congregation, “You will never leave Romans seven while I am your minister!”

The third enemy, archenemy, in this war, is the devil himself. Unlike the mystery religions surrounding the Jewish and early Christian cultures, biblical faith located evil in personal beings rather than impersonal forces. A revived collection of mystery religions, the New Age movement seeks to discover and manage these evil forces, but Christians know where evil comes from. It is the result of personal, active, willful rebellion by creatures brought into being as good creations by a good God.

In Revelation twelve, we read about a “war in heaven.” After our Lord ascends, war breaks out and Michael defeats Satan. The dragon is therefore expelled from heaven and is no longer given access to the court where his prosecution against Christians can be heard. And yet, “Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” Thus, the theater of war moves from heaven to earth itself. Here, Satan prowls like a “roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” He deceives unbelievers with false teaching; he entices Christians with false promises, and though he knows his time is short, his hatred for Christ and His redeemed hosts drives him to assault. Though he cannot win the war, he is happy to win battles, making common cause with the world and the flesh.

Know The Weapons
“Put on the full armor of God,” Paul’s command in Ephesians chapter six, is well-known to many of us. First up is the “belt of truth.” Before anything else, we have to know what we believe and why we believe it if we are to withstand the world, the flesh, and the devil. Another metaphor might be that of roots reaching deep into the soil of Scripture. We must read Scripture not only for devotional purposes, but to understand in a profounder way the meaning of our faith. We ought to read great Christian classics instead of light and fluffy popular books. There is a war for our mind and truth is the place to start. As a belt, it holds our pants up in battle.

Second, the “breastplate of righteousness” is listed. According to the Cambridge Biblical Commentary, “Most likely, this refers not to the believer’s moral character, but describes God’s rescue operation in Christ, bringing the assurance that the Christian is right with God.” In other words, our protection in battle is the confidence that we are justified–that is, already declared righteous. Whenever Satan comes to tempt us, we hold up the cross. Whenever the flesh threatens to bring us back under the dominion of Adam, we remind ourselves of our union with the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Whenever the world tells us about self-esteem or self-confidence, or takes a short-cut around dealing with the real problem of guilt, we respond with this doctrine of justification.

Third, there are the “ready feet.” Once armed with truth and the knowledge of our justification in Christ, we are now ready to zealously act. This is of great importance. St. Paul refers in Romans to his legalistic friends as those who “have tremendous zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” This zealous ignorance was especially disastrous, he says, because what they failed to understand was essential to the gospel: “For not knowing about the righteousness of God which is by faith, they set out to establish their own righteousness.” Zeal must be led and directed by the truth and justification which have already been discussed. That being said, many of us are so content with the belt and the breastplate that we forget our shoes. Zeal without knowledge is misguided energy, but knowledge without zeal is a profound waste of good news.

Fourth, we have the “helmet of salvation.” What is important to note in all of this is that every weapon with which we have been provided is outside of us. In other words, whether it’s truth, or salvation, the weapons with which we fight the world, the flesh, and the devil are not inner resources. So much of the emphasis I see these days on “spiritual warfare” calls believers into themselves through spiritual exercises like “spiritual breathing” or other forms of subjective, mystical navel-gazing. But this is just what Satan’s strategy has been. In every pagan folk culture, mysticism dominates. Techniques are provided for dealing with the forces within. Sin becomes a matter not of personal rebellion as much as demonic conflict (such as Jimmy Swaggart’s insistence that he was fine now after Oral Roberts cast the demons off of the evangelist’s back), and the war becomes a “good force” vs. “bad force” nonsense. This is folk religion rather than Christian warfare and it certainly has nothing to do with Ephesians six.

One should also notice that the helmet of salvation is given at the beginning of the war, not the end. Salvation is never a carrot God dangles in front of us to keep us going, but is a declaration already made at the beginning of it all. What commander would send his forces into battle without a helmet, merely promising them one as a reward for their success? God gives us the “helmet of salvation” right from the start, not if we win, but so that we will win.

Know The Captain
Each of these weapons mentioned in Ephesians six is first listed in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah 11. Of the Messiah it is promised, “Truth will be the sash around His waste.” “Righteousness will be His armor . . . His own arm worked salvation. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, He put on garments of vengeance and wrapped Himself in zeal as a cloak.” Further, He is even the shield and the helmet: “He is my shield behind whom I take refuge” (Ps. 144:1-2); “He will wear the helmet of salvation upon His head” (Is. 59:17). And He is the sword, known to John’s Gospel as “the Word of God.”

In all of our battles with the enemy, we reach for nothing that Christ has not already won for us. Even when we win a personal battle, it is because Christ has already fought and successfully won over His trials and temptations. In Christ, the war is already won, so the battles are real but the outcome is already known.

I hear someone saying, “Wait a second, even when you guys do talk about sanctification and the pursuit of godliness, you end up talking more about justification and ‘alien righteousness’ than practical steps of holiness.” That’s correct, and any method that does not do that is not Pauline, evangelical, or Reformational in any sense. Let me give an example of how genuinely practical this approach is even for godliness. In Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” the witches’ prophecy that “no man born of a woman will conquer you” inspires MacBeth to fight even the dreaded MacDuff. In the heat of battle, MacBeth taunts his enemy with the prophecy and confidently wields his sword because of it. But then MacDuff informs the usurper that he was not, technically speaking, born of a woman, having been torn from his mother in her death. Just as soon as the news reaches MacBeth’s ears, the strength leaves him and he is immediately taken in battle.

Many Christians live defeated lives, not because they are failing to follow certain steps or are not living up to the “victorious Christian life” (whatever that is), but because they do not have the confidence that no one, not even Satan, can “lay any charge to God’s elect” (Rom. 8:32). In the heat of battle, the strength we have to keep on going is knowing that our Commander has already determined the outcome of the war by His victory. His ascension into heaven and the devil’s expulsion from the same guarantees that our skirmishes, serious as they certainly are, will nonetheless not bring us ultimate defeat. Knowing that already makes all the difference.

Conclusion
Having said all of that, I wonder if we really want to be rid of our sins. In Romans six, Paul cheers us on: “Do not let sin reign, therefore, in your mortal body.” In Romans seven, he is more sober, reflecting on his own personal struggle to “practice what he preached” in the previous chapter. In the eighth chapter, he goes on to encourage us that even though we lose battles here and there, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1).

As believers, we live between those three poles–energetic zeal, struggle/failure, gospel. But I wonder if we take the first two poles as seriously as we really ought. Knowing that our salvation is sealed in the courts of eternity, do we eventually ignore the challenges of Romans six because of the failures of seven and the unconditional “no condemnation” in eight? I guess what I’m saying is: What do we have to lose? If we’re afraid of losing a battle, of being disappointed with a failure out on the field, we need only remember that our success or failure on the battlefield does not determine the outcome of the war. We can fight with confidence.

