God is sovereign in his gracious salvation of sinners. These doctrines have been summarized by the popular acronym, TULIP.
T– The “Total Depravity” of the Sinner
Sinners are so completely sinful that they are unwilling and unable to do anything good to prepare themselves for salvation, let alone save themselves by good works. They do not always do the most sinful thing they possibly could, but no work of any kind that they perform can merit the righteousness they need to avoid eternal condemnation. This doctrine is also called “Radical Corruption.”
as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3)
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive (Psalm 5:9).”
“The venom of asps is under their lips (Psalm 140:3).”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness (Psalm 10:7).”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known (Proverbs 1:16; Isaiah 59:7-8)”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes (Psalm 36:1).”
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
U–The “Unconditional Election” of the Father
Before creation, God graciously chose a remnant of fallen humanity and gave them to his Son as his Bride. No righteous merit of any kind in them serves as the basis of God’s gracious choice of these sinners; only God’s own pleasure and will.
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.
…though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
L–The “Limited Atonement” of the Son
On the cross Jesus Christ paid the ransom to the Father and effectually redeemed the remnant of fallen sinners which God graciously chose to give to him as his Bride. Sinners whom the Father has not graciously chosen are not redeemed by Christ on the cross. Christ’s atonement is necessarily “limited” in one way or the other: either it is limited in extent (Christ dying for the elect alone), or it is limited in power (only able to redeem sinners who by their own free will decide to receive this redemption). Also called “Particular Redemption.”
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…
…since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…
I—The “Irresistible Grace” of the Spirit
Those fallen sinners whom the Father has graciously chosen according to his sovereign will and whom the Son has redeemed on the cross will not fail to come to faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit effectually gives spiritual life to the spiritually dead and in this way enables the chosen sinner to see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3), and enter it (John 3:5) through faith alone in Christ alone. Also called, “Effectual Calling” (see also 2 Peter 1:10; Romans 11:29)
1 Corinthians 1:9
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws (literally, “drags”) him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.
P—The “Perseverance” of the Saints
Those whom the Triune God has saved in this effectual way according to his sovereign grace and power he will keep, and they will persevere in faith and repentance until the end, be it his own death or the return of Christ.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
2. God commanded Israel to circumcise their households (believers, their children and anyone else of any status in the household).
3. Divine Commands remain in place if they are never rescinded.
4. Israel, by the plan of God, was a mixed multitude of believers whose circumcision signified the circumcision of their hearts (their faith and repentance), and unbelievers whose circumcision was a constant reminder to them of their need to circumcise their hearts (to repent and believe).
5. In Christ, the sign of circumcision–the sign and seal of faith (Romans 4:11)–was changed to baptism (see how the one is identified with the other in Colossians 2:11-12), and this sign continued to be given not only to individuals, but also to households in the New Testament.
6. The command to apply the sign and seal of faith to households is nowhere rescinded in the New Testament; therefore, the command remains in force.
7. For this reason, it is biblical to baptize the infant children of believers before they make a profession of faith.
8. In conclusion, the Bible teaches Christians to baptize their children with a view to raising them to repent and believe in the providential timing of the Lord.
Engaging Worldviews: DFW Reformation Conference 2016 | Register Today!
Friday, October 28 and Saturday, October 29 at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Join us this year as we engage the worldviews which compete for the position of absolute authority in our lives. Human reason, personal experience, nature itself and subjective opinion all claim supremacy over what we believe.
- Human reason has placed the Christian God and his revelation on trial.
- “Unless I experience something for myself, it cannot be necessarily true for me.”
- If God is removed from the creation, then where do humans turn? By using their reason and experience often they will turn to Nature as their absolute guide in life.
- “That’s just your opinion!” Opinion has become the sign of relativism in our society since everyone’s opinion has equal value.
How do Christians respond to such pervasive subjective authorities surrounding us each day? How do Christians respond to the sovereign status of Nature and its confusing message in our day? In this world of relativism, do Christians have a basis for the truth of their assertions?
Reform your worldview as we commemorate the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Friday 7:00 PM–“My Mind is Absolute; my Experience is Absolute”
Saturday 9:30 AM–“Nature is Absolute”
Saturday 11:00 AM–“My Opinion is Absolute”
Speaker: Dr. William D. Dennison, Ph.D.
Dr. Bill Dennison is an ordained minister in the OPC’s Presbytery of the Southeast, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies atCovenant College, author of In Defense of the Eschaton: Essays in Reformed Apologetics (Wipf and Stock, 2015), A Christian Approach to Interdisciplinary Studies (Wipf and Stock, 1985) and other books, contributor to still other books, not to mention numerous journal articles.
