In our capitalist society we’re constantly given a reason to do something. Normally it’s a reason to buy something, but during an election season it’s about why you need to be for or against a particular side or candidate. I’m no psychologist, but if there is such a thing as overloading people with why they should do something, not do something, be for something or be against something it seems like we’ve reached that saturation point and then some. It seems like Americans have had whatever mental and emotional receptors to why you should believe something, do something or be for or against something be so abused and overused that there are many diverse ways in which people are coping with it.
This is something that has caused those pressuring us to do or believe, or act have found more scary and threatening ways to get us to do what they want. The end result of what all of this causes to happen is something that I’m not going to try and answer, and I’m not trying to write any sort of cultural article, but I’m just explaining the situation that we find ourselves in here in America in 2020.
Many scholars believe that Western Culture ascended into the modern day starting in about the 13th century when Thomas Aquinas is credited with helping get the Greek scholars accepted back into the universities. For the purposes here I will briefly describe Plato and Aristotle as each offering the fundamental components of philosophy. For Plato it was universals, and for Aristotle it was particulars. It is the emphasis of Aristotelian particulars that are credited with the ushering in of the Renascence, and Reformation that followed. However, a common set of universals is necessary for a civilization to exist or to have meaning or a “why?” that causes its people to value its continued existence.
For example: A marriage is something particular, but in order for that marriage to have a meaning, there must be some sort of accepted universal truth of what a marriage is. Is a marriage a temporary arrangement or is it for life? Without an accepted universal truth under-girding it, you have no answer as to the “why” it’s for life, or why it’s between a man and a woman. With no accepted universal truth upholding it there is no meaning behind what a man is or a woman is, or why one can not simply identify as another.
In Western culture, particularly since the time of the Reformation the bible and Christianity have served to provide the answers to the universals, and those were accepted by a majority. Now that Christianity is being rejected, the universals that gave a basis to the particulars within our culture have begun to be rejected. So, the particulars themselves are beginning to lose their meaning. When a culture can’t agree on the very meaning or “why” behind many of the things that make up the culture, chaos ensues, and that is exactly what we’re seeing happen. Things are breaking down, and collapsing.
The Why of a Nation?
For those of us who don’t really see politics as the ultimate answer, it’s been helpful to not be completely caught up in the daily battles of this or that political side. One of the things that has helped me to understand more what is happening in the rest of the world is a lot of articles describing the rise of the civilization state. The civilization state is a sort of answer to the Western invention of a “nation state”. A civilization state is a concept where China, India, and Turkey are offered up as examples who have leadership that consider their nation built upon the foundation of a civilization. This civilization is, in their minds, enough to give them their universal meaning upon which to make up the particulars of their culture.
One does not have to agree with their conclusions, or really even the idea of a civilization state being a successful model to see what they’re aiming for. They are seeking a basis or foundation to build on, a foundation of universals within which to found their “why?”. A nation has to not hate itself to remain a nation. For the protesters of 2020 who see America as not worth keeping, the sweeping away of statues represents the position that America was founded upon irredeemably flawed principles and actions. It’s foundations are seen as rotten. So much so that it just needs to be made into a parking lot and started over. These people were educated into this by people who knowing best in their own eyes chose to abandon the previous “why” and historical basis for America, and we now see the consequences of those commitments and that teaching unfolding in cities before our eyes.
The Why of a Church?
What about a church? A church absolutely has to have a “why” for its own existence, and there are a lot of banners of “why” that are lifted over particular churches today. You’ll often find clues as to what that church is all about when they make a tagline (an Our Vision) for the church on their website. For example, some fellow NAPARC churches in my area say things like “LOVE GOD AND NEIGHBOR” as their tagline, so from that it seems that they’re all about the normative use of the law. If one wants to hear a bunch of stuff for you to do as a Christian and center around that, go there. Others say things like this: “Nurturing a joy for loving God and neighbor by proclaiming and living out the gospel”. That’s the same normative use (3rd use) of the law again, only this time the gospel is something they proclaim and are apparently also doing. Apparently they’re the good news or what they do is the good news. This is not a Reformed view taught from the confessions.
I could go on but it is clear that these churches do not center on Christ’s objective work or the gospel. What they center on is not good news, but the effects of the good news, or our response to the good news. I can tell you from experience that as time goes on you will see a good portion of the children raised in this type of church find that they can love neighbors just fine without all the hassle of the church and all of the annoying people that go to it. Also, you can find those exact same kinds of “Our Vision” statements on the websites of the long apostate mainline churches as well.