John Owen once said of Christ, “When He comes to war, he finds no quiet landing place. He can set His foot on no ground but that which He must fight for.” We will not grow without a fight, without sharing in His sufferings. Unlike justification, our sanctification is a lifelong struggle–so much for “let go and let God.” Small victories are prized; battles lost are soon forgotten, extracting lessons for the next. None of our enemies–the world, the flesh, or the devil, will simply move aside and put up a white flag. And yet, in our fighting we fail to hide our unrestrained anticipation prefigured in the arrival of Israel in the Promised Land: “Then the land had rest from war.”


Dr. Michael Horton is the chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California . Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and We Believe.

 

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Foreword:  This is the 3rd installment on our series on “The Life of a Justified Sinner” from the Modern Reformation magazine Nov./Dec. Vol. 5 No. 6 1996 issue. For articles uploaded earlier, click the series title on the sidebar under ‘Categories’.

EmmausTrekker

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By Michael S. Horton

 

Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth.” – John 17:17

Those words from our Lord’s high priestly prayer in John 17 frame our discussion of a most important subject in this issue. What do you think about when you come across that verb, “to sanctify” or the noun, “holy”? Especially in our day, images of a prude come to mind-a narrow-minded, somewhat bigoted kill-joy who is worried that someone somewhere is having a good time. But, of course, that caricature is not only superficial; it’s the opposite of the biblical portrait.

First and foremost, sanctification is God’s work. He takes us for himself, as he did at Mount Sinai after he had delivered his people from slavery. Like the vessels used in the temple, God has taken common, unclean, unholy people, and has set them apart to belong to him and to be used in his service. It is he who sets us apart, not we. Furthermore, we are not simply set apart from the world, but (more positively) for God. This is why Reformation theologians speak of two uses for the term “sanctification”: definitive and progressive.

We are already “holy and without blame before him,” by his choice, redemption, calling and justification (Eph. 1:4-13). “He has been made for us our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). But because we are already holy in Christ, we are responsible to grow in the progressive sanctification that characterizes the Christian life. Although we can do nothing to give ourselves new life, once we are made anew in Christ by the Holy Spirit, we are able for the first time to love and serve God, however imperfectly, and to love and serve our neighbor. We are not active in our new birth, but acted upon, but this does not mean that after we are made alive that we are still passive toward God! Quite the contrary, we are actively seeking out the light that once caused us such revulsion. Although this sanctification “is never perfect in this life” (Westminster Shorter Catechism), it is always growing and increasing and no Christian-regardless of how his or her experience might contradict this fact-is justified apart from also being progressively shaped into the likeness of Christ.

How can we neglect such an important topic, especially when there is so much confusion over sanctification in our day? So we hope it will be a profitable read, and if so, please share it with a friend.


Dr. Michael Horton is the chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California . Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.).

 

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How Reformed Christians can contend for a pure gospel: “Get beyond witnessing to fellow Christians about the Reformed faith and start witnessing to non-Christians about saving faith.” – Sinclair Ferguson

 

sinclair_fergusonSinclair Ferguson (born 1948) is a Scottish theologian known in Reformed Christian circles for his teaching, writing, and editorial work. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen. Ferguson is the Senior Minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is also a Professor of Systematic Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, prior to which he held the Charles Krahe Chair for Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is also a council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

 

 

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by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (*)

We have seen that the devil is never quite so subtle, and never quite so successful, as when he succeeds in persuading people that he does not exist at all! That, as we have suggested, was his supreme masterpiece, and it is certainly a part of our problem at the present time. The tendency now is to say that we must not talk about ‘the devil’ but only about ‘evil’. We must not tell people to ‘renounce the works of the devil’, we must tell them to ‘resist evil’. In other words, the whole tendency today is to say that our fight is only against a principle of evil that is in ourselves and in others, and perhaps in the very environment into which we are born. But it is not considered to be ‘consistent with modern knowledge’ to believe still in a personal devil. We must not even make that principle of evil positive. What has been called ‘evil’, we are told, is simply the absence of good qualities rather than something positive in and of itself!

But the whole emphasis of the Apostle here is on the devil as a person. A principle cannot be subtle. It is only a person who can be subtle. ‘The wiles of the devil!’ The Apostle’s whole object is to tell us that we are not fighting merely against flesh and blood, merely against some principle, or absence of principle, which is within us as flesh and blood, as men and women. He goes out of his way to say that it is quite otherwise. In other words what he says is the exact opposite of what is being taught commonly at the present time.

But somebody may ask, ‘Does it matter whether you believe in a personal devil or not?’ The answer is that the Apostle most certainly assures us that we are fighting personalities and ‘spirits’ of evil, the world ‘rulers of this darkness’, not the ‘darkness’, but ‘the rulers’ of the darkness. His whole object is to get us to see that we must not be deluded in this respect, but realize that there are these spiritual entities, personalities, headed up by the devil himself, who are warring a terrible, subtle, vicious warfare against God and all His people. This is not a matter of opinion, it is not just a matter of accommodating our teaching to suit the modern mind and modern knowledge and understanding; if you do not believe in the person of the devil you are rejecting not only the teaching of the Apostle Paul but you are rejecting the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself!

The problem that arises here primarily is the problem of revelation. Was the Apostle Paul just a creature of his age, or was he given this revelation by the Lord Jesus Christ through the Spirit? Was our Lord Himself but a creature of His age? He obviously believed in a personal devil, and in these powers. He addressed demons as persons, saying ‘Come out’. You cannot say that to a principle! You cannot dismiss the devil, as it were, in that way; you are denying at the same time the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. You are saying that you are in a superior position to Him, that your knowledge is greater, that you have greater understanding. You are involved in the whole question of revelation and of authority.

This digression is important, for the business of preaching is to relate the teaching of the Scriptures to what is happening in our own day; and if this teaching in Ephesians is true there is nothing more dangerous than to substitute for a personal devil a principle of evil! The whole of our faith is ultimately involved in the matter. The trouble with the critics is that they really do not believe in the spiritual realm. Many of them are equally doubtful, as I have shown, of the Person of the Holy Spirit. He is just a principle, a power, an influence. There is, in fact, nowadays, a fundamental lack of belief in the spiritual realm and the reality of these spiritual personalities. Never was there a time when it was more necessary that we should consider carefully what the Apostle has to teach us, and what all parts of the Bible teach us, concerning ‘the wiles of the devil’.

Having looked at the wiles in general we must now become more particular in our approach. Here, again, I would sub-divide our treatment of this matter into two main sections. First, we must consider the devil’s activity in general, and then his activity in detail, for it is quite clear that there are certain general activities of the devil described in the Scriptures, and which are seen very clearly in the history of the Church throughout the centuries, and in the Church today. These in turn can be sub-divided into strategy and tactics. It is the same classification as is used in military warfare.

