What Kind Of A Reformation Do We Need?

One of the questions submitted to the Reformation conference last fall at the Lynden URC asks “in regards to the current state of the church, what is needed in terms of a Reformation?” That’s a great question. If we are talking about the American churches, the answer is simple: we need a Reformation. In important ways the American churches have never had a Reformation. We have certain had a de-formation or two but we are still waiting for a Reformation. There have been important and useful Reformation movements but none of them has had a fundamental and widespread affect on the theology, piety, and practice of the American churches. Those churches and traditions that are most closely associated with and most deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation are probably the least influential.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45) famously said of the American church:

God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God. Anything of the churches of the Reformation which has come to America either stands in conscious seclusion and detachments from the general life of the church or has fallen victim to Protestantism without Reformation…American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics. But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness. The decisive task for today is the dialogue between Protestantism without Reformation and the churches of the Reformation (No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures, and Notes 1928–1936).

I do not entirely agree with his vocabulary. Truly Protestant churches are Reformation churches but we understand what he intended. American evangelical Christianity is not deeply rooted in the Reformation. It is rooted in revival, in Pietism (i.e., the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience), in fundamentalism (i.e., the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty) both of which link 21st-century evangelical theology, piety, and practice to the 18th and 19th century revival movements but they do not link them to the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation churches.

How would we know were a Reformation to happen in American evangelical congregations? There are three indicators:

  1. The embrace of Sola Scriptura.
  2. The formal cause of the Reformation was the Romanist and Anabaptist rejection of the Scriptures and the sole final, ruling (magisterial) authority of the Christian faith and the Christian life. Rome appealed to ecclesiastical authority above God’s Word. She rejected the Scriptures as the ruling and final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Although the Anabaptists claimed to follow Scripture, those movements consistently marginalized Scripture in favor of private revelations. Some of her leaders openly mocked the Protestants as ministers of the “dead letter” (Scripture) and boasted that because of their continuing, direct revelations from God they did not need to rely upon Scripture as the final, ruling magisterial authority for Christian faith and practice.

    In the 18th and 19th centuries the American evangelical churches were deeply indebted to another movement, Pietism, which also effectively marginalized the objective authority of Scripture in favor of subjective religious experience. Further, with the outbreak of Pentecostalism in Kentucky at the turn of the 19th century, American evangelicals through the 19th and 20th centuries gradually abandoned Scripture in favor of the theology, piety, and practice of Thomas Müntzer and his ilk. Today, as the neo-evangelicals have coalesced with the Charismatics and Third Wave Pentecostals, the Scriptures are no closer to being the norm for Christian faith and practice today than they were for most of the 19th century.

  3. The embrace of sola gratia.
  4. Virtually from the moment the colonial Congregationalists arrived on the shores of this continent, the Reformation doctrine of salvation by divine favor alone has been in jeopardy. One of first controversies was essentially a contest between a kind of nomism vs. a kind of antinomianism. There are good reasons to suspect that Jonathan Edwards became discontent with the Reformation doctrine of salvation.1 As with sola Scriptura sola gratia has never really found great purchase here. The Finneyite revival movements rejected it thoroughly. Most of the other revivalist movements in Finney’s wake ignored it. Of course the various sects (e.g., Millerites, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons) all rejected it. The Wesleys could not be easily confused for Luther and Calvin on justification. The 19th and 20th century liberals were moralists of the 1st order. By the 20th century, the Augustinian doctrine of salvation by sovereign divine grace became a minority view among American Christians. The Reformation doctrine—the material cause of the Reformation—held by all the magisterial reformers and churches, that salvation is by God’s eternal, unconditional favor (grace) alone, through faith alone (see below) seems hardly known among American evangelicals and where it is known it is regarded as a novelty and with suspicion.

  5. The embrace of sola fide.
  6. Like the doctrine salvation by grace alone, the Reformation doctrine of justification through faith alone, whereby faith, resting and trusting in Christ and in his finished work, is regarded as the sole instrument of the Christian’s right standing with God has found a home among some confessional Lutherans and some confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Even in the confessional and conservative P&R there has been an intermittent controversy since 1974 over this doctrine. This despite the remarkable clarity with which both Holy Scripture and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches have spoken on this doctrine. In confessional Presbyterian seminaries, theologians have advocated justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness” with opposition but also with support. Others openly teach that there are two stages of justification, an “initial justification” by grace alone, through faith alone and a final justification through faith and works or through faith and Spirit-wrought sanctification. Again, there has been some criticism of these formulations but in some quarters they are regarded as orthodox.

