I was listening to a podcast recently in which someone remarked that Reformed churches can be “cold.” In my first pastorate I had an elder who used to joke that, in the days before refrigeration, “they used to build the Reformed church next to the ice house.” Corrie Mitchell writes about her concern that Reformed folk are perceived as “cold.” As I mentioned a decade ago, I once took a female friend to a Reformed church for worship, after which she cried and explained that the congregation seemed “cold.” Reformed and Presbyterian Pastors report that visitors to their congregations sometimes complain that their congregations seem cold or loveless. In response to this perception some have argued that Reformed theology needs a dose of (neo) Pentecostal warmth and Reformed theology should be changed. It is argued that we should make love a mark of the church.
As I argued in the “Jerks” article, a big part of this problem is competing cultural paradigms. When people come to Reformed churches from broadly evangelical (usually in the Pietist tradition) congregations, they bring with them cultural assumptions shaped by their experience. That is how they define “warm” and “love.” When they come to Reformed congregations they expect to see and experience the same culture. When they do not, at least not always, they conclude that Reformed churches must be cold, indifferent, et cetera.
The Reformed have long spoken of “the marks of the true church.” Belgic Confession art. 29 gives three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. This is an eminently practical question and answer. Christians are always asking where they should go to church. To answer this question they need criteria but we too often use the wrong standards of measurement. We too often look for congregations that make us feel a certain way (which can be no more than the right chord progression or the right sequence of praise songs), that offer certain programs, or that meet a certain (highly subjective) aesthetic standard. In contrast, the Reformed said to evangelicals who were leaving Rome that there are three marks given in Scripture whereby we can know if a congregation really is a part of the true church. Does it preach purely the gospel, that Christ has accomplished salvation once for all for his people and that he gives it freely (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) or does it make salvation partly by grace and partly by works? Does it administer only the two sacraments instituted by Christ or does it add to the sacraments or corrupt them in some other way? Does the congregation practice discipline to correct wandering brothers and sisters and to lead them back to Christ? These are excellent tests. They are objective. Either they exist or they do not. It really is not a matter of subjective perception or degree. Either the gospel is preached purely or it is not. If there is any doubt, that itself may be an indicator of a problem. The gospel is not complicated. The gospel is not obscure.
Perhaps the sacraments are more complicated but from the perspective of the Reformed Churches, the teaching of Scripture about the sacraments is relatively straightforward. Christ instituted Baptism, in the name of the Triune God, for believers and their children as a sign of admission to the congregation and a seal of what is true of those who believe. He instituted the Lord’s Supper as a sacred meal, in which, by the mysterious operation of his Spirit he feeds us on his true body and blood. It is a sign and seal for believers that what the gospel says is true for them and for all who believe.
Love is not a mark of the true church but it is a mark of the believer. We confess (Belgic art. 29):
As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.
This is also a good illustration of why we need to define love biblically. In our post-revivalist setting, i.e., in the wake of the two great awakenings that have shaped American evangelical theology, piety, and practice, the virtues have been redefined in subjective terms, by our emotional experience. Scripture, however, defines love objectively. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Love is not defined by how God feels about us but by what he did for us. Jesus defined love not on the basis of our feelings but according to our actions. To love one’s neighbor is not to feel things about him but to help him when he needs it. If one should see his neighbor lying bleeding in the street, love means that we bandage his wounds and help him. Pity is not love. Empathy is not love. Bandaging his wounds, that is love. Jesus said:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
How do we know that the Samaritan in the parable had compassion? He did something. He acted. That is love. Young, Restless, and Reforming evangelicals who find their way to confessional Reformed congregations need to understand that they will likely find a different culture than that with which they are familiar. Those things that once triggered certain familiar emotions may not be present but those emotions are not love and it is not love that makes a true church. What makes a true church is the presence of the pure gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and discipline. In that context you have a right to expect to find Christians who are growing in love. Your former congregation was not perfectly sanctified, however, nor will your new, Reformed congregation be entirely sanctified.
Unlike the marks of the true church, the marks of the Christian may be more difficult to quantify. How much virtue (e.g., love) is enough? The confession does not say. In that case, to evaluate a congregation fairly perhaps it is help to ask other diagnostic questions: do these people believe? Well, only God knows the heart but they are making a profession and confession of the faith. Are they repenting of sin? Again, only God knows the heart but over time you will get a sense of whether a congregation takes sin seriously and addresses it appropriately. Are there gross sins, which are known to the congregation but unaddressed by the elders and minister(s)?
Some questions are obviously difficult to answer but there are other diagnostic questions that help us to see if love is present. Are the members seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ? An objective way to evaluate this is to ask what is being preached and taught. Are the pastors and elders visiting the members to encourage them in the gospel and in their walk? Are people attending to the means of grace or are they indifferent?
Welcome to the Reformed understanding of the Christian life: fellow sinners, redeemed by the grace of Christ struggling together, repenting together, confessing together, and receiving together the free grace of Christ in the gospel preached and in the gospel made visible in the sacraments.