We start with these generalities, these matters of broad strategy. There have been certain movements initiated by the devil which have affected the life of the whole Church, and which in turn have affected the lives of individual believers in the Church. We are, indeed, involved in these very things at the present time. ‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed.’ Let us use again the analogy of international problems. The last War came upon this country suddenly and unexpectedly because people would not face the facts, because we were nearly all believers in, and supporters of appeasement, surrendering this and that, saying that war could not happen again, and that two World Wars do not occur within a quarter of a century! This country kept on refusing to face the plain facts of the international situation. Men wanted to be happy and to enjoy themselves, and dismissed the man who kept on warning us as a ‘warmonger’, a ‘difficult person’ with whom nobody could work, an ‘individualist’. Precisely the same, it seems to me, is happening in the realm of the spiritual today. People say, ‘Do not be negative; let us be positive; let us just preach the simple gospel’. But the Bible is full of negatives, full of warnings, ever showing us these terrible possibilities. If you find in yourself a dislike of the warnings of the Scripture and of this negative teaching, it is obvious that you have been duped by the wiles of the devil. You have not realized the situation in which you are placed.

The movements to which I am referring can be best classified and considered along the following lines. We start with Heresies within the Church, which have been caused and produced by the devil and his powers. I am not concerned to go into the detail of heresies; I am simply concerned to emphasize the fact of heresies, the fact of movements within the life of the Church that have so often led to terrible trouble and produced a state of chaos.

A heresy is ‘a denial of or a doubt concerning any defined, established Christian doctrine’. There is a difference between heresy and apostasy. Apostasy means ‘a departure from the Christian truth’. It may be a total renunciation or denial of it, or it may be a misrepresentation of it to such an extent that it becomes a denial of the whole truth. But a heresy is more limited in its scope. To be guilty of heresy, and to be a heretic, means that in the main you hold to the doctrines of the Christian faith, but that you tend to go wrong on some particular doctrine or aspect of the faith. The New Testament itself shows us clearly that this tendency to heresy had already begun even in the days of the early Church. Have you not noticed in the New Testament Epistles the frequent references to these things? There is scarcely one of them that does not include mention of some particular heresy that was creeping in, and tending to threaten the life of some particular church. It is seen in this Epistle to the Ephesians; it is still more plain, perhaps, in the Epistle to the Colossians where heretical tendencies were entering through philosophy and other agencies. It is found likewise in the Epistles to Timothy.

Incipient heresy can be detected from the very earliest days. There is an enemy who comes and sows tares. I am not applying that parable in detail, I am using it as an illustration to show the kind of thing we are considering. The enemy’s object, of course, is to disturb the life of the Church, to shake the confidence of Christian people, to spoil God’s work in Christ. The Epistles were in a sense written to counteract these evils. The threat was already there in many different forms, for before the New Testament closes, all the major heresies were beginning to show their heads in the Early Church.

But from the second century of the Christian era the evil becomes still more evident and obvious. The simple fact is that for several centuries the Christian Church was literally fighting for her very life. With the conversion, and the coming in, of those who were trained in Greek philosophy and teaching, all kinds of dangers immediately arose, and the danger became so great as to threaten the whole life of the Church. People who called themselves Christians, and moved in the realm of the Church, began to propagate teachings that were denials of Christian truth. The threat became so great that the leaders of the Churches held certain great Councils in order to define the Christian faith. Their object was to pinpoint heresies, and to protect the people from believing them. Such confusion had come in that people did not know what was right and what was wrong. So the leaders met together in these great Councils, and promulgated their famous Creeds, such as The Athanasian Creed, The Nicene Creed, and The Apostles’ Creed.

These Creeds were attempts on the part of the Church to define, and to lay down, what is true and what is not true. And in this way they were able to brand certain teachers as heretics, and to exclude them from the life of the Christian Church. The confusion that led to the drawing up of the Creeds was a great manifestation of the wiles of the devil. And today there are many people who recite these Creeds in their churches every Sunday, and then in conversation tell you that what you believe does not matter at all — ‘believe anything you like!’ But the Creeds are a permanent reminder to us of the wiles of the devil in this respect.

During the great period of the Protestant Reformation likewise the different sections of the Reformed Church drew up their Confessions of Faith, such as the Belgic Confession, the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and in this country the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. In the next century Protestant theologians meeting in Westminster Abbey in London in and after 1643, eventually produced ‘The Westminster Confession of Faith’. What was their purpose? I ask the question because we are living in an age when many say, ‘Of course, these things do not matter at all, they have no relevance to us’. I am trying to show their vast importance, their extreme relevance at this present time. Confessions were drawn up for the same reason as held good during the earlier centuries. Church leaders, led by the Holy Spirit, and enlightened by Him, saw very clearly that they must, as their first duty, lay down clearly and on paper what is true and what is not true. In part they had to define their faith over against Roman Catholicism. And not only so, but also over against certain heresies that were tending to rise even amongst themselves. So they drew up their great ‘Confessions’ — which in a sense are nothing but the Creeds once more — in order to give the people light and guidance and instruction with respect to what they should believe.

Is there someone who feels at this point, ‘Well, really, what has all this to do with me? I am an ordinary person, I am a member of the Church and life is very difficult. What has all this to say to me?’ Or there may be someone who is recovering after illness and who says ‘Well, I was hoping to have a word of comfort, something to strengthen me along the way, something to make me feel a little happier; what has all this about Creeds and Confessions and the wiles of the devil to do with me?’ If you feel like that, the truth is that the devil has defeated you. The Apostle Paul says, ‘Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners’ (I Corinthians 15:33). He means that wrong teaching is desperately dangerous. He is there dealing with the great question of the resurrection, he is concerned with that one doctrine, and he says, Make no mistake about this; it is not a matter of indifference as to whether you believe in the literal physical resurrection or not. ‘Ah but,’ you say, ‘I am a practical man of affairs, I am not interested in doctrine, I am not a theologian, I have no time for these things. All I want is something to help me to live my daily life.’ But according to the Apostle you cannot divorce these things, ‘Evil communications’ —wrong teaching, wrong thinking, wrong belief — ‘corrupt good manners’. It will affect the whole of your life.

One of the first things you are to learn in this Christian life and warfare is that, if you go wrong in your doctrine, you will go wrong in all aspects of your life. You will probably go wrong in your practice and behaviour; and you will certainly go wrong in your experience. Why is it that people are defeated by the things that happen to them? Why is it that some people are completely cast down if they are taken ill, or if someone who is dear to them is taken ill? They were wonderful Christians when all was going well; the sun was shining, the family was well, everything was perfect, and you would have thought that they were the best Christians in the country. But suddenly there is an illness and they seem to be shattered, they do not know what to do or where to turn, and they begin to doubt God. They say, ‘We were living the Christian life, and we were praying to God, and our lives had been committed to God; but look at what is happening. Why should this happen to us?’ They begin to doubt God and all His gracious dealings with them. Do such people need ‘a bit of comfort’? Do they need the church simply as a kind of soporific or tranquillizer? Do they only need something which will make them feel a little happier, and lift the burden a little while they are in the church?

