On the Way to the CRC

Tim Challies linked to Chris Gordon’s piece on the demise of confessionalism in the Christian Reformed Church. Challies seemed to find Gordon’s piece a worthwhile caution: “This strong article warns certain Reformed denominations against going down paths that will necessarily lead to destruction.”

But when you look at the six features of CRC declension, don’t at least three of them apply to the New Calvinists?

1. The Abandonment of the Authority of Scripture–This was the first domino to tip knocking everything else over. No longer was Scripture the final say regarding doctrine and life, but major doctrines were called into question due to cultural pressure.

2. The Abandonment of Reformed Principle of Worship–Historic Reformed convictions and principles laid out in the confessions were abandoned based on seeker sensitive assumptions.

3. The Abandonment of the Sabbath and the Second Worship Service–Even the word Sabbath was abandoned in embarrassment. The evening service was jettisoned by claiming better opportunities for Bible studies and home gatherings to reach the lost and love their neighbor.

4. The Abandonment of Gospel-Centered Expository Preaching–Expository gospel-centered sermons through books of the Bible were replaced with topical messages often addressing the current social justice discussion of the culture.

5. The Abandonment of God Assigned Roles in the Church (Women’s Ordination)–The classic distinctions between creation roles and functional hierarchy were abandoned in support of full equality of function in ecclesiastical offices.

6. The Abandonment of Moral Standards for Her Members–Those committing gross sins were no longer called to repentance, but instead welcomed into the life of the church upon the assumption that “justice” demands it. Nicholas Wolterstorff, a professor at Calvin College of over thirty years claimed that biblical justice requires that people of homosexual orientation be granted “the great good of civil and ecclesial marriage.”

New Calvinists of the kind at Gospel Coalition have given up number 2, 3, and parts of number 4. If the cultural servings of Gospel Coalition on-line are any indication, efforts to understand media and politics are more important than explaining the catechism or biblical commentary.

So why don’t New Calvinists see affinities between themselves and progressive Protestants?

Certainly Not Calvinist But Not Even Baptist

How do you explain selectivity (cafeteria Protestantism) about — wait for it — the Ten Commandments? But the Allies have their ways of satisfying itching ears. Here’s the latest — positive thoughts about Nativity Scenes:

I’ve changed my views because our culture has changed. As society becomes increasingly secular, it seems to me that just about anything that ties Christmas back to the historical account of Jesus’s birth provides an important point of connection. These small displays are an opportunity for engagement and conversation between those in our communities who celebrate nothing more than Santa and those who love the message of the Jesus’s incarnation.

In fact, I’m always intrigued when someone is offended by the presence of a nativity scene. It’s quite fascinating that people can be offended by a collection of miniature ecclesiastical characters. Why do people get upset? Perhaps it’s because they recognize that what’s being said in that small scene is challenging and even personal: “This happened, this is history, there is a Jesus, and you have to deal with him one way or another.” The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.

Actually, it may be that the people who most often miss the message of the nativity scene are Christians. How easy it is to rush through the whole Christmas experience—the music in the mall, the services in your church, the presents in your house—and be left with sweet sentiments but no real worship in your heart. How easy it is to sing along to “Once in Royal David’s City”—

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all.

—and feel neither awe nor offense, but simply nothing much at all.

My point is that it’s not only non-Christians who trivialize Christmas. It’s us. The claims the Bible makes about the first Christmas are either fact or fiction, so they’re either awesome or offensive. They should move us to worship or to resistance. But so often Christians seem to be pursuing a pristine Christmas experience that more reflects the store-bought nativity scene than the costly and messy account of the Bible.

Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas. They avoided also any representation of any member of the Trinity. The same goes for Baptists. Until the twentieth century, non-Episcopalian and non-Lutheran Protestants didn’t do Christmas or display its wares. They only way to get around the second and fourth commandments (for the fourth, one day in seven is holy, not Jesus’ birthday) is if you so elevate feelings or evangelism and argue that rules don’t matter (sometimes). That’s more Whitefield than Edwards. In which case, the Allies can’t even honor properly their “homeboy.”

Just to keep score: justification is supposed to result in sanctification.