These three doctrines were fundamental to the Reformation. Without them there is no Reformation theology, piety, or practice. One may append to American Pietism, or to American Pentecostal (or to any of its subsidiary movements) a doctrine of divine sovereignty but such an amalgam is not Reformation theology. Thus, we might add a fourth indicator, a Reformation doctrine of the church. This is perhaps the most difficult thing for American evangelicals to grasp or to believe because it calls us to distinguish between our cultural and civil life and virtues (e.g., rugged independence, entrepreneurial spirit etc) and our Christian life and our life in the church where these civic, cultural, and economic virtues are more like vices. The Reformation calls American Christians to remove our Yankee Doodle hat when we enter the embassy of the kingdom of God. It calls us to recognize King Jesus, to bow the knee to his sovereign Word (sola Scriptura) and to his sovereign grace (sola gratia) by making use of the keys of that kingdom (the preaching of the holy Gospel, the use of the holy sacraments, and church discipline) in the communion of the saints, through faith alone (sola fide).

These are the marks of Reformation: an unreserved devotion to Holy Scripture as God’s infallible Word, to unconditional sovereign grace, to faith as the only instrument of justification, and to the true church as the divinely authorized institution wherein the keys of the Kingdom of God are rightly administered. These are the blessings we for which ought ask our God to grant to us again, for which we ought to strive, and toward we ought to teach as we continue to seek the Reformation of the American churches according to the Word of God.

Soli Deo Gloria.


1. See Recovering the Reformed Confession, 85. n.44 for a bibliography on this question.

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  1. We need the recovery of the Gospel of grace; and it must be preached.

    But, while I’m here, I would like to put in a point or two in favor of “pietism” and a couple of other things. While there is a strain of fanaticism and world-flight in Pietism, at its core there is a deep appreciation for the salvation we have through the blood of Christ (substitutionary, penal atonement in confessional language) and an understanding that if called by the Gospel, we must no longer live in our sins, but must practice what we are taught.

    I will also speak well of at least the First Great Awakening. For Anglophone Protestants, the 1750’s revival marked a declaration of peace between at least the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians through a focus on the major themes of the Gospel, namely, the person and work of Christ.

    • Peter,

      The history of Pietism (as written by Pietists themselves) begs to differ. There were some in the early generation or two of the movement who adhered strongly to the Reformation but that adherence did not last. The objective was replaced by the subjective and that by liberalism and moralism.

      The 1GA also gave us a mixed harvest at best. The peace of which you write could also be interpreted as indifference to confession and the church.

    • The main problem with Pietism, for me, aside from its subjectivism, is its moralism. It looks to works, not simply as fruit and evidence of salvation, but as contributing to a final salvation. That really denies the sufficiency of the substitutionary, penal atonement for justification, and the sufficiency of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us. It actually looks to sanctification as grounds for our final salvation. Pietism is a denial of the Reformation in that it denies salvation by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone, despite its impressive show of insisting on religious experience and good works. Is that not what Paul means, when he sarcastically refers to those super apostles who were saying that faith is not enough but that impressive experiences and works must be added? 2Cor. 11: 1-15

  2. What I love most about Confessional, Creedal, Reformed Theology in ‘The Church’ is His call through the minister to ‘be together’ to worship, hear the Gospel, participate in the Sacraments regularly, and to praise Him for His Gift of Grace, the Blessing of Faith in Christ and Sanctification. Thank you for your tireless devotion to His ‘field’ and ‘building’.

  3. Thank you for this faithful and consistent approach. Indeed, a thorough Reformation, as described, is desperately needed in American “Christianity,” as it is Christian in name only.

  4. We have all of the confessions and books written by the Reformers but no one reads them, not even most people in Reformed churches. At the turn of the 20th century, kids were still memorizing the Shorter Catechism by age 6 and their names were printed in the local newspaper when they recited it. Now Christians won’t even read their Bibles. Both Barna and Lifeway have polled American Christians and found that 57% hold views that deny ecumenical creeds.

    In the 1500s (or earlier), one of the English reformers remarked that priests did not know the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Ten Commandments. This is just like today. What will it take to wake us from our stupor? Probably hard times. Perhaps we could start by praying for reformation at corporate prayer meetings.