Their real trouble is that they lack an understanding of the Christian faith. They have an utterly inadequate notion of what Christianity means. Their idea of Christianity was: ‘Believe in Christ and you will never have another trouble or problem; God will bless you, nothing will ever go wrong with you’; whereas the Scripture itself teaches that ‘through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22), or as the Apostle expresses it elsewhere, ‘In nothing be terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake’ (Philippians 1:28-29). Our Lord says, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). There is nothing which is so wrong, and so utterly false, as to fail to see the primary importance of true doctrine. Looking back over my experience as a pastor for some thirty-four years, I can testify without the slightest hesitation that the people I have found most frequently in trouble in their spiritual experience have been those who have lacked understanding. You cannot divorce these things. You will go wrong in the realms of practical living and experience if you have not a true understanding. If you drop off into some heresy, if you go wrong at some point, if you believe, for instance — I give one example in passing — ‘that healing is in the atonement’, that it is never God’s will that any of His children should be ill, that it is always God’s will that all His children should be healthy, and that no Christian should ever die from a disease . . .; if you believe that, and then find yourself, or someone who is dear to you, dying of some incurable disease, you will be miserable and unhappy. Probably you will be told by certain people, ‘There is something wrong with your faith, you are failing somewhere, you are not really trusting as you should be’, and you will be cast into the depth of despair and misery and unhappiness. You will be depressed in your spiritual life, and you will be looking here and there for comfort. Such a person’s condition is due to error or heresy concerning a primary central doctrine. He or she has insinuated something into the Christian faith that does not truly belong to it.

Nothing is more urgently relevant, whether we think of ourselves in particular or the Church in general, than that we should be aware of heresy. Take the New Testament, take the history of the Christian Church, or take individual Christian experience, and you will see that true doctrine is always urgently relevant. It is of supreme importance for the whole life of the Church. The Holy Spirit is the power in the Church, and the Holy Spirit will never honour anything except His own Word. It is the Holy Spirit who has given this Word. He is its Author. It is not of men! Nor is the Bible the product of ‘flesh and blood’. The Apostle Paul was not simply giving expression to contemporary teaching or his own thoughts. He says, ‘I received it by revelation’. It was given to him, given to him by the Lord, the risen Lord, through the Holy Spirit. So I am arguing that the Holy Spirit will honour nothing but His own Word. Therefore if we do not believe and accept His Word, or if in any way we deviate from it, we have no right to expect the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will honour truth, and will honour nothing else. Whatever else we may do, if we do not honour this truth He will not honour us.

This is surely one of the major problems in the Church at the present moment. Everyone is aware of the fact that the Church is lacking in power. The leaders are trying to seek the cause of this in order that they may discover how to remedy it; and apparently, they are all jumping to one conclusion, namely, that the cause of our lack of power is found in our divisions. So we must all come together. That is the argument. The divided Church is the cause of the trouble, and so the argument follows that if only we all come together we shall be blessed, we shall obtain the missing power, and tremendous things will happen. But how are we to come together? One believes this, another believes that. The main trouble, we are told, is that some put far too much emphasis on what one believes. Surely, they say, we ought to recognize that the one thing that matters is that there are great common enemies against us, for example, Communism, so we must all come together, all who call themselves Christian in any shape or form. We are all one; why divide about these things? We must all come and stand together as Christians, and then we shall have power.

We read about these things constantly in the newspapers. Some are rejoicing because Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are drawing nearer together. ‘What does the past matter?’ they say, ‘Let us have the right spirit, let us come together, all of us, and not be concerned about these particularities.’ I have but one comment to make about this matter, and I regret to have to make it. To me, all such talk is just a denial of the plain teaching of the New Testament, a denial of the Creeds and the Confessions and the Protestant Reformation! It is carnal thinking, in addition to being a denial of the truth. According to the teaching of the Bible, one thing only matters, and that is the truth. The Holy Spirit will honour nothing but the truth, His own truth. But that, He will honour.

To me the most marvellous thing of all is that, the moment you come to such a conclusion, you realize that in a sense nothing else matters. Numbers certainly do not matter. But today the prevailing argument is the one that exalts numbers. If only we all got together and formed a mammoth World Church! Some would even extend that idea further and bring in everyone who believes anyhow in God. They talk about the ‘insights’ of Mohammedanism and Hinduism and Confucianism, and dream of all who believe in God uniting against a godless, atheistic Communism. The present, they say, is no time to be dividing on these small, irrelevant differences of belief, the result of which is that we are dividing our forces and become ineffective. I can only comment: What a tragic fallacy! What a tragic failure to understand the basic elementary teaching we are given here in Ephesians about the wiles of the devil!

To explain this matter further I use an analogy which seems to me to be an apposite one at the present time. I am not concerned about its political aspect; but look at the condition of the Labour Party in this country at the present time. People say, ‘There is no Opposition today, there is no “Her Majesty’s Opposition”.’ This is due, they say, to the fact that the Party’s members are all divided into groups and factions. They argue with one another, and they will carry no weight until they settle their internal differences and all speak with one voice. Now, when you are talking about a political party, that is absolutely right. Political parties can do nothing unless they have a majority. Political parties function in terms of majority rule. However right what they believe may be, if they cannot command the votes they will not be able to form the Government; in fact, governmentally they will be paralysed. Obviously they must get together and try to achieve unity so that they will command votes and increase the possibility of forming a government.

But this argument is not only wrong, it is dangerously wrong, if you relate it to the realm of the Christian faith. The whole Bible testifies against it. The glories of Church history protest loudly against it. The Christian position is entirely different. Here, you do not begin by counting heads, you are not concerned primarily about numbers and masses. You do not think in that way. You are in an entirely different realm. Here, the one thing you think of primarily is your relationship to God! Over against the modern faith in numbers we must say with an American of the last century, William Lloyd Garrison, ‘One with God is a majority’. God has come in, the everlasting, the almighty, the eternal God! It is the power of God that matters. And the moment you realize that, the question of numbers, as regards men, is comparatively irrelevant and unimportant.

Nothing matters in the spiritual realm except truth, the truth given by the Holy Spirit, the truth that can be honoured by the Holy Spirit. Is there anything more glorious in the whole of the Old Testament than the way in which this great principle stands out? God often used individual men, or but two or three, against hordes and masses. Is there anything more exhilarating than the doctrine of the remnant? While the majority had gone wrong, the ones and the twos saw the truth. Take a man like Jeremiah. All the false prophets were against him. There is a man who had to stand alone. Poor Jeremiah — how he hated it and disliked it! He did not like being unpopular, he did not like standing on his own, and being ridiculed and laughed at, and spat upon, as it were; but he had the truth of God, and so he endured it all. He decided at times to say nothing, but the word was like fire in his bones, and he had to go on speaking it. Obloquy and abuse were heaped upon him, but it did not matter; he was God’s spokesman and God’s representative. Similarly Moses had to stand alone when he came down from the Mount where he had met God. To stand in isolation from one’s fellows, but with God, is the great doctrine of the Old Testament in many ways. And it is emphasized in the New Testament also.

