Where Is The Church Heading?

None of us knows the specifics of the future. There are a few things that every Christian knows from Scripture about the future. We know that Christ shall return (Acts 1:11), that there shall be a bodily resurrection (1 Thess 4:16), and after that the judgment (Rom 14:10). The future, of course, is in the good, sovereign and merciful hands of our triune God (Heidelberg Catechism 27). Believers know that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Rom 14:8; Heidelberg Catechism 1). There are other things about which believers have certainty, but much of the future, from a human perspective, is a matter of probabilities. These we can determine from history.

Gnostics Never Die
Perhaps the greatest threat to the early post-apostolic church was that of Gnosticism, a second-century (100s AD) movement that drew on threads in pre-Christian pagan philosophy to create a heresy of the Christian faith. The Gnostics denied the goodness of creation per se, the validity and truth of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the true humanity of Christ (among other things). The Gnostics specialized in filling in the blanks. Where the gospels maintained a reverent silence about the infancy of our Lord Jesus, the Gnostics filled in the story with myths. Where the gospels were silent about our Lord’s life between his appearance in the temple and his baptism, the Gnostics filled in the story. They peddled myths about the hierarchies of being and sought to turn the biblical picture of the world on its head. They offered salvation through secret knowledge (gnosis). One movement led by a pastor’s son, Marcion, which broke away from the Gnostics, flourished for about 300 years. The early Christian apologists, e.g., Irenaeus and Tertullian, spent much time and ink defending orthodox Christianity against the Gnostics and the Marcionites.

If some of this sounds familiar, it should. Versions of this competing religion have become widely popular both among the new pagans but also in some ostensibly Christian circles. Otherwise Bible-believing evangelicals regularly speak about the Old Testament (the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures considered as a whole) in ways that are not far distant from the ways that Marcion spoke about them. Christians regularly appeal to secret or esoteric knowledge in ways that are quite reminiscent of the Gnostics.

Every indication is that we will continue to see claims from the culture, fed by neo-pagan antipathy to orthodox Christianity, such as those made by Dan Brown and even by some scholars who should know better about competing “gospels” (e.g., the so-called “Gospel of Jude”) or competing “epistles,” which give the impression that the formation of the New Testament was arbitrary and political when the evidence points us in exactly the opposite direction.

Richard Baxter Returns
From the beginning of the church there have been those within its pale who have been a little uneasy with the gospel of free salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. Even though the early church was relatively clear about this, when our better writers addressed it (e.g., the Letter to Diognetus, c. 150 AD, or Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings in the early 5th century), there were always those who wanted to make salvation conditional upon our performance. That story, “in by grace, finish by cooperation with grace,” became widespread in the medieval period. Of course, it was overthrown in the Reformation but almost as soon as the gospel was recovered, some starting chipping away at it even within Protestantism. Some undermined it by denying that believers must give evidence of new life and true faith by seeking to bring their lives into conformity with God’s holy law. The 1520s were marked by an “antinomian” crisis. Indeed, it was Martin Luther himself who coined that word to describe those who denied the abiding validity of God’s law. In the following decades others chipped away at the gospel from the other direction by implying that salvation begins by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) but is ultimately contingent upon our good works. In the 17th century, the Remonstrants (Jacob Arminius, et al) added conditions to election and to salvation. Richard Baxter (1615–91), whom J. I. Packer rightly calls a “neonomian” (a new legalist) openly taught that faith justifies, not because it rests in Christ’s finished work, but because it obeys God’s law. John Owen devoted an entire volume (5) of his Works to refuting his errors on justification. Today, however, Baxter is presented to us as an orthodox Reformed pastor and readers and students are shocked to find that he openly denied the gospel.

Indeed, in some quarters today, even as we just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there were leading evangelical and even Reformed and Presbyterian Christians advocating a doctrine of two-stage salvation or justification. An initial justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and then a so-called “final salvation” or “final justification” through faith and works. History tells us that we must re-learn and defend the gospel in every generation. My experience tells me that it has to be done at least every ten years. Luther said that he preached the gospel every week because people forget it from one Lord’s Day to the next.