Good works constitute indispensable evidence of saving grace. Living as salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world that is dark, believers should neither withdraw into seclusion from the world, nor become indistinguishable from it: rather, we are to do good to the city, for all the glory and honor of the nations is to be offered up to the living God. Recognizing whose created order this is, and because we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doing good to all, especially to those who belong to the household of God. The kingdom of God, already present but not fully realized, is the exercise of God’s sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation. The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom. It therefore inevitably establishes a new community of human life together under God.

Maybe the Allies problem with the Decalogue is that they think of obedience too much in the context of the city and not being ye separate. Don’t want to take God’s word too far.

What Does It Profit a Lineman if He Preserves His ACL and Loses His Soul?

If you want to know what it was like living under King Manasseh, consider the following: evangelical Protestants are more worried about football’s effects on breaking bones than they are about football players breaking God’s law.

One of the amazing accounts of Israel’s sorry history is the reform effort of King Josiah. Don’t get me wrong, oh you sons of the obedient boys. Josiah’s reforms were terrific. What’s amazing is how far God’s people had descended:

And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the keepers of the threshold to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel. And he deposed the priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens. And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. And he broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes who were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah. (2 Kings 23:4-7 ESV)

That’s just for starters.

But how different is the state of U.S. evangelical Protestantism when you consider the priorities included in this piece about the dangers of football?

The inherent dangers of the sport should not and cannot be taken lightly—but all athletic endeavors come with risk, and thankfully every level from the NFL to peewee football leagues are taking large strides toward improving safety. They are developing better equipment, technology, and practices. They are ushering a better, safer football game onto fields across the country.

And yet, American kids are more likely to be watching the game on the couch or playing Madden on the Xbox than running around playing pickup games. With many schools reducing physical education requirements, only one in four young teenagers (between ages 12 and 15) get the recommended one hour of exercise a day, according to federal health statistics. In a culture that is rapidly becoming more sedentary, we can be grateful for athletic heroes who encourage kids to get out there and play. The NFL’s Play 60 program promotes daily physical activity to young fans. Such campaigns are immensely valuable and something we as Christians should consider promoting as well.

All parents—Christians or not—have to figure out if we’ll encourage our own children to play football, and we know that each year more of us hesitate to put our kids in youth leagues. It makes sense to proceed with caution. But especially given how few kids will end up going pro, we can weigh the decision with the positive impacts of playing team sports: learning how to win and lose with grace, respecting coaches, teamwork, good sportsmanship, and the benefits of exercise. We can also take practical steps, such as ensuring that our kids know the warning signs of injury, and that their coaches are certified through USA Football’s Heads Up program.

I have hope in the experts shaping the next generation of players for an even better football experience for them and for the fans. I believe in the power of this sport, and I believe that it has a valuable place in our culture. We can see its impact pulsing through American stadiums, sports bars, and living rooms.

I can’t think of another institution that provides the instant camaraderie (or fierce rivalry) as football loyalties. I also just enjoy watching it—it’s fun! The pageantry, tradition, and on-field drama give us unique entertainment in a way that only unscripted and live sports can.

I’m sorry, but if evangelicals are going to fret publicly and select officials on the basis of their concerns about upholding the sixth commandment (the sanctity of human life), or the seventh commandment (marriage), or the second great commandment — love of neighbor (immigration reform) and not worry about the fourth commandment (worship and rest from secular activities), why in heaven or on earth should I take them seriously?

Seven Good Reasons to Stop Breaking the Sabbath Right Now

(Inspired by Tim Challies)

If you are consumed with secular activities and unwilling to devote merely one day a week to God, you have every reason to be concerned with the state of your soul. God promises that if he has saved us we will gain new passions and new affections. We will have not only the ability but also the desire to replace sin with holiness, to replace worldliness with sanctity.

Even those who know next-to-nothing about the Christian faith know this: Christians are commanded to “love God with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind.” Just like Jesus, Christians are to serve their heavenly father. Of all people, Christians should know that violating the Lord’s Day exacts a high cost — the cost to their bodies, to their souls, to their mental well-being, to their dignity, to their future. A vast amount of the worldly activities you enjoy on Sunday is done by people against their wills.

At a time when the Christian church is crying out for more and better leaders, an entire generation of young men and women are infantilizing themselves by not setting the Lord’s Day apart. They constantly choose secular activities over God and their spiritual growth is stunted. For the sake of your church, stop breaking the Sabbath.