  5. In my humble opinion, the Church(as defined by article 29 BC) must reform herself by returning to the practices and beliefs of our forefathers who left us a treasured gift. I was recently reminded that we are the Church militant, not some mamby pammby get along with everyone Church. We are called to reject the doctrines which conflict with the Word of God. This includes fencing of the Lord’s Supper to those who confess the Reformed faith. It seems to me that Reformed Churches are heading in the direction of getting along to get along, so as to not offend man. Far better to deny our confessions and beliefs and practices than to offend man. Yet Scripture says of itself that it is offensive to those who do not see. The time is now, before it is to late.

  6. Angela, Walt, and Peter, I wholeheartedly agree with what you have all written.

    As Continental Reformers we have no one to blame but ourselves.

    We as a church must confess our shame of the Gospel as defined in our Creeds, and also a lack of belief in them.

    Where we thought we loved God and Neighbor, we hate them instead is not preached often, though it is in our weekly liturgy in the URCNA. This is the same for the Gospel itself: Where we thought we loved the Gospel, we hate it instead.

    Both our failure to distinguish ourselves at the Table, and/or in our preaching stem from both a lack of real belief in what our creeds teach from scripture, and/or a shame of them coupled with real fear, as this truth will always offend those we preach to, or withhold the table from, every time.

    The wide versus narrow, many versus few is built into the truth, and we must confess we are still bending it into the false gospels that plague us. We prefer popular[wide/many] methods and messages.

    We must admit we don’t fence because we do not believe we need to and are afraid to. We must confess we will not call out heresy as heresy because we do not believe them to be so, though our confessions are abundantly clear that they are.

    We live in a day where sexual sins in the church are jumped upon by Elders with the full force at it’s disposal, but doctrinal sins are sadly given a pass[ or get a strongly worded letter ]. Imagine if this was reversed as to getting a pass.

    Sadly as many of us in the pews know from experience, it is near impossible to remedy from the pews.
    Reformation must start in our own house

    May God have mercy on us all, and give us strength.

    • Thanks Thomas, nice to know you agree with me. I take comfort in knowing that God is in control of all things and that he even uses divisions and heresy to show those who are approved. Luther said he thanked the papists for making him a fairly good doctor of theology! My experiences with Liberals, Dispensationalists, and Federal Vision have challenged me to study and search the scriptures so that I have learned far more than if I had just enjoyed solid Reformed fellowship and preaching all my life, and because of those experiences I have come to appreciate our Reformed confessions all the more. So I’m very settled in what I believe, and not shy of sharing in my old age. I do think we all need to care enough about our Lord’s Church to oppose the downgrade in doctrine and practice, and encourage faithfulness. I’m thankful for the opportunity to express a few things on the Heidelblog, and the pastor and officers of my church are kept well aware of my opinions! In this way I at least have a say, if not influence, even as a woman in the pew, even at the risk of annoying some people from time to time.

  7. Alright. Perhaps one reason why doctrinal sin “gets a pass” is because so many of us were raised in, or have been constantly exposed to, a huge barrage of error and misperception. Few people who possess a credible profession of faith in Christ are well-informed. This I recall from my own days when I led an adult Sunday School on the Westminster Standards. We have a huge teaching job to do (one reason why I appreciate this blog; even though I have some respect for the original and core concerns of pietism).

    Also, how many of us here owe something of our Christian walk to people who were Christian, but not confessionally Reformed? While I realize the danger of doctrinal indifference here, I also think we need to be honest about where the church is at; and how little we can expect even the “ejjikated” to know.

    I think of these problems when I pray “Thy Kingdom come”.

  8. Almost every Evangelical group would claim they hold to the solas, although stated differently and without historical reference. I think a return to an antithetical framework is what is needed. The the question can be asked what is the truth, or more properly, the true Faith. Then who holds to the true Faith. And that would be found in the Reformed confessions and Catholic creeds; the Apostolic faith once delivered. Once Christians become hungry as our Protestant fathers were, then we will have Reformation.

  9. In the OT God gave His apostate people over to captivity in corrupt, idolatrous, and worldly Babylon, not once but repeatedly. In the new covenant period, we see that the churches mentioned in Revelations have disappeared. In the pre-Reformation period, the captivity of the Church in a type of Babylon was almost complete. After the typological 70 years of captivity, God graciously intervenes for His people, despite their almost complete decent into apostasy, so that it is by His grace alone, according to His everlasting covenant promise to be their God, that God intervenes on behalf of His people! I think it is clear that the Church is becoming increasingly enslaved by the Babylonian captivity of worldliness, but He always has a remnant, even as in Elijah’s time, and God will deliver His Church on His own terms so the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. We should take courage in God’s promise, to remain faithful in contending for the Faith once delivered to the saints.