Then there is what you could call the politically heavy “curmudgeon church”. These are usually full of right-wingers who to hear them talk, just about any conservative political talking point of the day seems to occupy half of their brain space, while other half gets filled with sports of some sort, leaving them without a central focus, clinging to empty pietistic right-leaning do-gooder-ism, and external behavior modification. Most of the sermons here also tend to lean towards your responsibility to take God seriously with the normative, (3rd) use of the law as the main focus.
The woke church is the new hotness of “why”. They’re transformational, so their tag-lines are also sayings like “Love God and People”, but some of them also say things about the city they live in. they’re “For the city”. A famous church in New York flies this figurative banner over their church based on their vision statement: “[We] exist to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to [our city] and, through it, the world.” Now there’s a different element to this type of church that is clearly Post Millennial and world building. The gospel seems to be there to help motivate and empower people to do city building/gospel spreading. Their work in the city is part of the good news of God bringing in the kingdom through cultural efforts. Only now, in America many cities failing. They’ve become hotbeds of looting, crime, hate and people and businesses are leaving them. This whole movement of gentrification and city building optimism that seemed to come in with the secular transformational Obama administration has failed. Really with Covid-19 it would make sense that many of these churches might be struggling to keep going at all unless they shift the message.
The next type is becoming more popular as things get worse, the Reconstructionist type. This is the Doug Wilson vision that is very popular with some of the Reformed curmudgeons and baptistic-predestinarian hipsters. It is a pessimistic-postmill view that fully accepts that there will certainly be a collapse of everything, but that everyone will be looking for those universals again when they try to raise up civilization again from the ashes, and Pope Doug will be there to give it to them as the church becomes a type of modern day Israel. I won’t say much more about this except to say that the Israel of the OT was a type of the fully consummated kingdom of heaven and that Theonomy and Reconstructionism should be avoided. There is a long history of spiritual shipwrecks on those shores.
My point here is that Churches need a “why?” only it needs to be bigger than transforming temporary cities, or doing good to their neighbor, or making sure the culture stays conservative. Those churches that don’t have something bigger at the center won’t make it. They’ll eventually die off and disappear, and that is actually happening right before our eyes. Just like the younger generations in our nation that were not given a big enough reason to convince them “why?” to keep America, so the same goes and will continue to go in all these churches that fail to put Christ and His gospel at the center of their “why?”.
A Modern Reformation
We need a Modern Reformation, and it doesn’t require anything very radical, although it might entail the changing out of some pastors for what they fail to preach (not simply what they claim to believe), leaving your current church, or starting a new church. There have already been some movements towards this, but I don’t think some of those people understood the real issue completely. The issue is not simply different leadership and some reworking of the power structure, any more than any single political candidate or party can fix what’s going on in America. Because it has to be a different approach to what is central to Christianity than more than a simple policy, or leadership issue.
It’s about what’s at the center of everything. You’ve got to know your center, and you’ve got to articulate it, even fight for it and protect it. A church has to have the right “why” at the center, and we have a clue back at what was at the center of the Reformation itself. The Reformation was about recovering something that had been lost. That’s where we find ourselves now. What had been lost was the good news. That salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, often summarized as justification by faith. What has been lost today is the meaning of all of those words or “why?” or how they would or could be centered upon. In some Reformed churches they’re just sort of slogans, or things to mention every so often with the rest of the focus back to normative use of the law. Either that, or it’s seen as a balancing act between that and law.
To recover a right understanding of “justification by faith alone”, and why it’s worth protecting is that there has to be an understanding that eternal life is on the line, not the transformation of this world . What’s at the center of our message should come from the fundamental perspective that we all die, that we’re all dying, and that God is Holy and there is a judgement day appointed, with hell or eternal life with God as the ultimate destination for everyone. That’s foundational stuff that rather than being continually assumed must make up part of the fabric of our faith. Everyone in the church needs to be regularly taught this theology. They need to understand what the gospel is and helped along (shepherded) to be able to articulate it to themselves and to others, because it must be made central and therefore emphasized.
I personally have found a helpful way understand the gospel is to see it through the doctrine of first and last things. The bible begins with man at peace with God in a paradise (first things), and ends with man at peace with God in a paradise (last things). At the creation Adam was given a probationary covenant. He was righteous in God’s sight, yet with the ability to fall. He was given a mission, a mandate to please God for a period of time by obeying and fulfilling the mission to subdue and fill the earth. The consequences of failure were death and perdition and the consequences of success were eternal life and the blessings of God. He failed and therefore should have received death, but out of mercy alone God stepped in and killed animals as a substitute type and clothed both Adam and Eve with their skins. He then promised a second Adam from their offspring that would come and defeat Satan who had deceived man. This promised second Adam, Christ came and died on the cross to pay for sin, but also completed the probation by always doing what pleased the Father (Jn 8:29). So, Christ fulfilled the original mission in the protological (doctrine of first things) age, to get us to the eschatological (last things) age of the new heavens and the new earth. Attaining this eschatological goal, and new heavens and earth is often called consummation. So, the goal of all the bible, of all human history is a trajectory towards consummation, which is eternal life as son’s of God in the household of God forever.
