A T.U.L.I.P. by any other name…

The Church

(Note: This post was originally published July 8, 2012)

When I was in Elementary School my family packed up our Winnebago and took a road trip to Yellowstone National Park.  This was before the days of digital photography, and every so often I still come across some old stuck together 4×6 prints from that trip.  To call them amateurish would be complimentary.  Old Faithful looks like one of those under-pressurized drinking fountains  you have to practically cup your mouth over to get a drink from (usually found in churches-why is that?), and I actually took a picture of a trash can.

This is not a post about Yellowstone, drinking fountains, or trash cans.  I only mention that trip and those photos to give myself an excuse to talk about the bubbling sulfur hot-springs found in that particular park.  And I only mention those by way of metaphor.

Something about those stinky, gurgling hot-springs must have captured my Elementary school heart, because I took about fifty pictures of them.  If you’ve never had the pleasure, they are pools of mud that bubble and churn, occasionally burping up sulfur gas.  Like this:

They are therefore an apt metaphor for Evangelicalism (a movement I consider myself a part of, so this is self-deprecating, not snarky.  OK, it’s a little snarky).  Leaving aside for the moment the very difficult question of defining ‘Evangelicalism’ (hopefully a topic of a future post), it is striking to notice the many similarities that movement has to those hot-springs which so captured my attention.  When first looked at, there is the appearance of a calmly unified whole.  Yet there is constant activity below the surface, as things churn about and elements slam into one another.  Occasionally something bubbles up to the surface and pops, leaving a slight stink in the air.

Evangelicals are children of conflict.  Whatever else it may be, Evangelicalism is certainly an effort to band together across various Christian traditions and denominations to find common ground and fight the good fight, wherever it is found.  Much of that cooperative conflict is good and helpful- standing true against such foes as the depreciation of Scripture, theological liberalism, and various counterfeits such as the social and prosperity gospels.  Yet the result of this trans-denominational cooperation is the creation of a movement which is on the one hand combative by definition and on the other diverse by nature.  The result is predictable: an inter-denominational campaign of co-belligerency begets an intra-evangelical proclivity towards instability.  To put it another way: we bicker a lot.

Recently, it seems that much of the in-fighting amongst evangelicals has surrounded the emergence of what has been called at times the ‘New Calvinism’ or the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ movement (henceforth YRR).  Organizing this movement into any sort of simple definition or explanation is at least an equal challenge to defining ‘Evangelicalism,’ and is again not the point of this post (but is again perhaps a topic for later).   And it is also not my purpose at this point to evaluate this movement (ditto the other future post parenthetical comments). Rather, I want to start a discussion about vocabulary.  Yes, it took a while to get there; but that is what this post is actually about.

As I said, the YRR movement has produced a fair amount of conflict and consternation in various quarters.  There are some who are alarmed that something they see as dangerous (Calvinistic soteriology and its suspected implications) has so captured the hearts and minds of many younger Evangelicals.  Yet there is another negative reaction which has occurred- this time from within established Calvinistic and Reformed pockets of Evangelicalsim.  This objection seems to be at its root based on vocabulary.  Carl Trueman recently addressed this issue over at the Reformation21 blog, writing

Reformed’ as a term has expanded its meaning over the years to the point where it is no longer a given.  In the context of the Gospel Coalition (perhaps a bellwether for the contemporary evangelical scene), it seems to mean something akin to ‘broadly Calvinistic in soteriology’.  Thus, adherence to all or a subset of the Five Points of Calvinism qualifies one as Reformed.  Used in this way, it includes Baptists and Charismatics.  Some object strongly to this. I cannot summon any emotional energy to combat it: it seems to me that as long as one knows the term is being used somewhat equivocally, no real harm is done.

Yet not all share Trueman’s impassibility.  I don’t need to provide all the links, because if you are plugged in enough to the blog scene to be reading The Decablog you’ve most likely come across some of the various complaints which have been leveled in recent years regarding this very issue- the allegedly sloppy use of the words Calvinism and/or Reformed.

Reformed Baptists find themselves in an interesting place in this whole debate.  Before Apple took over the world, kids used to go outside play a game called ‘pickle,’ where you simulated a run down on the base paths between first and second, with two fielders trying to catch a base runner in the middle and tag him out.  That’s sort of the position Reformed Baptists are in, looking to the YRR crowd on the one side and seeing much that falls short of our own use of the term Reformed, yet trying to avoid being tagged on the other side by those who see our ecclesiology and other Baptist convictions as making us something less than what that term historically represents to them.

I basically agree with Dr. Trueman on this one.  Words change over time, people use them differently in different contexts, and in the end it’s difficult to get too excited about the whole thing. Plus, to return to the original metaphor, much of the conflict which has bubbled to the surface on these issues (on all sides) has been accompanied by a combative persnicketiness which has been quite distasteful.  Like those Yellowstone sulfur burps- it’s all a bit smelly.

Yet the whole situation does raise some interesting questions which are not without merit.  Are we nearing a time when the meaning of words like ‘Calvinist’ or ‘Reformed’ have changed so much that they are no longer useful in the ways they were once utilized?  The fact is that time both changes the meaning and wears out the usefulness of many words we use.  When was the last time you visited a Particular Baptist church?

I’m still comfortable using the term Reformed Baptist to describe myself, but I am troubled by the fact that there is virtually no one outside of my own circles who understand exactly what I’m talking about.  Yet somehow I don’t think that telling people I’m a 1689 LBC subscribing, regulative principle practicing, Lord’s day observing, law and gospel distinguishing, cessionistic, covenantal, Calvinistic, preaching centric, means of grace focused, evangelistic  Baptist is a long term fix either.