The Wounded Beast Shall Rise
From time to time, Protestants have been tempted to think that the Roman communion has been dealt a fatal blow. History, however, tells us that though she has been wounded from time to time, she always returns. However vigorous the Reformed churches may be in some parts of the world (e.g., Brazil, South Korea, and Nigeria) the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches in North America (NAPARC) are tiny compared to the Roman communion.

At the moment, the Roman churches seem to be flourishing and there is little reason to think that will change. Buoyed by the vigorous pontificate of John Paul II, Roman institutions seem positively robust. Evangelicals, ignorant of the Reformation and the Reformed confessional tradition, tired of shallow worship and moral flabbiness will continue to find Rome a congenial place in which to find a connection to a tradition beyond Pentecostalism or the Second Great Awakening.

Islam Again
There are other ancient and persistent challenges to orthodox, biblical, Reformed Christianity that we might mention, e.g., Islam. No other global religious movement presents a greater threat to social stability and the mission of the church across the globe than Islam. After a period of repression under colonialism, Islam is back with a vengeance both theologically and militarily. Few Christians today are equipped to meet the intellectual and theological challenges presented by Islam.

In most parts of the world, Biblical, orthodox Christianity is returning to the position it held before the rise of the European church-state complex we call Christendom. We are living in the wake of its collapse. This is a frightening reality for some but our hope is where it has always been, at the right hand of the Father. Christ is ruling the nations now and no movement, not Gnosticism, Moralism, Romanism, or Islamism can alter our Lord’s plans for his church and for the nations. After all, the Apostle Paul promised the church in Rome, “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). On that basis he pronounced peace upon a church that was about to endure a grave trial in which Christians would be put to a violent and sometimes fiery death merely for bearing the name of Christ and for refusing to renounce him. Yet, even in that, Christ’s sovereign will was being accomplished and the Spirit was drawing his elect to new life, true faith, and to union with the risen Christ. So it shall be. No one shall snatch them out of his hand (John 10:28).

©2017 Westminster Seminary California. Published by permission.

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  1. While much ink has been spilled regarding the nature of the Trinity in the last year or two (and rightly so). By comparison, there has been very little response/rebuke from the reformed community directed at John Piper and his two-stage approach to salvation. I’m grateful that Dr. Clark continues to do so–but is somewhat alarming that there are very few reformed theologians following suit. The apparent deference to Piper due to his stature as a author and preacher/theologian is misplaced, as it only serves to expand his influence. The silence also indicates that many actually agree with Piper.

    • It just goes to prove there is nothing new under the sun. From its inception the Church has been plagued by those who want to add works to justification by grace alone. They are not all Israel who are of Israel. Rom. 9:7 God uses error to separate the sheep from the goats. True believers have always been a small remnant. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees!

    • Let’s not forget that Piper was also unscathed in the Trinity debate yet he wrote in and edited that awful book, “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”, was prominent in (may still be) the ministry it spawned and bases his view of marriage upon the ESS heresy. Piper seems untouchable and we haven’t even mentioned his Montanist heresy.

  2. Thank you for this summary of errors that are perennially found in the churches. It is sobering to know they are the tests that God uses. “For there must be heresies among you, that they which are approved maybe made manifest among you.” 1 Cor. 11:19 Every Christian has the responsibility to test the spirits and search the scriptures to see if what they are being taught, even in ostensibly Reformed churches, is really the truth. Thank you for the Heidelblog, it is like a spiritual GPS that helps us avoid spiritual pitfalls in our pilgrim journey.

  3. Liberalism and flawed or false theology have always plagued the Church. There is nothing new under the sun. We would be wise to heed the exhortation to Timothy to safeguard that which has been entrusted to us. We do well to heed the lessons of our fathers, Calvin et al.

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