We could call the time we are in now as the “soteriological” (pertaining to salvation) age. With this context, and with God set to judge all of mankind, to be justified is what John Calvin said is to be “declared righteous before the tribunal of God”. In other words, Christ had to die for our sin, and He had to merit a positive righteousness for us, so we could be righteous in the eyes of God who is perfectly holy. This is referred to theologically as Christ’s passive and active obedience. Luther referred to what he called the “marvelous exchange”, whereas others have called it the ‘great exchange” or more recently “double imputation”. That our sins are assigned to Christ on the cross and removed from God’s sight forever, and Christ’s righteousness (the consequences of His obedience) is imputed or assigned to us and that both these things are necessary to justify us. So, to be justified is not simply as some would say a state of grace that we can fall away from. It is the end of any probationary status for the believer. If you are justified (through having faith in Christ alone) you HAVE eternal life. Good works and sanctification necessarily follow not as a condition, but as a mere consequence of our justifying union with Christ, thought faith alone. Faith as the alone instrument that rests our hope on Christ and His righteousness alone.
This is the good news, the gospel. It’s not something we live out, but we simply believe it. We live out the consequences and effects of it, and that is considered under the category of law, which is a distinct category from the gospel. The church model for the modern Reformation should therefore be grounded in Reformed history, which is to say that it must be confessional. Further I think it is important that rather than the 3 Forms of Unity (Continental Reformation) or the Westminster Confession of Faith with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms (English Reformation), modern Reformation churches should be all 6 of these forms of unity. Partly because of the important fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith has the fully formed covenant theology, and the Heidelberg Catechism has the historical model for how we should center Christianity.
The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three main sections that help us stay balanced and centered on Christ and His work. As per Calvin’s order of the law it is organized as: First use of the law, Gospel and Third use (normative) of the Law, or Guilt Grace Gratitude. It should be noted that this is also the same structure we find of the book of Romans. The model is presented in HC Q&A 2 as: How great my sin and misery, How I am set free from my sins and misery and How I am to be thankful to God for deliverance. This is a good model for sermons, and for the liturgy. If a pastor is not grounding the body in both the first and third use of the law and the gospel, he is not grounding the body in the full council of the Word of God.
One important thing to note is that the normative (third use) use of the law is (even in our currently state of being redeemed and being sanctified) still something we are unable to do perfectly, and so it should remind us again of the first use of the law, and that God is holy, and we are therefore driven to and must ultimately end on and center on the gospel itself.
This is why this gospel is at the center of the Christian faith and must be at the center of every church. It must be taught as something that could (and should) be articulated by all believers, protected, and defended. This is the only thing big enough to center a church around, and bring together people from all walks of life with all kinds of different ideas and agendas. A Christian faith with Christ’s saving work at its center is the only thing big enough to where you kids will not abandon it when they leave your home. They need to be taught to articulate it to defend it and to give a reason why it’s our only hope and comfort in life and in death, even against all other views such as Roman Catholicism and Federal Vision.
We all need to know what we believe and why we believe it. This is how you continue as a church, your lamp-stand brightly lit, and not have it taken away by the Lord. This is how you preserve and protect the gospel, by articulating it, by teaching it ever more clearly and fully. You probably won’t be able to build a mega-church with this model, but it is certainly possibly to build a church where salvation is found, and that the Lord would please with.
A church has to have the objective truths of the scriptures articulated and defended. Church members need to be educated in the historic Reformed doctrines articulated by understood through the teachings found in the Reformed confessions. These things have to be understood and agreed upon in order to give the particulars or the churches reason for existing any meaning.
You might be able to fill a church with a host of unbelievers by centering it on the great commandment to love God and neighbor, because that is God’s command to all of Adam’s offspring. It’s natural to the heart of man, which is why all false religions have doing good works at the center of them.
Thankfully though all the doctrine for the church has already been laid out in the Reformation, and you can find it in the confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism as well as a Redemptive Historic understanding of the OT gives us the model. To center the church on Christ, on His person and work, and live lives of gratitude. We don’t need to innovate or create earthly utopias, or seek to maximize our joy, or optimize and modernize the Reformed faith. We just need to return to what the church used to know, and Reform our churches accordingly.