The jurisdiction of this blog just expanded. I know many Reformed blogs have always posted on personal interests that lay outside the realm of Reformed theology, but I had rarely, or never done so myself. This changes today.
Facebook friends of mine have become painfully aware of the fact that I have, in the past year, reverted to where I left off at about age nineteen, in my interest in comic books and Star Wars. I have been calling 2015 “The Year of Star Wars” since the announcement that George Lucas had decided to sell Lucasfilm to Disney and the joint announcement that Disney’s newly acquired company would begin a new trilogy of Star Wars feature films, along with a handful of spin-off films. There is also talk of a live-action Netflix series in the works (see this for the new canon). But, most significantly for myself, is the fact that now that both Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm are under the Disney umbrella, the twenty-plus year run of Dark Horse brand Star Wars comics is coming to an end, and Lucasfilm’s new sister company will resume publishing Star Wars comics, which they originally did since the 1977 release of the ground-breaking original Star Wars film when I was six years old, which somehow managed to wrap its tentacles around my brain.
Some of you may be aware that yesterday, the long-awaited official theatrical poster of Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens was released, as a fore-runner to the fashionably late debut of the first full trailer for the film, to be aired during half-time on Monday Night Football on ESPN tonight.
But, thank the Maker for DVR technology! I needn’t sit through a game I’m not interested in to catch the trailer. I’ll record it, watch my normal shows, probably check in on the progress of the game in order to catch it live, then back to my preferred viewing. Then I’ll protect it in my DVR so I can re-watch it as often as I like.
The infrequency of my blogging on theological issues may largely be explained by the fact that since 2010, when my family finally joined an Orthodox Presbyterian Church, my formerly frustrated need for sound theology began being met, and my compulsion to seek interaction with others who believe as I do–few and far between as we often find ourselves–has found relief in my enjoyment of weekly ministry of the ordinary means of grace at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas.
In 2013, we moved from our original rental facility, the Airport Area YMCA to a small building on 1.6 acres on Brown Trail in Bedford. With that move, the deacon in charge of the library asked me to take over directorship of our small collection of books, and also requested that I come up with a way to facilitate online discussion of our books among our library patrons. This lead to the launch of my second blog, the MCOPC Library Blog. I have been posting our titles on this blog, which will serve as an online card catalog in the hopes that one day I will learn how to provoke a church full of ordinary people who are not already avid bloggers to open up and review, comment, raise questions and engage in discussion or debate on our humble blog with other library patrons. This strikes me as a daunting task. But perhaps with time, more of that will begin to happen.
I will begin reblogging those posts here as well, if only to increase the frequency of Reformed-content blogging. I also have intentions to resume my devotional series I started in 2006, which broke down with the increased difficulty in pairing questions and answers from the Westminster Shorter Catechism on the Ten Commandments with hymns featuring related content from the Trinity Hymnal. But I have a source which will assist me in that, my pastor has managed to do so in his Sunday evening service teaching ministry on the catechism, and has invited me to benefit from his work in that area, for which I am grateful.
But in the meantime, I hope you will enjoy geeking out with me about Star Wars and Marvel Comics from time to time. Let me know what you think about the Force Awakens poster, speculate about why you think Luke is missing, and check back here for more forty-something fanboy misadventures.
Craig Troxel, Pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Wheaton, Illinois, will be speaking at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church’s 2015 DFW Reformation Conference (Nov. 13-14, 2015) on the subject of “With All Your Heart: Thinking (again) About What We Think, Love and Choose.”
Pastor Troxel has spoken on Reformed theology in Texas previously down in Pflugerville, Texas, at our sister congregation, Providence Presbyterian Church at their 2009 Calvin Conference.
At my YouTube channel, I have begun adding channels to which I subscribe which deal with Reformed and otherwise theologically-oriented topics (and a little music) in my “Featured Channels” widget. I’m calling it RefTube. Subscribe and watch. You will find a link in the sidebar.
I’ve been making several additions lately, the most recent of which is the channel of a young minister in Kansas City, MO named Ryan Pelton (his blog) who has planted a Christian Reformed congregation there called New City Church. He is also an author, who is now promoting his latest book, The Gospel-Marinated Soul, the proceeds of which will go to the work of planting churches. I’ve been getting to know him a bit, and recommend his congregation to those in the Kansas City area looking for a Reformed church who may be deterred by the plain vanilla approach of my sister OPC congregation, Park Woods Presbyterian Church in a neighboring Kansas City suburb of Overland Park (then there’s the swanky Redeemer PCA–watch this!). You KC-based twenty-and-thirtysomethings will enjoy New City’s ministry, I think; just as you older Calvinists will appreciate Park Woods or Redeemer.