    • Yes, indeed. Grace is absolutely what keeps the remnant faithful. They may have to increasingly take on, not only all forms of unbelief, but the steady rise of compromise/worldliness in professed Christianity. Scripture alone was not merely a slogan for the Reformers, it was a way of life. The regulative principle is being abandoned by nominally Reformed folks, both Presbyterian and Baptistic. It may be that we need a Reformation in the “churches” of the Reformation. May God lead His people to renewed commitment to the articles of faith embedded in Holy Writ, so we can not only confess them, but live them out in worship and service. Soli Deo Gloria.

  10. I have a question that I hope doesn’t irritate the moderator. In light of the URCNA and other confessional Reformed Churches to allow non-reformed persons to participate in communion, are we not in violation of the third mark of the true church? Do we not validate sin by admitting those with views contrary to the Reformed faith?

    • Peter,

      The URC church order is a little ambiguous because Synod chose to use the words “biblical church” rather than to repeat the confessional language. It seems that, under this ambiguity, some congregations do probably admit to the table some who do not confess the Reformed faith. Nevertheless, the church order doesn’t require that approach.

      We all need to give more thought about the need to interpret the church order in light of Belgic 29.

      I am not ready to categorize the broader policy as sin. I think it is mistaken but it is not a transgression of God’s law.

      Let’s be patient here Pete and keep seeking a common understanding among the brothers.

    • I agree that we must be patient. But I believe a lot is at stake here. If we condone that which we confess to be wrong, we also are guilty. For the sake of the Church, we must do as our fathers, and return to the Reformed practices of old. Otherwise, I think we are on the slope of returning to that which we left.

    • Peter,
      I could not agree with you more. If we believe our confessions express the true faith, why would we allow those who do not accept them to commune with us? Communion represents our faith and hope in Christ who is offered to us in the sacraments under the administration of the covenant of grace. If we are willing to commune Baptists, are we not saying their administration of the sacrament of the covenant sign is valid, or that the mode of administration is unimportant?

    • Perhaps the better way to phrase my question would be “do we not condone doctrinal errors by admitting to communion those who do not hold to the reformed faith?”

  11. Communion tokens anyone?

    Dr Clark, thank you for the grace in your last reply, it is much needed and a refreshing reminder for us all. As 29 says

    “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.”

    My task before each Lord’s Supper is to examine myself by these words… am I fit to receive? And my charge as an elder is to the sheep He has placed in my care, that they too are fit to receive in the manner He desires. Baptists, Roman Catholics, Federal Visionists… such were some of us. “But God”. Communing an occasional Baptist does not imply a validation of Baptist practice so much as it does a desire to care for His lambs.

    Grace, brothers and sisters.

    • Brother, I do not doubt your sincerity. However, with your comment about tokens it reveals much to me. I once thought as you do. There was a presumption in my thinking, and yours apparently, that our forefathers were not as loving as we are who are more broad in our desire to ‘ feed the lambs’. Then I read exodus 4. And the cutting off of those not taking the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17 and subsequent texts in scripture. It is apparent the Lord has a different attitude toward these things than we do. Shall we accuse the Lord of being unloving and not feeding his lambs’? I think our fathers were more loving than supposed in warning the ‘lambs’ of our Lord’s mind on this and whether it was with tokens or such they did not leave their doctrine at the table rather they glorified the Lord in it. So our fathers communed those of the ‘reformed’ faith, not Baptists. Lutherans and Anglicans did like wise. I am a product of my generation. As Jesus people we judged the church based on our ” more loving” cultural perspective. Now I know how wrong I was and how much we corrupted the church with our stubbornness. I urge you to have a more charitable view of our fathers and ask why they did what they did and not discount them so readily.

    • Bill,

      We should not set art 29 against art 28. To be clear, we know what the Synod of Dort said about who should commune in a Reformed congregation. The Dort church order says:

      61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

      I would not be opposed to communion tokens, though, were we to follow Calvin’s desired practice, we would commune weekly thus rendering communion tokens irrelevant because the point of tokens was to make sure that folks had attended the preparatory service. I don’t think a consistory can rightly make a judgment about the 2nd half of Belgic 28 or art. 29 apart from the 1st half of 28. There are 3 marks of the true church.