Is it not amazing that people should forget the Scriptures and past history? Look at the Early Christian Church. From the standpoint of the modern argument the position was ridiculous. The Son of God goes back to heaven and leaves His cause in the hands of twelve men! Who are they? No one had ever heard of them. We are told about the authorities of Jerusalem that they noticed that they were ‘ignorant and unlettered men’. Incidentally, they added that they had been ‘with Jesus’. They did not see the significance of that fellowship. What they saw was ignorant and unlettered men, and only a handful of them at that! A mere handful of men in a great pagan world with all the Jews against them, and all the authorities! Everything on earth was against them.

I do not understand that mentality in the Christian Church today which says that we must all come together and sink our differences; and that what we believe does not matter. It is a denial of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and of the story of the twelve ignorant, untutored and unlettered men who knew whom and what they believed, and who had the power of the Spirit upon them, and who ‘turned the world upside-down’. This is surely one of the central messages of the Bible. The great concern of the New Testament Epistles is not about the size of the Church, it is about the purity of the Church. The Apostles never said to the first Christians, ‘You are antagonizing people by emphasizing doctrine. Say more about the love of God and less about the wrath of God. They do not even like the Cross, and they cannot abide the story of the resurrection! Drop that talk about the wrath of God and Christ’s ethical teaching!’ Not so do the Apostles speak!

There is an exclusiveness in the New Testament that is quite amazing. The Apostle Paul writing to the Galatians says, ‘Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:8). ‘My Gospel!’, says Paul writing to Timothy. He denounces other teachers. So many of these modern preachers are much nicer people than the Apostle Paul! They never say a word against anyone at all, they praise everybody, and they are praised by everybody. They are never ‘negative’! They never define what they believe and what they do not believe. They are said to be ‘full of love’. I am not misjudging them when I say that that is not the explanation. The explanation is that they do not ‘contend for the truth’, they are innocent concerning the ‘wiles of the devil’. It is not for us to decide what to leave out and what to drop for the sake of unity. My business is to expound this truth, to declare it — come what may! We must not be interested primarily in numbers, we must be interested in the truth of God. Why are many today denying the glory of the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther — one man, standing against the whole Church — would be dismissed today as ‘just an individualist who never cooperates’. But he stood up and said in effect, ‘I am right, you are all wrong!’

Without realizing it the moderns are dismissing Luther as a fool, and as an arrogant fool, because he stood alone. But why did he stand alone? There is only one answer. He stood alone because he had, seen the truth of God, and had known and experienced the blessed liberation it brings. He had seen the light and had also been awakened to ‘the wiles of the devil’. When a man sees this truth he has no choice. He does not force himself to stand alone. He does not even want to do so; but he can do no other. As Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God!’ And God did help him. Of course He did! God will always honour His truth and the man who stands for it. Of course such a man will meet criticism and sarcasm and derision; much mud will be thrown upon him. But that does not matter. The man who continues to stand, and who is ready to die for the truth of God, will have ‘the peace of God that passeth all understanding’ in his heart and mind. He will say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’. He will ‘know both how to be abased, and how to abound; how to be full, and how to be empty’. He will be able to hold on his way quietly, steadily, knowing that God will vindicate His own truth sooner or later. As an individual he may be spat upon and trampled upon, or even be put to a cruel death. But God’s truth ‘goes marching on!’ It will be vindicated, it will be honoured by the Spirit; and he knows that ultimately, beyond this temporary, passing world, he will hear the most glorious words a man can ever hear, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’. There is nothing beyond that — to have the Almighty God and our blessed Lord looking down upon us and in effect saying, ‘While you were in the midst of all the confusion, you preached the truth; you stood for it in spite of everything — Well done!’

Heresies always result from the wiles of the devil, the efforts of the principalities and powers. Are your eyes open to it? Do you realize the relevance of all this to you as a member of the Christian Church? Are you being carried away by this loose, general, sentimental talk? God forbid that any of us should ever say that it matters not what you believe as long as you are a Christian. May God open our eyes, and having given us to see the truth, then enable us ‘to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might’. ‘Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.’

 

(*) originally posted The Highway website

 

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THE WELL-READ CHRISTIAN: Why Bible Lovers Should Be Bibliophiles

by Rick Ritchie

 

Modern Reformation archive issue 1994-4-smallHis accusing questions to the Pharisees begin with the words “Have you not read…?”, suggesting that his hearers were readers who should have read with more diligence.

The well-read life was the aspiration of bygone saints. No, not the life that was read by everyone (That was usually fantastical and morbid!), but the life that was spent reading everything.

For these old saints, heaven on earth was a scriptorium, where illuminated manuscripts and scrolls containing the collected knowledge, wisdom, and misinformation of the ages were available to the literate for their use, enjoyment, and befuddlement. With the rise of printing, we are no longer confined to the viewing of books in a library; we can purchase them for ourselves, in forms that would once have sent many a monk to confession for book lust. From cheap pulp novels to costly full-color encyclopedias, the possibilities are endless. And so are the accessories, from laminated bookmarks to clip-on reading lamps. The reader’s world is a true hedonistic wonderland open to the enjoyment of all.

But for the serious Christian questions will arise at some point. If we do not ask them ourselves, concerned brethren will.

The miserly sun of a winter’s afternoon sinks over the horizon. We set aside our dogmatics book, having made small progress. Youth and eyesight have limits. Jaded, we ask ourselves why we should sacrifice our days to print.

Christ proclaimed to us a simple message of good news, while today’s books confront us with complex and confusing messages of sadness and despair. Did Christ purchase our lives at such a high cost, our brethren ask, only to see them invested in vicariously living the lives of fictitious reprobates?

I make no claim to offer the one definitive reason why Christians do or should read. Any single reason offered would either be so broad as to tell us nothing about reading, or so narrow as to leave out most of the real reasons we read. Most of you who read what follows are Christian readers already. I am thankful that you read. You read for many different reasons and I want to give you more. I also want to add to your arsenal so that you can defend your libraries against the attacks of morbid conscience and narrow-minded brethren.

Why Past Saints Read

There are three stages in the history of God’s people which can be used to show three ways Christians can benefit from reading. Tradition itself is no infallible standard which can be imposed on the consciences of Christians, but if past practice can be shown to be reasonable, we may miss something worthwhile if we ignore it.

The first stage in the history of God’s people with books came with the writing of the Scriptures. Unlike an oral tradition, written Scriptures required literacy in order to be understood, so the people became literate. The second stage came with the confrontation of Christian teaching with pagan learning. When learned pagans argued that Christianity was unreasonable, Christian teachers had to know how to refute, reinterpret, or assimilate the teachings of their opponents. Critics of paganism became literary critics. The beginning of the third stage cannot be located with any precision, but this stage begins for any Christian reader when the ability of a book to set forth possibilities is exploited to a Christian end, allowing the Christian reader to explore the feasibility of other forms of Christian life. In each of these stages, a new reason was given for the Christian to take up books and read them. I wish to explore each stage and see what it has to offer as an incentive to today’s reader.