Christians who believe the same things I do and who went to the same sort of churches I’m a part of used to have a different vocabulary to identify themselves with.  Perhaps a similar change will take place in my own life time.  After all, a T.U.L.I.P. by any other name…

Keeping a C.L.E.A.N. Conscience

Christian Living, Law, The Gospel

aaaa-434Yes, Christian acronyms can be somewhat forced and are often downright corny. Agreed. However, this mechanism does have its place. The acronym A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) sometimes helps me to pray a cogent prayer when called upon without warning. Years ago when I was studying for a test on Apologetics I invented a reverse acronym to help memorize the “five ways” of Thomas Aquinas for proving the existence of God- Medieval Catholic Proved God Generally (Motion, Cause, Potential, Gradation, Government- if you’re studying this for a test, you’re welcome). So acronyms have their place, and I want to share one I think is helpful both for dealing with guilt in our own hearts and also in counseling others. It’s about getting and keeping a C.L.E.A.N. conscience:

C: Confess and Repent

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 ESV) For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV)

Confession of sin and true repentance which actual turns away from sinful paths and pursues practical righteousness is essential to dealing with the weight of a guilty conscience. Unconfessed or secretly cherished sin will become the heaviest weight in all the universe to a soul under true conviction.

L: Leave Behind the Guilt

…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14 ESV) So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36 ESV)

As it has been often said, justification is not a legal fiction. The blood of Christ really is has a cleansing power of such magnatiude that it can wash us and we will be whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7). True, we will always regret and have a holy sense of mourning over our sin, but that is quite different than carrying around the guilt of it. Our guilt got nailed to the cross a long time ago (Col. 2:14).

E: Engage God’s Means

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV) The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. (Psalm 19:7-9 ESV)

We do not need to seek new visions or go on discovery quests to learn how to practically deal with our nagging conscience. God has attached promises to certain means such as the reading of Scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship, singing, the preaching go the gospel and the sacraments. He has not endowed these things with grace in and of themselves, but he as graciously promised to communicate his grace to us through these means. How thankful we should be that he has given us such gifts! If we struggle with our conscience perhaps making better use of these means, both through private communion and corporate worship, is the best place to engage with the God who has worked so mightily to deliver us from condemnation and to secure our redemption.

A: Ask for Help

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2 ESV) Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:12-14 ESV)

We need help. We need to rely on the Christian community as a gift from God to help us through this life. We also need to plead with God to send his Holy Spirit to us in power. Rugged individual determinism is always poison to our faith, whether it be through the neglect of the help of the brethren or even the neglect of our God himself.

N: Never Forget Christ

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1 ESV)

In the final analysis, this is the great secret of the truly clean conscience. In Christ my sins are forgiven and I am wrapped up in the imputed righteousness of his perfection. God has removed our sins from us as far as the East is from the West (Psalm 103). This momentous work of grace is accomplished via my spiritual union with Jesus himself, through which he continues to also sanctify me as I grow more and more into actual conformity to the character of my Savior. How blessed we are of God, that he could destroy all guilt against us legally, would adopt and cherish us as sons and daughters relationally, and would lead us into paths of holiness experientially! Wonder upon wonders, sinful people like us really can get and keep a clean conscience, not because we are without sin, but because God has provided a way to both have absolute assurance of our pardon as well as a greater and greater experience of our redeemed identity. O that more and more would know the blessing of a C.L.E.A.N. conscience!

(By: Nicolas Alford)

Don’t Be a Covenantal Contradiction

Christian Living, The Church, Worship

playsetThe Bible knows nothing of the Lone Ranger Christian. For whatever else it can be said to be, the church you gather with tomorrow morning (Lord willing) is a local expression of the New Covenant community. It is critically important to not miss the relevance of that reality when thinking through the necessity of gathering together for worship on the Lord’s Day. Christians are by covenantal nature a communal people.

The New Covenant is indeed the blessed mechanism by which you are saved, but the New Covenant is actually not made with you in a strict sense. The New Covenant is made with a community. This communal nature of the New Covenant is seen in Jeremiah 31:31-33. Notice all the plural pronouns and communal aspects of this promise:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33 ESV)

Also, notice in Matthew 26:28 when Jesus is formally inaugurating the New Covenant he echoes this communal language, saying this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. This was a communal meal symbolizing a communal sacrifice, using communal language, inaugurating a communal covenant. We see this pattern established very clearly in the Old Covenant history of Israel. When Moses led the people out into the wilderness, they assembled as a nation and formally entered into a covenant with their Redeemer Lord. Although the New Covenant differs from the Old in that it is spiritual and eternal rather than national and temporary, the essential communal aspect of the covenant is unchanged.
lone_ranger_fc_167_00_fcThe impact of this covenantal reality on how we think about church is profound and cannot be underestimated. In fact, this means that a Christian who claims New Covenant blessings but never assembles with the New Covenant community is a complete covenantal contradiction! It would be akin to an ancient Israelite wandering off from Mount Sinai in total disregard for God’s structure of Old Covenant life, thinking he could just worship Yahweh in his heart while playing a round of golf with the Amalekites. Again, much has changed with the historic inauguration of the New Covenant, but the erasure of the communal aspect of the covenant is simply not one of them.

There is simply no good argument for a Christian to be habitually missing from Church. You cannot claim Christ without claiming his people. If we purposefully absent ourselves from the time when the New Covenant community gathers, what right do we have to think we are partakers of that Covenant in any sense at all? A tree is known by its fruit. If such absence suits us fine in this life, what right have we to think our situation will be so different in the next? Let us clear up our covenantal contradictions without delay!

(By: Nicolas Alford)