      It is a problem when people, who come from congregations that do not have the marks of the true church, seek to come to the table in a Reformed congregation. We should not dismiss the problem nor should we set about re-defining the marks of the Christian apart from the marks of the true church.

      Yes, members of the true church should examine themselves but that duty doesn’t do away with the consistory’s duty to fence the table.

      The question is how to persuade consistories to interpret the language of the URCNA church order in light of Belgic 28.

    • BillH,

      Does God consider it an offense when people fail to administer the covenant sign to children as He ordained? What did God do when Moses neglected to circumcise his son? God pursued him, threatening to kill him, and He only relented when Zipporah did as God required. If we truly believe that baptism is the new covenant sign of God’s grace, should we not fear that God will be angry when we overlook the neglect of administering the covenant sign, as God has ordained and commanded? Are we not in danger of calling down God’s anger on our church when we are willing to overlook the spurning of God’s covenant sign by “communing the occasional Baptist”? If we take the infant initiation into the covenant seriously, what better way than to say to Baptists, that we believe your neglect of infant baptism is an offense to God, and we cannot allow you to commune with us because we consider communion a common union in salvation through the covenant of grace of which baptism of infants signifies that the promise is to you and to your children. So we dare not offend God by condoning your practice by engaging in a common union at the Lord’s Table, as though we have a common understanding of the covenant of grace, of which baptism is the sign and seal, ordained by God, and we would not offend Him by overlooking your neglect of the sign, and by such an oversight offend God, who considered Moses’ neglect so egregius an offense that God sought to kill him for it. Wayward lambs need to be brought back to the truth, not confirmed in their waywardness, by our acceptance of their error, as though we in are in agreement with them.

  12. Thank you Dr Clark, I appreciate your words. You have highlighted the tension between different parts of our constitutional documents. I think a further tension is created when we continue to have a different expectation for the sheep than for the shepherds, which I do not have a good solution for… truly the place for my call for grace. Grace can be messy though. Short of a very strict congregation members only table, “what kind of a reformation do we need?”

    For the record, I do not, and I did not, call for an open communion and I’m rather surprised that so many of you read that in my words. Forgive my poor writing skills. Frankly, I would love to see a recovery of Reformed practice and a great spread among believers. But the difference between our book learning and the actual people sitting in our pews is often substantial and won’t be solved by this Sunday. Grace please.

    There is no agreement or “acceptance of their error”, nor confirmation of their waywardness. Please, I apologize, but you do me wrong, and many who know me would get a great laugh out of that… I forgive you though.

    • Bill,

      Well, in the URCs members do agree with and confess the Three Forms of Unity. It may be that they do not formally subscribe them, inasmuch as they do not write their names underneath the documents as our ministers do, we nevertheless are confessional churches. We do not have a two-tiered system in the way that American Presbyterian churches do, where members are only expected to affirm the Creed and not the Standards.

      There is a hierarchy in our documents. We don’t confess and no one subscribes the church order. It seems to me that the Belgic is our confession of what God’s Word teaches. When there is a tension between the CO and the confession (as there arguably is in this case) it should be resolved in favor o the confession.

    • Yes! What a novel idea! That in our confessional church, the confessions should decide the issue. We do not confess the CO! Our Reformed confessions already provide all that is needed in the way of reformation, provided we actually use them as the rule for our doctrine, piety and practice.

    • I was taught from my youth that it is doctrine that brings us together(through the confessional standards) and Church Order binds us together. Church Order is always subject to Scripture and confessions, not the other way around.

  13. To say all one needs is to affirm the Apostles creed is a bit disingenious in three forms churches because the heidelberg is the church’s interpretation of that creed. So it still brings us back to you must confess the reformed faith or we suddenly reject the heidelberg at the moment we commune at the table.