People of the Book Become People of Books

Some argue that what we know as historic Christianity is a late development. Primitive Christianity, they say, was an undogmatic, private experience-until basilica-building bishops, seeing that laymen with direct access to God couldn’t be controlled, foisted upon the church a collection of politically useful documents. The church has been chained to the Scriptures ever since.

Contrary to these revisionists, Christianity has always derived its very life from the written text. In the Bible itself, the words of Scripture are so identified with the words of God that the words “God” and “Scripture” are used interchangeably. The Apostle Paul even uses the expression “Scripture says to Pharaoh”(Rom 9:17) of an occasion where Moses speaks God’s words to Pharaoh (Ex 9:13-19). (1) A high view of Scripture is no late invention of second-century clergy, it is the view of St. Paul himself.

But what about Jesus? Our revisionist friends often accuse Paul of complicating Jesus’ simple gospel, but they are wrong on this count, too. Certainly Jesus is the center of Christianity, but we know of him only through his words. Jesus himself says that his words are spirit and life (Jn 6:63), and promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit will remind them of his words (Jn 14:26) and guide them into all truth (Jn 16:13). One of these disciples, Peter, refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Pt 3:16). There is therefore no possibility of driving a wedge between Jesus and Scripture, or Jesus and Paul.

But the connection between Jesus and Scripture is even stronger. Jesus says to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (NRSV Jn 8:31-32). Since Jesus is God, and Scripture is God’s word, anytime we say “Scripture says,” we can say “Jesus says.” The whole Bible, in this sense, ought to be in red letter text! This should lead those who wish to know Jesus into the study of all of Scripture.

Biblical religion’s focus on the written word of God has always led naturally to literacy among God’s people. It is common when arguing the authority of the Bible with an unbeliever to be asked the question “But wasn’t this believed by primitive people who didn’t even know how to read or write?” The answer is that a written revelation led to a literate society. The synagogue was an educational institution which required literacy, as in it the Scriptures were read. According to Scripture, Jesus read (Lk 4:16) and wrote (Jn 8:6). His accusing questions to the Pharisees begin with the words “Have you not read…?” (Matt 12:3,5; 19:4; 21:16,42; 22:31; Mk 2:25; 12:10,26), suggesting that his hearers were readers who should have read with more diligence. People of the book were always a literate people.

Not only does a religion of a book require literacy, it raises the level of literacy among the already literate. Most people I meet are literate adults whose public school instruction taught them to read to the point where they can understand what is written in the newspaper. For many, what Christianity provides beyond this is an interest in reading.

I have met countless people whose interest in learning began as a result of their coming to the Reformation faith. The world became more interesting to them. In the Reformation worldview, although our fallen world cannot bring us lasting happiness, it is a purposeful place in which God is active, both supernaturally and through providence. Books are a way of exploring this world more deeply. Since God has used language in communicating about the world to us, we believe that the written word is capable of embodying truth about the world. Our studies in theology naturally lead us to an interest in the world and trust that we can learn about it through print. I had this experience myself. Early in my college years, before I had discovered the Reformation, I remember observing one of the lecturers at my university in dialog with some students. He was a pale man who probably spent a good portion of his time in a cramped faculty office poring over some old book or other-a book written by a non-evangelical, no doubt. I felt sorry for the man. Assuming that he was probably an atheist or agnostic, I thought, “How sad that this man who has no share in eternity cannot even enjoy the present.”

I later discovered that the man was a Christian, but that was not the only thing to change my opinion of him. I sat under him for a course reading some of the old classics of Western culture. When he taught on Homer, memorized passages in ancient Greek tumbled from his lips. The same was true of medieval Italian with Dante. The man was an intellectual traveler to worlds beyond my reach.

A couple of years later, I saw this professor in the university bookstore. He now appeared to me as an aristocrat. Books were to him as airplane tickets were to others, only he could traverse time as well as space. He could visit not merely Florence, but the Florence of Machiavelli and Dante. Now I was the wretch. I only hoped that if my professor could have seen the music and the books that I was purchasing, he would have approved.

What an advantage for a Christian to be able to understand how the world of the past developed into the present world! Without this perspective, we see our own environment as inevitable, gray, vanilla. We long for something more exotic. Feeling powerless to change the world, we look to stimulation to distract us from our boredom. Access to the past through books changes this. It shows us how the current structure of our lives-our architecture, government, entertainment, technology-is the result of the ideas of many people in the past. One idea suppressed, or another introduced at a different time, and the whole landscape would be different. As sinful and frustrating as our world can be, it is not an inevitability, but a surprise.

It is only when we understand the world that we can transform it. If our present world is the result of ideas, this puts the spotlight on the Biblical injunction to take every thought captive to Christ. It also poses the question “How are we to take modern thoughts captive if we don’t recognize them as thoughts?” In many cases the modern world is lost to the gospel, not on account of blatant anti-Christian propaganda, but because of the acceptance of hidden assumptions which render the gospel implausible.

We have seen how a focus on Scripture leads to an interest in books in general, and how this is advantageous to the cause of Christ. Unfortunately, there is an opposite dynamic at work in our culture. As the culture drifts away from writing as the chief medium of communication, and toward television, people become harder to reach with the gospel because their concept of truth is altered. The shift from print to television has already had devastating consequences.

Social critic Neil Postman has argued that television’s very nature as a medium changes the way people think. He complains not so much about the drivel that is aired, but what happens to discourse on serious issues. What becomes of seriousness, he asks, when one minute top experts are discussing the possibility of nuclear war in hushed tones only to be followed by the words “And now this from Burger King!” (2) Could television’s ability to place anything subsequent to anything be what has made relativism so plausible to so many?

Television seems oblivious to the law of non-contradiction. In the world of the novel, plot and character development rule. People who die stay dead. If not, there is a brilliant explanation. Not so on a soap opera, where Marissabel can be killed off as a result of a contract dispute, and later be re-inserted into the story without apology. It used to be that writers needed to come up with ingenious twists of plot to account for a supposedly dead character’s reappearance. Now they have found that no explanation is necessary. Everyone is so happy to see Marissabel back they don’t ask questions.

A return to print is crucial. People of the book should not only be people of books, they should be people of print. While we could not say that print itself has a bias towards truth-it is obvious that one can tell a lie quite splendidly in print-it does have a bias towards the conditions of truth: continuity, non-contradiction, precision. A well-written fantasy novel may portray a world where the laws are different from our world, but a commitment to the laws of reason will be manifest on every page. (3) If certain things happen, certain things must follow. This type of connection is absent on television in general. I may not be overstating it to suggest that a mind for truth would be better cultivated by reading fantasy novels than watching the evening news.

Critics of Culture Become Cultured

A commitment to reading and knowing Scripture was not enough to prepare the early church to take the world for Christ. Early on, Christianity was besieged by well-educated unbelievers and heretics. In many cases, top-notch argumentation was not needed to keep Titus and Claudia from abandoning the faith. For a while any argument might do. Besides, pastors had enough to do persuading their hearers to avoid the arena. Over time, however, arguments had to be met, and this meant that someone had to do the hard work of coming to grips with pagan thought.