The channel of San Antonio Reformed, which I promoted the other day, may also be found on RefTube, as well as one of my other favorites, WWUTT. I hope you find RefTube helpful. Please share your favorite channels in the comments. In the meantime, enjoy my other favorite recent addition to RefTube, the music of Steve Camp, as we “guard the trust” by making Reformed theology even more accessible online in any way we can.
I’ve added a link to the top of my sidebar to the right. It links to Post Tenebras Lux, the website of Dr. Thomas R. Browning, Assistant Pastor of Grace Community Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas. At his site is a lecture series about the life and ministry of Martin Luther and the story of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It is the month of October now, and Luther nailed the historic 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, so it is time to begin gearing up to commemorate the Protestant Reformation, which was the providential way “How Christ Restored the Gospel to His Church.”
OPC Licentiate Robert Mossotti explores a distinction between the holiness of the children of a believing parent and the way an unbelieving spouse is sanctified by a believing spouse. These remarks conclude his lesson delivered on August 31, 2014 at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church. Subscribe to Robert’s SermonAudio page for more worthwhile teaching and preaching.
Let’s not forget that in Hebrews 6, there are some who are in the visible church who actually enjoy many spiritual benefits including tasting the heavenly gift, and the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and sharing in the Holy Spirit. But not, as we have discussed in a previous lesson, sharing in the Spirit’s work of regeneration, but in other very real, but lesser, blessings of the Holy Spirit, blessings which our Confession calls “common operations of the Spirit” in chapter 10, paragraph 4.
There is one other text that I would like to examine briefly. These are broad brush strokes, these may not even be the best arguments for why we baptize infant children of believers, but I think that they’re fairly good ones: the continuity of the one covenant of grace, the unalterability of covenants once they’re ratified in Abraham, and all the things we’ve gone through so far in this lesson.
Let’s go to 1 Corinthians chapter 7.
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy (1 Corinthians 7:14 ESV).
In the Greek text of this verse, the children of a believer, whether it’s mother or father, are called saints in the Greek. They are called “holy ones,” that’s what “saints” means. Now, this is a noun, it’s not an adjective, like it appears in the text here in English. It’s not a description of them as an adjective, it is a statement that they are a noun, they are saints; they are holy ones.
Let’s go to chapter 1 and verse 2 of this epistle.
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV)
It’s not as obvious in the English, here, but in the Greek it is the same noun. It’s not a verb, it’s not an adjective, it’s a noun, they’re being called saints, holy ones. So, let’s go back to chapter 7. The thing is, that although the children seem to be called by the same noun as other members of the visible church, and that is the point that I want to make, nevertheless, it says something odd about the unbelieving spouse as well, doesn’t it? It would seem to create a problem for my thesis because you can’t say that an unbeliever is a member of the church, and it says that he is being sanctified by the believing wife, or vice versa, and the children are called holy ones. That creates an apparent problem, I’m trying to say with this text that children are members of the church just like the ones Paul addresses at the beginning of the epistle, so there is some difficulty there. But I think the explanation is to be found in the grammar. The children, like the visible church members in chapter 1 verse 2 are declared to be saints, holy ones. That is not what happens, here, with the unbelieving spouse. They are not called saints, they are not called holy ones, it’s says with a passive verb, they “are sanctified.” It is a different idea; it’s slight, I admit, but it is a distinction that Paul actually puts in there. He doesn’t say, “the children are saints, and the unbelieving parents are saints, too.” He doesn’t say that the children “are sanctified,” in the Greek, the way the unbelieving parent is sanctified. He makes a distinction. He calls the children “saints” the way he calls all of them saints at the beginning, and with the unbelieving parent, he says that they “are sanctified,” and I think the explanation for this distinction in the grammar is this idea of being sanctified by virtue of being in proximity to something holy.
Let’s go to Matthew 23:17-19.
You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? (Matthew 23:17-19 ESV)
The gold was sanctified, not because of what it is, but because of its proximity to something else.
Now let’s go to Exodus 30:29
You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy (Exodus 30:29 ESV).