  14. I realize this might be a bit afield from the current conversation and I’m no Huguenot, but I thought it might be worth pointing out that the French Reformed Synod of Charenton (1631) allowed Lutherans holding to the Augsburg Confession to contract marriages, present their children for baptism, and come to the Lord’s Table “without any abjuration at all made by them” “inasmuch as the Churches of the Confession of Ausbourg do agree with the other Reformed Churches, in the principal and fundamental Points of the True Religion, and that there is neither Superſtition nor Idolatry in their Worship”. Such Lutherans were supposed to promise “the Consistory, that they will never solicit them, either directly or indirectly, to transgress the Doctrine believed and professed in our Churches, but will be content to instruct and educate them in those Points and Articles which are in common between us and them, and wherein both the Lutherans and we are unanimously agreed.”
    (John Quick, Synodicon in Gallia Reformata, Vol. 2, p. 297)

    • Neil,

      Thanks for this. The graciousness of the Hugenots, who knew a little about persecution, is in contrast to the approach of the confessional/Gnesio-Lutherans who refused to make any concession to the French Reformed even though the Reformed were in desperate straits at the time. This was a topic of discussion/debate at the Colloquy of Montbeilard.

    • I understand that Lutheran Jakob Andreae had such disdain for the Reformed position of Theodore Beza at the Colloquy of Montbeliard that he would not even shake Beza’s hand at the end of the discussion. One of the main issues was over the person of Christ and the question of how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper. Christ is bodily present in, with, and under the bread and wine according to the Lutherans. Lutherans felt this was such a fundamental doctrine that they would not compromise it with the Reformed who believe that Christ’s body has ascended into heaven, therefore our communion with Him is by a spiritual, heavenly presence. They felt that to commune with the Reformed, who deny the real, bodily presence of Christ would compromise their faith. From that perspective, I think one has to respect the Lutherans for faithfulness to their doctrine. Communion is the sacrament of our faith, of how we believe we are united to Christ, if we commune those who have a different understanding of the faith, are we not compromising our faith? Are we not saying, it just does not matter what you believe about important doctrines of the faith?

      • Angela,

        Yes, the gnesio (genuine) Lutheran antipathy for the Reformed is quite strong as, as I’ve noted on the HB and in print, a part of their confession—we are “crafty sacramentarians”—and a part of their self-identity: “We are not Calvinists!” This is especially true for those parts of the American Lutheran traditions with roots in Missouri since Walther had to defend himself against the charge from other Lutherans that he was a crypto-Calvinist so he, as it were, set fire to Calvin and Calvinists at every opportunity. This essay is in an expensive academic volume but perhaps readers can order via inter-library loan: “Calvin as Negative Boundary Marker in American Lutheran Self-Identity 1871–1934” in Johan de Niet, Herman Paul, and Bart Wallet, ed., Sober, Strict, and Scriptural: Collective Memories of John Calvin, 1800–2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 245–66.

        As to whether we should reciprocate, as has been noted, there have been different answers over the centuries. I am satisfied with the language of the Synod of Dort, that those who “profess the Reformed religion” (as defined by the Reformed theology, piety, and practice affirmed by Dort, the Belgic, the Heidelberg, and the Canons and, by logical other confessions substantially in agreement) are permitted to the table. This is how Belgic art. 29 was originally understood.

  15. Thank you, I absolutely agree. Our communion should be limited to those who “profess the Reformed religion” (as defined by the Reformed theology, piety, and practice affirmed by Dort, the Belgic, the Heidelberg, and the Canons, and by other confessions substantially in agreement). The only question that might arise, is what it means to be substantially in agreement. Although the Lutheran and Baptist confessions agree with a substantial number of points in our confessions, they disagree on doctrines that set us apart as distinctly Reformed. Those Baptists and Lutherans who remain faithful to their confessions would feel they were compromising their faith by inviting us to commune with them. I also think that we would be comprising our faith by inviting Lutherans and Baptists to table fellowship. We require our members to make a profession of the distinctly Reformed faith before they are allowed to commune, yet we would invite those who differ on distinctly Reformed points of doctrine to commune with us? If our distinctly Reformed doctrines are not important enough to define who may commune in our churches, are we not effectively saying they are unimportant?

    • Angela, I just saw your comment, and I couldn’t agree with you more. If we don’t hold our doctrine dear, why should anyone else?

  16. Doctrine is very important, but so is brotherly love. We are, in my experience, the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7. Also, why do so many kids of Reformed parents depart from the Reformed faith for evangelicalism or the wider world?

    We seem to need a Reformation of everything. It must be extensive.

    • Please explain what you mean. In what way are reformed churches like Ephesus and why do you think reformed kids leave.

    • I would avoid sweeping generalizations about “Reformed kids.” I’ve been around Reformed churches since 1980-81 and I’ve been impressed with how often they stay.