There is scarcely a pastor ministering today who has not seen a family crumble and fall under the weight of treating Sunday like Saturday. Men are tearing apart their families for the sake of fun; women are shunning God’s word to create family moments. Children are being exposed to worldliness through the trails their parents leave behind. Fathers are inviting Satan into the home by their commitment to what God forbids and what Satan loves. For the sake of your family, stop breaking the fourth commandment.

The Lord’s commission is an urgent commission because it is a matter of eternal life and death. Time is short and hell is forever, which makes the Christian’s business an urgent business. And yet so many Christians are distracted by something as trivial as the NFL or a trip to the beach. Their attention is arrested, their energy depleted, their usefulness undermined. Don Whitney says it well: “If there are any regrets in Heaven, they will only be that we did not use our earthly time more for the glory of God and for growth in His grace. If this is so, this may be Heaven’s only similarity with hell, which will be filled with agonizing laments over time so foolishly squandered.” For the sake of your mission, keep the Lord’s Day holy.

Christians are called to be different, to stand out from the rest of the world by their desires and by their behavior. Christians are to put sin to death and to display the power of God in removing and destroying all competitors. And yet so many Christians have had their witness shattered when the sordid truth comes out and when others learn that they profess faith in Christ on the one hand, and are worldly minded on the day devoted to the Lord. Parents undermine the gospel they have been telling their children, pastors undermine the gospel they have been preaching to their congregations. For the sake of your witness, stop breaking the Sabbath.

By making light of the Lord’s Day you are making light of the death of Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, you acknowledge in your profession of faith that the cost of forgiveness was nothing less than the death of God’s beloved Son. Jesus suffered and died for your sin. How can you, as a Christian, then toy with your sin and take it lightly? How can you cling to it? As Spurgeon says with his customary eloquence, “Sin has been pardoned at such a price that we cannot henceforth trifle with it.” For God’s sake, keep the Lord’s Day holy.

Of course, the New Calvinist, Challies, did not write about the Lord’s Day. His subject was pornography, which is a sin that has enormous implications for our society. But are violations of the seventh commandment necessarily more heinous than those of the fourth commandment? The history of Israel (think David and Bethsheba) suggests otherwise. In which case, the New Calvinists may exhibit a moralism (or understanding of sanctification) that is remarkably ignorant of the markers of Reformed Protestant piety.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Challies has no point about pornography. But I do wonder if porn would be less prevalent in Christian circles if the Lord’s Day received more attention. As I understand the broken windows policies that turned New York City around, if you police the small stuff like trash, graffiti, and broken windows, people notice that little things matter and so big crimes like murder and theft go down. If the church had more of a corporate sense of holiness by keeping the Lord’s Day holy, attending two services, removing American flags from the church, singing more Psalms, avoiding business activities, enjoying a day of rest in simple ways, maybe other incidents of violating God’s law would decrease. That analogy, of course, breaks down if the fourth commandment is more basic to Christian devotion than the seventh commandment. But no one said sanctification would be easy.

Celebrating Celebrity Law-Breakers

It may seem like an easy shot, but for a group of Christians who think of themselves as and talk about being Reformed, the blatant disregard of one of the most characteristic marks of Reformed devotion is breathtaking. The Co-Allies have done it again and failed to understand the importance of sanctifying the Lord’s Day.

Joe Carter posted about Bubba Watson’s victory at the Masters Tournament. What matters to Carter is Bubba’s witness, not whether the golfer conforms to God’s revealed will (though to the credit of some readers, a discussion of the Fourth Commandment did ensue):

Last month Watson’s Tweeted before his third round: The most important thing in my life? Answer after I golf 18 holes with @JustinRose99. #Godisgood

Later that day he posted on his account, “Most important things in my life- 1. God 2. Wife 3. Family 4. Helping others 5. Golf”

“Lecrae said it the best,” Watson said of the Christian rapper he listens to on his iPod. “He doesn’t want to be a celebrity. He doesn’t want to be a superstar. He just wants to be the middle man for you to see God through him.”

Of course, the Co-Allies do not neglect of the Sabbath or exhibit inconsistency alone. Evangelicalism is awash with Protestants who want public officials and school board superintendents to post the Decalogue in court and schools rooms, all the while failing to pay attention to the first table of the law and what it says about Sundays and worship.

But is it too much to ask followers of Jesus Christ to keep his day holy? Maybe it is thanks to the instruction from neo-Calvinists that all the days belong to Christ equally. I mean, if all the days now need to show Christ’s Lordship, then maybe I need a break from that week-long holiness on the day that previous generations of saints believed was reserved for holy duties. How do you keep the Lord’s Day holy when everything I do 24/7 is holy?