You can see it much more clearly in the Septuagint and in the Hebrew text that it is the same idea of sanctifying, but it’s not that these things were holy in themselves, but whatever they touched was holy, so going back to 1 Cortinthians 7, the unbelieving spouse is made holy in that sense, by virtue of their proximity to the believing parent and the child, in their marital and parental relationship to holy ones, they are in a sense sanctified. I can’t do much better than that, I think, in explaining in what sense the unbelieving spouse can be sanctified. It’s not as if they are holy, “holy ones,” but they are sanctified, receiving holiness by the unbelieving spouse’s proximity to holy things.
One more note on the unbelieving spouse being described as being sanctified, if we were to take the time to go to Leviticus 27:28, especially in the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Septuagint, we would see that there is all kinds of sanctifying in the Scriptures. I don’t think this is the kind of sanctifying we’re talking about in Leviticus 27, where it is those that are set apart for God’s destruction are called holy as well, so I don’t mean the unbelieving spouse is sanctified in the sense that he is set apart for destruction. I only introduce this to make the point that in the Scriptures there is more than one meaning for “sanctifying.” It doesn’t always have the meaning of which we typically think.
So, what is the overall argument that I want to make from 1 Corinthians 7:14? It’s not ambitious. I don’t want to make too much out of my grammatical distinctions, but simply that children of believers are to be admitted as members of the visible church, and are to be granted the rite of admission to the same. I think surely the New Testament language stands at least for that. They are called saints just like anybody else in the church at Corinth.
I have said that Genesis 17 makes clear that the household principle is not simply the physical descendants of the believer that are to be included into the visible church. It’s a household principle, not so much a genetic line kind of principle. Now we in the United States of the 21st century don’t have slavery. So how would you apply that? We should keep in mind that they did have slavery in the first century as well as during the time of Abraham. So by the first century, where this principle of admission into the visible church by household would include slaves it is the same as saying that in the twenty-first century the household would not include slaves. Slavery is an historical accident of local, civil law. It’s something that the Bible does not confront head on, nor does it warrant it. That’s how we would apply it today. We would do the same thing, we would admit by households, but since households no longer include slaves we wouldn’t even consider that, but children would still be a part of that, according to Genesis 17.
Robert Mossotti, our summer intern at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas taught a Sunday School series on Ecclesiology. All of the lessons are available online here. They’re also available on Robert’s SermonAudio page here. My favorite lesson in the series was the following on the biblical case for infant baptism and the Reformed inclusion of the infant and unbelieving children of believers into church membership. The following is a transcript of his remarks, lightly edited at some points. I hope you find it as helpful and enlightening as we have. You can listen to this particular lesson online here. We begin with his introductory remarks regarding principles that govern our interpretation on this issue, and an exposition of Paul’s words regarding covenants from Galatians 3. The rest will follow in the coming days and weeks.
Why do Presbyterians baptize babies and count them as members of the visible church?
Let’s restate some principles first, before we get into some passages.
The visible covenant community is the visible church—Old Testament and New Testament—and what makes it visible are the sacraments. These place a mark on the church to identify it as belonging to the Lord. The sacraments mark God’s people off from the world. Another principle we have to keep in mind is that there is only one covenant of grace in Scripture. The covenant by which Abraham and the Old Testament church were saved is our covenant, too. By God’s grace, in the Scriptures we are all called children of Abraham through faith. There is no essential difference between the Old Covenant church and the New Covenant church. There are differences, but no essential differences. No differences as to substance, just form. The church is one across all the ages, because the covenant of grace is one. To embrace the one idea is to embrace the other. If you accept that there is one covenant of grace throughout Scripture by which we are all saved, then you have to accept that the church is one across both Old and New Testaments. We affirm this over against dispensationalism, which maintains an essential difference between Israel and the church. So the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant (the one at Mount Sinai mediated through Moses), and the New Covenant are all different administrations of the one covenant of grace. In section 5 of chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Mosaic Covenant is called an administration of the covenant of grace. Alright, now that those principles have been stated, let’s go to Galatians 3.
The apostle Paul is going to give us in this passage a principle of covenant theology. A principle of Interpretation of Covenants, of Application of Covenants, the Nature of Covenants. Paul says not only biblical covenants, but all covenants. Let’s go to Galatians 3:15.
“To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (Galatians 3:15-17 ESV).