    • Romans 16: 17-18 It is not those who want to retain the truth who cause division and strife, but those, “who put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.” We must never fall into compromise with those who cause the division by introducing false doctrine for the sake of getting along. That is the logic of proclaiming peace, peace when there is no peace. Jer. 6:14, Ezekiel 13:10

    • Walt,
      I read the link you provide. I think the writer is making a false assumption. He suggests that since the Ephesians are being commended for their faithfulness and being criticized for leaving their first love, that this must mean they should be more loving by accepting those who oppose them. If that is the case, why encourage them in steadfast faithfulness to the truth? Rather, I see it as a warning that there are some among them that are tempted to compromise, hence leaving their first love through unfaithful temptations to accept those who are guilty of spiritual unfaithfulness to Christ. The apostle is commending them for faithfulness to the truth and encouraging them not not to give on to leaving their first love, Christ, by giving in to the false teachers for the sake of getting along.

      The church is facing tremendous pressure to give into worldliness and false teaching, including liberalism, just as Israel was, and the Christan churches have throughout history. The wrong choice was to go along to get along. That is what led Israel into idolatry, and Christianity into Romanism. Then God led them into Babylonian captivity. The way to reform is to return to the Truth, that is how God reforms His Church, by restoring it in the truth. If some of our young people are seduced by the worldly teaching in broader evangelicalism, that is sad, but to resort to those same worldly practices, at the expense of the Truth, as faithfully expressed in our confessions, is to tempt God to deal with us in the same pattern as He always deals with those who are seduced by falsehood.

  17. I read the link you provide. I think the writer is making a false assumption.

    About the author, Dr. Kim Riddlebarger. His exegesis is in every way consistent with every other sermon or book I’ve heard and read on Rev 2:1-7 by a Reformed minister. It is also consistent with John’s first epistle, referenced in the sermon. This sermon should be read in every Reformed church. Having attended Christ URC, I can say the congregants there DO love one-another.

    He suggests that since the Ephesians are being commended for their faithfulness and being criticized for leaving their first love, that this must mean they should be more loving by accepting those who oppose them.

    He makes the exact opposite claim in his sermon.

    Rather, I see it as a warning that there are some among them that are tempted to compromise, hence leaving their first love through unfaithful temptations to accept those who are guilty of spiritual unfaithfulness to Christ. The apostle is commending them for faithfulness to the truth and encouraging them not not to give on to leaving their first love, Christ, by giving in to the false teachers for the sake of getting along.

    Dr. Riddlebarger refutes this in his sermon at the top of page 5.

    If we have great doctrine but can’t love one-another, aren’t we resounding gongs? (1 Cor 13:1) How good is our doctrine if we don’t have love? The Protestants living in the era of the Reformation and following had warm hearts towards one another. It seems like many Reformed people nowadays don’t. Experiences may vary, but I think Dr. Riddlebarger’s assessment of the situation is accurate. Shouldn’t we be worried about the threat of Revelation 2:5, “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Could it be that many Reformed churches are already suffering this curse?

    In fact, they have fallen so far, that Jesus’threatened curse is very drastic–the removal of his blessing and his presence from this congregation. When Jesus threatens to remove his lampstand, he is referring to the fact that the lampstand is the symbol of his presence and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of this congregation to be a light to the unbelieving world around it. Jesus exhorts this congregation to go back and do those things it did at first or else, hesays, his blessing will be removed and this congregation will cease to be a light to unbelievers around it

    Let’s hear what the Spirit says to the churches. This is why I said that a Reformation must be extensive and not just address theological minutia and hobbyhorses.

    • I still don’t understand what you are referring to specifically about reformed churches. Or is there something in this discussion that indicates hobby horses are being ridden? Or is it a general caution to have our practice conform to our faith. How are reformed churches being unloving at present? And would returning to practices of our reformed fathers be unloving, such as fencing the table only for those of the reformed faith, be unloving by nature? I am confused here.

    • Walt,
      I’m sorry to disagree with someone so distinguished as Dr Riddlerbarger, but I think he is wrong on this one. The Nicolaitans seem to be the people that the Ephesians had taken issue with. Christ says he HATES the Nicolaitans, and he commends the Ephesians for hating them too!

      The Nicolaitans were a worldly sect of weak Christians who had introduced paganism and idolatry. This allowed their members to indulge in the moral debauchery of the Greek temple, similar to the false religion that Balaam and Jezebel had introduced to Isreal. Revelation 2: 14-15 says, “But I have a few things against you, because you have among you those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Isreal, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication. So you have among you those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which I hate.