Still, some Christian athletes did try to honor the day. Eric Liddell, the Olympic caliber runner featured in Chariots of Fire, is one that comes to mind. Just the other night at Hillsdale we saw Chuck Chalberg (who does a pretty good Mencken, by the way) perform his one man show on Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson. Turns out that Rickey was reared a holiness-seeking Methodist who promised his mother that he would never play baseball on the Lord’s Day. And speaking of Dodgers, what about Sandy Koufax who would not pitch on the first day of Passover? Precedents do exist for devotion-based sacrifices.

Of course, the problem for athletes of the professional variety is that they would never become celebrities if they did not play sports on the Lord’s Day. Jeremy Lin, Tim Tebow, and Bubba Watson, would not have careers if they reserved Sunday for rest and worship. And without celebrity, Lin, Tebow, and Watson would be useless to those inspiration-deprived believers who need their pastors and mentors to be popular and famous if they are going to believe that God is really in control and carrying out his plan of salvation.

As a cure for this affliction, I recommend Bible reading. It is hard to see in stories of Israel or the early church any kind of fame or power or celebrity. Celebrity is not something that characterizes exiles and pilgrims.

Give 'Em A Break

A story from the world of higher education caught my eye and started me thinking about the nature of Sunday observance among Roman Catholics. Inside Higher Education reported on a meeting of Roman Catholic bishops and university presidents to consider how their colleges and universities may preserve academic freedom while also remaining faithful to church teaching. That is a riddle that has long affected most Christian institutions of higher learning – not particularly helped by world-viewitis or the notion that the Bible speaks to all of life. But Roman Catholics have faced this difficulty more acutely of late owing to John Paul II’s encyclical, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which calls upon Roman Catholic schools to remain faithful to church teaching at least in theology departments if not more widely across the campus. (If some of the statements expressed at the conference are indicative of Roman Catholic fidelity, the problem of adjusting church dogma and academic freedom will likely be easy. The first principle adopted by this group – we welcome “all students into a vibrant campus community that celebrates God’s love for all” – won’t force timid administrators and faculty to double down on the church’s catechism or much reason to refuse conclusions from most faculty.)

But aside from the intellectual work of the conference’s participants, what was fairly remarkable was that the meeting the reporter covered took place on Sunday. Granted, Roman Catholics have never been as anal about the Lord’s Day as Reformed Protestants (some say the real anal-retentive award for the fourth commandment belongs to the Puritans, but we all know that no can define Puritanism). At the same time, well before Willow Creek offered services for seekers and those sensitive to them, Rome was providing the Mass at different times during the weekend to accommodate the faithful who preferred other activities on Sunday morning.

Even so, if Rome is not sabbatarian as Reformed understand that notion, the Roman Catholic church does teach about the sanctity of Sunday and the need to set it aside for worship and rest. According to the Catechism:

2189 “Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Deut 5:12). “The seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord” (Ex 31:15).

2190 The sabbath, which represented the completion of the first creation, has been replaced by Sunday which recalls the new creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ.

2191 The Church celebrates the day of Christ’s Resurrection on the “eighth day,” Sunday, which is rightly called the Lord’s Day (cf. SC 106).

2192 “Sunday . . . is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church” (CIC, can. 1246 § 1). “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (CIC, can. 1247).

2193 “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound . . . to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body” (CIC, can. 1247).

2194 The institution of Sunday helps all “to be allowed sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives” (GS 67 § 3).

2195 Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day.

This is not as strict as the Shorter Catechism on the fourth commandment – “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy.” But it does tell Roman Catholics that the should attend Mass on Sunday – a rite of obligation – and that they should not work or make demands on others to work (like buying a new flat screen television to watch oversized and overpaid men play football in an oversized bowl). In addition, this teaching would certainly be a tonic for Sabbath-challenged evangelicals.

In which case, why couldn’t the Roman Catholic bishops and presidents have conducted their meetings and delivered their papers on Saturday? If they still had business, they could likely have reconvened on Monday and devoted Sunday to worship and rest. Since they were not Puritan and were meeting in Washington, D.C. they may have even taken in an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. But surely they could have rested from their weekday activities for the holy day known as Sunday.