In verse 15, this idea of “ratified” in the ESV comes from the Greek word kuro’o, and Bauer-Danker, the premier Greek lexicon or dictionary defines it as “to confirm, to ratify, to validate or to make legally binding.” Although the covenant of grace goes all the way back to Eden, note that Paul is saying here that it was not ratified until Abraham. Now note that in verse 15, Paul begins with a general principle of covenants. Then, as he moves down through verses 16 and 17 he applies that general principle of covenants to the particular case of the Mosaic administration of the one covenant of grace—that’s what he means by the Law coming in. Paul says that once the covenant of grace was ratified at the time of Abraham, no modifications may be introduced even by later administrations of the covenant of grace, including the Mosaic administration.
So, it is because there is only one covenant of grace throughout Scripture that we Presbyterians apply the sign of admission into the visible church to the children of believers, for we are not free to change the way the covenant is administered. It is not because the Reformers didn’t sufficiently push off from Rome that we baptize babies, it is because of our covenant theology which we receive, we believe, from the Scriptures. It is also because the covenant of grace is one across the various administrations that we need not seek for proof of continuity between the Abrahamic administration and the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. In fact, because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace across the ages, which cannot be altered once ratified, says Paul, that we actually would need to find evidence in the New Testament that God intends to change who it is who receives the rite of admission to the covenant community. Because of the underlying continuity of the one covenant of grace, it is discontinuities, and not continuities, between the Old Covenant and New Testament administrations, that need positive proofs from the New Testament. We don’t have to go to the New Testament and ask if there are specific cases where it says in explicit terms that babies were baptized. Because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace, you have to look for a command to no longer give the sign of the covenant of grace to the children of believers. The underlying unity drives the belief that we assume continuity unless there is evidence in the New Testament of discontinuity.
So the absence of explicit revelation in the New Testament on whether children are to be included in the visible church actually works in favor, not against, the inclusion of children in the visible church. Because of this principle of covenant administration, the default setting, says Paul, is covenantal continuity. But, in fact, we can find more evidence than just these principles of covenant theology that the children of believers are to be included in the visible church as members.
John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and recent host of the controversial Strange Fire Conference, predicted in an interview with Christianity.com that what he calls the “Reformed Revival” will reverse itself in the next few years. He thinks this is so, because he sees so many of the younger generation who seem to be merely adding the doctrines of sovereign grace to their otherwise non-Reformed modes of operation like contemporary worship music, drinking beer, and Arminian forms of evangelism. He says in time, their Calvinist soteriology will fall by the way side because of the contradictory positions they hold.
Watch the video first, then read my comments below:
I find it ironic that this pastor should offer this critique of other pastors when he himself has added the five points of Calvinism to a non-Reformed view of eschatology. Reformed theology, after all, is not the home of Dispensational Premillennialism. Those who embrace total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, effectual calling and perseverance of the saints but reject the Covenantal theology in which these doctrines were developed, should think twice before criticizing others for selectively embracing popular elements of Reformed theology without embracing the whole system.
I also find it amusing that he should critique Calvinists for drinking beer. The enjoyment of alcoholic beverages in moderation is historically more Reformed than otherwise.
But I am in agreement with MacArthur that the five points of Calvinism isn’t enough. I would encourage him and members of the movement which a few years ago was called the Young, Restless and Reformed to take another look at the rest of Reformed theology. If it’s so right about the sovereignty of God in election, redemption and regeneration, what makes you think it’s so wrong about eschatology, church government and the sacraments?
As much as I love the Reformed tradition, some of its more extreme instincts, in my humble opinion, lead it to throw out the baby of the communion of the saints with the bath water of Roman Catholic superstition. One case in point is the memory and example of the saints of the past. Not wanting to retain a Romanist veneration of the saints, we neglect the important and edifying discipline of gleaning from the history of the church the graces of the saints conveyed to us in the annals of church history. This may lead us to keep an eye on the historic church calendar, but we do not have to allow the entire worship of Christ to be distorted by this. There are ways to corporately remember the faith and works of the saints without violating the regulative principle of worship. What it takes is a little ingenuity on the part of Reformed congregations—their members under the informed supervision of their sessions.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 26, “Of the Communion of Saints,” presents the biblical principles that go along with the communion of believers with Christ by the Spirit through faith, and with each other in love.