      Now, if Jesus HATES the Nicolaitans and commends the Ephesians for doing likewise, it hardly seems reasonable that He is making a threat that He may take away their lamp stand if they don’t get along with them.

      The standard understanding, as given in my Reformation Study Bible notes, and also found in Matthew Henry’s Commentary is that “first love” refers to their zeal and commitment to Christ, to serving Him alone, and faithfully as they did in the beginning of their profession. That is what Christ is concerned about. That exclusive, loving commitment to Christ, their first love, is threatened by the worldly, false teaching of the Nicolaitans, who are still among them. Therefore Christ warns, throughout his address to the churches, that they must fight the good fight for the truth. On page 5 Dr Riddlebarger agrees that this is the usual understanding of this passage but insists that it “misses the mark”. He says that their “struggles over doctrine has caused a poisonous atmosphere in which believers have lost their love for each other.” This, as far as I can see, is unsupported. Where is there any indication that there is lack of love among them, except toward the false teachers among them? So who does Dr Riddlebarger mean, but that they should end their strife with them? If he is saying that their love for each other suffers because they have struggled in the cause of the truth, there is nothing on the text to support it, and regrettably this suggests that insisting on true doctrine makes one unloving.

      True doctrine is the teaching of Scripture, the Word of God. If you don’t have sound doctrine, you might be kind and loving in a worldly sense, but you have a false religion. Good works, including love to neighbor are necessary as evidence of our faith. But acceptance of the worldliness of false teachers and their error, without repentance, is not loving. In fact that is exactly what is warned against in Christ’s message to the churches in Revelation, according to the usual interpretation, that if they do not repent of associating with false teachers, He will remove their lamp stand. Dr Riddlebarger admits this, but he thinks it misses the mark, and wants to propose his own, novel interpretation, and sadly this casts a negative light defending the faith. I think this is unwarranted, and that the standard interpretation is correct.

      I think that Christ’s warning to the churches is very applicable to our current situation where the churches are tempted to compromise with error and worldliness under the mistaken idea that this is showing love and kindness. But if that means we compromise the truth, then we have nothing to offer the world. The uncompromised truth about Christ who alone can save, that is what we must share with the world. To smooth over error as though it does not matter, and to be accepting of those who teach it is to say peace when there is no peace, and if we do not warn them that they are wrong, are we not guilty of their blood on our hands? And what about Christ, our first love, are we loving Him when we are accepting of false teaching and worldliness in the cause of being loving to others? Seems to me He said a lot about the importance of truth. “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.”

  18. I’m sorry to disagree with someone so distinguished as Dr Riddlerbarger, but I think he is wrong on this one. The Nicolaitans seem to be the people that the Ephesians had taken issue with. Christ says he HATES the Nicolaitans, and he commends the Ephesians for hating them too!

    It’s not just Dr. Riddlebarger but Dr. Dennis Johnson also. In “Triumph of the Lamb,” the section on the Church in Ephesus is subtitled “Discernment without Love” and he makes the same claim as Dr. Riddlebarger. At the start of Dr. Riddlebarger’s sermon series on Revelation, he notes that discoveries in ANE apocalyptic literature were made recently that greatly improved our understanding of John’s Apocalypse resulting in so many more good commentaries. Matthew Henry would not have had access to this information.

  19. I posted this follow-up comment separately because I don’t expect it to remain long.

    It seems in the last 15 years that women have entered into the field of writing theology. Aimee Byrd supposedly criticizes the Graham Rule in her latest book. On another blog, women are finding novel reasons for divorce (Rev. Bill Smith has dealt with this). I once saw a minister get in very hot water in his presbytery for something his wife wrote publicly about a decade and a half ago. The “Housewife Theologian” is now a thing whereas it never was in the past. I think both general and special revelation condemn this. Moreover, female entry in male spaces affects the ability of men to talk to one-another in the way we want. As Tim Challies noted, much theology written by women is towards women, but men are expected to write for both sexes. Why is this all of this the case now but not for the previous 2000 years of the Christian church (or arguably to Adam)? As the OPC ruled in its report on women in combat, there are definitely things such as combat that women should not do. I number “writing theology” amongst them. Feminism is charging forward even in Reformed denominations such as the PCA. Maybe “women writing theology” isn’t necessarily feminist, but I think it is. Perhaps this should be Reformed.

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