One example of this, documented in George Grant’s Heresy and Criticism, is the way the early church responded to the ancient practice of literary criticism. Pagan literary critics threatened to undermine the validity of the Christian writings by attacking their internal consistency on the one hand (displaying alleged contradictions), and their origin on the other (claiming they were written by someone other than was traditionally claimed, or claiming they had been altered). Christian apologists responded by learning literary criticism and either critiquing their opponents’ methods, or using the critics’ techniques to prove Scripture’s logical consistency and apostolic authorship. Christians were drawn into the pursuit of pagan learning to combat paganism, and became more cultured in the process.

In the Middle Ages it happened again when the universities encountered Aristotle through his Islamic commentators. The result was a breathtaking synthesis of Christian and secular learning which commanded the respect of the learned and still finds adherents in our time.

This can happen today as well. In many cases it is the Christian apologists who are our best guides for broadening our mental horizons. Many will pick up a book by C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, or John Warwick Montgomery to learn how to defend their faith against unbelief only to have those authors interest them in any number of other subjects.

These were men of broad interest. C. S. Lewis was a poet, a medievalist, and a philosopher. G. K. Chesterton was a journalist. J. W. Montgomery is a lawyer and a theologian. These men are capable of illustrating the correspondence of Christianity to the known world using knowledge from many fields because they studied all subjects asking the question, “How does this relate to what Christianity teaches?”

They present not merely a unified field of knowledge, but unlike many Christians today, they present a broad field of knowledge. Many Christian teachers will present a unified field of knowledge by narrowing their field to theology. A parishioner leaves one of their churches convinced that what they have heard on Sunday is the truth about the world, and upon seeing the real world during the drive home wonders how it relates to what the teacher said earlier.

How much better for a teacher to be able to show how fields other than theology can be integrated with Christian teaching. How wonderful it is to pick up a Christian book and be able to say “Here is God’s plenty!” When a Christian author engages with a broader slice of the world, Christianity becomes more plausible to his readers, for it can be shown to be compatible with other known truth.

Engaging with truth outside of theology is not only attractive, it is necessary. If we neglect it, what is to prevent parishioners from sliding into unbelief because they fear that what their pastors teach cannot really stand up against the real world? Those who present Christianity must be able to relate it to the world their parishioners face and defend it against unbelief.

Paul tells us that it would be a strange thing if the evangelist who brought the good news to others should himself end up in hell on account of carnal weakness (1 Cor 9:27). But what about intellectual weakness? What about those times where a pastor’s grip on the gospel is sufficient to save himself, but not strong enough that he can communicate it clearly to others? A shepherd must be able to defend not only himself, but his sheep against wolves. Would it not be odd if a pastor’s failure to master the communication of Christian doctrine became the ruin of all of his parishioners but himself? We could paraphrase the Apostle and say, I pummel falsehood and subdue it, so that after accepting the gospel myself, my hearers should not be lost to the truth.

This is not only true of pastors, it is true of academics. Many are the teachings in the universities today which directly and indirectly undermine Christianity. Christian teachers and professors are in a wonderful position to oppose these teachings. In many cases it is not necessary to oppose them in the name of Christianity. When the very possibility of objective truth is attacked, it is the duty of an academic as an academic to defend it. The advantage of the Christian academic is that he or she knows that the fight for truth is God-pleasing.

I think that the eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews will some day be found to apply to academics. From the roll call of the faithful, I expect to hear the names of college professors read. “By faith Dr. So-and-so left his English faculty and their idols of deconstructionism to teach students how to understand the meaning of an old text…” For if students do not believe that an old text could possibly reveal truth, what chance do we have of getting a hearing for Scripture?

Past Lives Become Present Options

Many of my readers have seen for themselves that an interest in Scripture made them more interested in other books. Some have probably also been led to a broader interest in God’s world through the writings of Christian apologists. There is a third service which reading can provide the Christian which is often overlooked, and that is broadening our narrow view of what the Christian life can look like. For this purpose I suggest old Christian books. Even when we have weeded out those deviants who espoused damnable heresies or held to grossly deficient views of grace, the remainder is a surprising lot.

Christians of the past who would have confessed the faith as well as we do, or better, often lived very different Christian lives from our own. Their lists of Christian virtues and pagan vices, if they made such lists, would not match ours. They would wink at behavior which would shock us and condemn as sinful actions we didn’t know were sins.

How cock-sure was Jesus’ generation of its own moral code? Certainly many, even of the Pharisees, would have confessed to failing to live up to the code perfectly. That there might be something amiss with the code itself, however, was unthinkable. And the same is true with us. After Jesus’ lectures to the Pharisees, few of us would claim perfection. But everyone is confident knowing right from wrong and the relative gravity of one offense compared to another.

Aside from a re-reading of the New Testament, a reading of old Christian authors is probably the best way of challenging our own complacency with our understanding of the good Christian life. In fact, sometimes it is better.

Jesus was able to point out the specific holes in his contemporaries’ ethics. The inspired writings of the prophets were certainly sufficient to prove the points Jesus made if anyone would make the application.

The problem is that we seldom do. And like those who failed to see how the prophets’ words applied to new first-century conditions, we seldom make the application of Jesus’ words to our own situation with any ease. Many applications are strained, the most tenuous becoming the favorites of retreat speakers and youth leaders. We believe we are teaching Scripture when we present stale recipes for victorious Christian living, but this has not led to a better understanding of the Christian life. The problem is not with the clarity of Scripture, but with our own perspective on our lives. We take the environment in which we have grown up for granted. It is difficult to criticize precisely because we cannot see it for what it is. Does the fish criticize the ocean for being salty?

A comparison with past ages shows the behavioral codes in our church gatherings to be both prissy and flippant. Would Martin Luther or C. S. Lewis be able to enter our church gatherings comfortably? Luther would shock everyone with his free use of vulgarity, while C. S. Lewis would scandalize coffee hour by lighting up a cigarette (and can’t the man wait until we find him an ashtray? What is to become of the new carpet in the fellowship hall?)-and yet both of these men were committed Christians.

In fact, I imagine that when those who wished to criticize these men calmed down a little, it would be the late twentieth-century churchmen who would have explaining to do. What has happened to the historic liturgy? Why do we spend so much time singing about how we feel instead of about what God has done? Why are we so preoccupied about how others use their leisure time, while so little attention is given to their work (aside from the injunction not to steal)?

These are just a couple of examples of the way looking into the past can relativize twentieth-century standards. The point of this type of perspective is not just to topple false standards, while this is important in itself (Christian liberty is a necessity, not a frill!). It brings the forgotten wisdom of older standards back into view. Perhaps C. S. Lewis’s smoking shows a bad use of the gifts God had given him. This might be sinful, but no more so than the eating habits of other well-respected churchmen. And it is a trifle compared to the mean-spiritedness, the lack of reverence, and the ignorance which we put up with on a regular basis.

Another of the benefits of reading is its ability to combat what C. S. Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield referred to as “chronological snobbery,” which is the assumption that the present age is to be held superior to the past merely because it came later, that history is a record of uninterrupted progress.