All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by the Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory (1 John 1:3; Eph. 3:16-18; John 1:16; Eph. 2:5-6; Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:5-6; 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:12): and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces (Eph. 4:15-16; 1 Cor. 3:21-23; 12:7,12; Col. 2:19), and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man (1 Thess. 5:11,14; Rom. 1:11-12,14; 1 John 3:16-18; Gal. 6:10). [WCF 26.1, as adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church]
With regard to this section of the confession, there are gifts and graces to be communicated by one believer to others. This does primarily intend to apply to all living believers who are physically present among the saints in their generation of the church militant. But just as our confession transmits to us the corporate Reformed understanding of biblical faith, piety and practice, so can church history communicate to us the benefit of the gifts and graces of great Christians of the past who are now numbered among the church triumphant in heaven, with whom we are lifted in the Spirit on a weekly basis to join them in worship of Christ.
In one sense, this takes place all the time in one Reformed church or another as pastors illustrate the teachings of Scripture with examples of the works and experiences of saints of the past. By so appropriating their examples in the exposition and application of the Scriptures to us, I submit that we are benefiting from the gifts and graces of these historic saints, and so are experiencing the communion of saints even with them, if only in a sense. If the teaching ministries of Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Warfield, Machen, etc., continue to build up and instruct the church, why not the lives and works of those who published nothing, as their lives are recorded in church history?
One of the Scripture proofs in the section of the confession above is Romans 1:11-12,14. In this passage, the apostle Paul expresses his desire to commune with the saints at Rome.
For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
If Paul desired to impart a spiritual gift to the Romans in person, for his strengthening with the Romans in their mutual faith in the Person and Work of Christ, he certainly did impart such not only to them, but also to all Christians who would follow to this present day, twenty centuries later in his writing the most comprehensive exposition of the gospel of Christ in his letter to the Romans.
Paul’s grace was the grace of apostleship. Other ministers of the gospel have spiritual gifts to impart which are outworkings of this Pauline gospel. In the case of Nicholas, the grace of generosity to the poor among his parishoners has been communicated to us today through sixteen centuries of church tradition. If we may demythologize the traditions of St. Nicholas’ “wonder-working” intercessions, among other fanciful traditions, what we find remains is the kernel of a godly example of generosity on a par with that first lived by Christ in his state of humiliation. As Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9, ESV). Saint Nicholas was rich, and he used his wealth to relieve the poverty of those in his ministerial care. Truly, Saint Nicholas excelled in the grace of giving, taught in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. His example can help us learn how to live out the teaching of this passage.
It seems to me that due to the Reformed tradition’s utter rejection of corporate recognition of such great saints from church history, depriving ourselves and our congregations of their gifts and graces, are we not also neglecting a sense of communion with those professing Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, who do recognize these days? We may be appropriately divided from Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians over essentials like justification by faith alone, or other Protestants over important doctrines like the sovereignty of God in the gospel, ecclesiology and the sacraments, but we can at the very least affirm the validity of, rather than despise, their edifying themselves with the gifts and graces of the saints of the past. We could furthermore, I propose, go a step further by not only affirming them in their commemoration, but perhaps exemplify a “more perfect way” of doing so in the context of Reformed theology, piety and practice.
Many Reformed churches are happy to commemorate Reformation Day on a yearly basis. We promote our commonly held Protestant distinctives, displaying our unity with Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist and Baptist Protestants. We also take it a step further and do it in a Reformed way. If we can do it with the memory of the works of Saint Martin Luther, why can we not do it with others like Saint Nicholas? Today is Saint Nicholas Day. December 6 is the anniversary of his death. It is on this day that Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches commemorate his life and ministry in their various ways. Yet the Reformed ignore it, although many of them have borrowed from the Anglicans at Christmas and found a way to bring into greater conformity to the Refomred confessions the Anglican Service of Lessons and Carols.
I say we should find a way to bring into greater conformity to our confessions the commemoration of the life and ministry of Saint Nicholas (read all about him here) and so reform in a more winsome and attractive way, the commercialized specter of Santa Claus, rather than merely turning up our noses to it and saying “Bah! Humbug.” Saint Nicholas is the world’s favorite saint. Sure, they’ve refashioned him in their own image, but we shouldn’t just leave him to them. Let us keep alive the true Saint Nicholas, who currently enriches our Christmas seasons with his emphasis on sacrificial generosity to the poor, and perhaps, through such edifying efforts build bridges over which some of the elect may find their way into the communion of saints through faith in Christ by the power of the Spirit and love for one another, and we can learn from Saint Nicholas how to better minister to the needy among us, as well as in the world, without feeling like we’re capitulating to some liberal “social gospel” or postmodern version of progressive “social justice.” Let us reform Saint Nicholas day and perhaps in his providence the Lord will use us to reform the way Christian charity is done in a more perfect way.
Happy Saint Nicholas Day!