Catechetical Preaching Solves the Church Calendar Problem

I continue to scratch my head that low-church Protestants are as attached as they are to the calendar of the Roman Catholic church. They don’t think of Christmas or Easter as part of Roman Catholic liturgical practices. But assigning Christ’s birth to December 25th and Christ’s resurrection to the fortunes of the lunar calender and the ides of March is not a project that leaps immediately from the pages of the New Testament as a must. That is why Christmas and Easter greatly expanded their appeal when businessmen like the Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, recognized the big holiday’s of Christ’s life as good for big business. Wanamaker’s department store in center city Philadelphia featured a main hall complete with a grand pipe organ and various forms of musical and holiday festivities (the store’s current owner, Macy’s, continues some of the rituals holiday commerce). The best book on the commercialization of Christian holidays and the high-churchification of low-church Protestants (implicitly) is Leigh Schmidt’s, Consumer Rights: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.

Some Reformed Protestants will be quick to point out that various churches, such as the Netherlands State Church, included in their church order instructions to observe five days from the Roman calendar – Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Reformed church historians will shoot back that the Dutch authorities were not the most reliable magistrates ever to oversee a Reformed church – they let Descartes live among the Dutch observers of Christmas and Epiphany, after all. These historians will also argue that the retention of these five holy days was a concession to keep the former Roman Catholic – now Protestant – population happy.

Historical and commercial reflections aside, the one argument for retaining Christmas and Easter that makes the most sense is the difficulty in answering simply the question, “what’s wrong with once a year calling attention to the birth and resurrection of Christ?” That question invites other questions: what’s wrong with observing once a year the announcement to the virgin Mary of her conception? And by what criteria do we decide which once-a-year observances are wrong?

To these questions the good Heidelberg Catechism has the answer. Divided into 52 Lord’s Days, most print versions break down the 129 questions and answers into units that Reformed pastors were expected to preach in the second Sunday service. Those were the same expectations that brought Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost into the Reformed church. For a second service with a catechetical sermon every Sunday in every Reformed church that observed Christmas and Easter, I might be prepared to swallow the Roman Catholic origins of the Christian “holidays.”

But I’m still holding out hope that catechetical preaching will make Christmas and Easter unnecessary. The reason is that every fourteenth Lord’s Day of the year the Heidelberg Catechism explains the significance of Christ’s birth. And every seventeenth Lord’s Day Heidelberg teaches the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. That means that Christians would have the opportunity to see that nothing is wrong with reflecting once a year on Christ’s birth and resurrection.

The question for those who want to retain the annual festivities is whether they would be comfortable celebrating Christ’s birth in mid-April (14th Sunday), and Christ’s resurrection in early May (17th). (They don’t seem to realize that they already celebrate Christ’s resurrection fifty-two days a year.) That would make for a rushed holiday season among low-church Protestants. But if Jews can squeeze Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into two weeks of Indian Summer, surely Reformed Protestants can gear up for three weeks of celebrations. And just imagine how merchants will benefit from a Spring-time boost in sales.

On the Road to Duality

This is not the right path. But to introduce the concept to 24/7 Christians it may be a place to begin.

The new book is called Christian -Atheist, by some megachurch pastor somewhere. The email from Christianity Today plugging the book asked, “Are you living a dual existence?” My answer, “why, yes I am.” In fact, hyphenation is exactly what the life of exile requires – we live here but this is not our home. The advertisement adds, “If you profess a belief in God, but live as though He doesn’t exist, you may be more divided than you think. Read The Christian Atheist and join author Craig Groeschel as he looks to resolve a conflict that affects the lives of countless Christians.”

I do think I’ll pass.

But it is an interesting thought experiment whether the way I ride the subway, cross the street, teach at a secular university, root for the Phillies, or read John Updike differs from non-Christians performing those same tasks in any sort of visible way. At least, it does differ on the common days of the week since my Christian self avoids teaching, rooting, and reading Updike on the Lord’s Day. Crossing the street and riding the subway may actually be works of necessity to participate in worship.

So even if the dichotomy is wrongheaded – Christian-Atheist – the idea of hyphenation is one that needs to be cultivated, as in Christian-Americans, Christian-Phillies fans, and Christian-historians. We have a lot of divided loyalties out there 24/6, and negotiating them is the task of that wonderful Protestant doctrine of vocation.

(By the way, why doesn’t the Christian side of this guy shave?)