It is truly a wonder to pick up an old document only to discover that an idea you thought modern could be found stated, and stated clearly, many centuries ago. For instance, when do you suppose the following words were written?

Perceiving long ago that religious liberty ought not to be denied, but that it ought to be granted to the judgment and desire of each individual to perform his religious duties according to his own choice, we had given orders that every man, Christians as well as others, should preserve the faith of his own sect and religion. (4)

Does this come from one of the writings of our American founding fathers, or is it perhaps an article from the old constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia? No! It is a line from the Edict of Milan, written by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the year AD 312.

My point is that some of us are fortunate enough to be well-traveled in the present world. This does something to combat our cramped prejudices. But there is a world of the past available to us which can do more for us in this area for less.

A Prescription

There is so much to be gained from reading, but my call is not merely for Christians to read, but to read more, to read more broadly, to read more broadly together.

Reading more makes reading easier. The more material you have been exposed to, the more you will be capable of reading. We need a grid on which to hang facts and perceptions. Reading gives us categories, and the more categories we have, and (what is more important) the more solidly these categories are fixed in our minds, the more we will be able to glean from what we read and experience.

Reading more broadly keeps us from getting into ruts. Narrow reading makes the world itself seem narrow. Broad reading reminds us that the world is enormous. It also allows us to see the same thing from different points of view.

Perhaps a new worship service format is adopted at church, causing controversy. My reading of psychology will induce me to examine motives. I will wonder where the people on the wrong side of the quarrel (those bothersome people who won’t worship my way!) derived their need to control others. A reading of sociology will make me ask whether people want to worship one way rather than another because of secular trends. A reading of missionary biographies might remind me that worship is a privilege which not all have, so I should be thankful that I can worship either the old or new way. A reading of theology and liturgical history will have me wondering if our worship has become more man-centered or God-centered.

My reading might sway me to react now one way, now another. Broad reading is a corrective to our tendency see one narrow aspect of a situation neglecting other ramifications. Perhaps what we do matters in ways we cannot guess.

Reading broadly together will keep me from always being on a new crusade to the bewilderment of Christian friends. The Christian purpose of all of this reading is to glorify God. Reading alone may do this, but when we become passionate about an issue, it is nice to have company. When we have seen things rightly, others can support us. When we have missed the mark, they can correct us. It is gratifying, however, when the new viewpoint which seemed so exciting to me is adopted by the others. When I make a new discovery, it will often seem implausible for the simple fact that no one around me sees what I now see. If friends travel the same road, all is different. Those of my readers who have come to Reformation convictions understand this, if they have been lucky enough to have fellow travelers.

If you decide to take my advice, I have a warning for you. While “of the making of books there is no end” (Ecc 12:12), of the printing of a particular book there is an end. Not all of the good books that have been written are currently available at your local bookstore; consequently, used book stores are a wonderful thing. Not all books will be cheap, but the point is that out-of-print books can be found. The other piece of advice is to buy in-print books while they are in print, especially in fields of narrow interest. You will be thankful for heeding this advice-or sorrowful for neglecting it-sooner than you think.

As far as books go, we live in the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, the culture at large is abandoning print. On the other, there is more available to the one who will hunt for it than there ever has been. I wish you a well-read life, and hope that as time goes on we will have more fellow-travelers to bump into. It makes the journey more enjoyable.

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1 For a detailed analysis of this and other ways in which God and Scripture are identified, see B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, ed. by Samuel S. Craig (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company 1948) pp. 299-348.

2 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985) pp. 104-105. Postman’s book is as profound a piece of social criticism as I have read. His criticism of television news forms chapter 7 of the book.

3 For an extended treatment of this phenomenon in a Christian apologetic, read chapter 4 “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.

4 From the Church History of Eusebius, volume I of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 379.

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Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

Issue: “Wanted: Thinking Christians” July/August Vol. 3 No. 4 1994 Pages 18-23

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In the foreword on my post last October 12, I mentioned of uploading in this weblog a series of articles from Modern Reformation’s 1996 out-of-print issue entitled ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress – The Life of a Justified Sinner’.  The Reformation that began God began through Martin Luther in the 15th century brought the centrality of the triune God (Theocentric) back into theology. Despite downgrade controversy (borrowing the term from the 18th century English prince of preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon) in the last 2 centuries as church doctrines became more and more man-center (anthropocentric), by the grace of God, today a resurgence of the biblical doctrines espoused during the Reformation period  are grounding Christians again to a wonderfully Christocentric faith.

Herebelow is a short article on the key concepts in Reformation spirituality. At the bottom of this post, I have a footnote (*) expanding item #5 a bit further in order not to confuse the  terms and their biblical significance vis-a-vis the Roman Catholic traditional understanding and practice  of infant regenerational baptism and transubstantiational eucharist.

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1. Union With Christ

Every doctrine related to salvation and the Christian life must be oriented around this touchstone of faith. No theory of Christian growth or development can obscure or ignore this central fact. In Reformation spirituality, the objective and subjective, external and internal, are linked inseparably by this reality. “In Christ” we are justified and are being sanctified.

2. Justification By Faith Alone

“To declare righteous,” this courtroom term is the core of the Good News. If we seek to attain divine favor by our own willing and running, we will quickly end up in either self-righteousness or despair. Progress in obedience comes only as we acknowledge Christ to be our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.

3. Sanctification

Here is another essential biblical word. Once declared righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we now grow in personal righteousness in union with Christ and his righteousness. In our salvation we contribute absolutely nothing except sin. But once regenerated by God’s grace (apart from our cooperation), we are free to cooperate with the Holy Spirit for the first time. Sanctification, therefore, unlike regeneration, justification, etc., requires our energies and participation. We grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, actively animated by the gospel. Both justification and sanctification are the gift of God by virtue of our union with Christ.

4. Calling/Vocation

Also related to the “priesthood of all believers,” this Reformation doctrine emphasized the fact that everything we do honors God if done in faith. A ditch-digger is no less spiritual than a missionary. God has created each of us with certain gifts and we are meant to find meaning and fulfillment not only in church-related things, but in our work and leisure as well. This doctrine, more than any other, was responsible for what has come to be identified as “the Protestant Work Ethic.”

5. Means of Grace(*) 

Baptism and Holy Communion, in Reformation spirituality, figure prominently as “means of grace.” Baptism is the beginning of our life in Christ, and in Communion we feed on Christ–the Bread of Life–throughout our wilderness journey.

  

  

(*) originally termed as ‘sacraments’; the means of grace mentioned in item #5 above pertain to the biblical significance of water baptism of persons who have repented and turned to Jesus Christ in faith, and the commemorative purpose of the Lord’s Supper, commonly referred to as the breaking of the bread – both of which were instituted by the Lord in the New Testament. In these sacraments, the Lord, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit, appropriates upon the believers the grace necessary for our sanctification and preservation until the day of His return (see Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41-42; Romans 6:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32).

 

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