Reformation – Then and Now

Increasingly, Christians are using “Reformed” to describe what they believe concerning the teachings of the Bible and the practices of the church.  On one level, I think this is encouraging.  More and more folk are being exposed to the doctrines of grace, which means there is a deepening understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation and the unconditional nature of forgiveness through the blood of Christ (i.e. justification).

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However, as one becomes more acquainted with the historic Reformed tradition, which stretches back to the 16th century, it quickly becomes apparent that any definition of being Reformed today which has substantive continuity with the past must include much more than believing in predestination or election.

Is there not perhaps a distinctly historic Reformed way of understanding the life of the church, from the authority of the Bible to corporate worship on Sunday?  Can we learn from our past as we seeking ongoing reformation and renewal of our churches in the present?

Robert Godfrey observes that John Calvin, the second generation Reformer from Switzerland, helped recover five important doctrinal disctinctives during the Protestant Reformation, which had been almost lost during the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

The first was that the Bible alone is the authority in the church for religious matters. The second was that the church must worship God purely, according to the Bible. The third was that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in the righteousness of Christ alone. The fourth was that the church must have a proper understanding of the two (and only two) sacraments instituted by Christ, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The fifth was that the true pastoral, teaching office must be restored in the church.

Regarding the Bible:

The authority of the Bible as an utterly reliable and accessible source of all religious truth is foundational to Protestantism. The Reformation took its stand against the pretensions of Rome to make tradition an authority in addition to the Bible and to make the pope the only ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the Bible and tradition. Calvin wrote, “Ours [is] the obedience which, while it disposes us to listen to our elders and superiors, tests all obedience by the Word of God; in fine, ours [is] the Church whose supreme care it is humbly and religiously to venerate the Word of God, and submit to its authority.”[2] The Bible was not only a formal authority for Calvin. It was the vital and necessary authority in the life of God’s people. In his Genevan Catechism, Calvin taught the way in which the Bible should be used: If we lay hold on it with complete heartfelt conviction as nothing less than certain truth come down from heaven; if we show ourselves docile to it; if we subdue our wills and minds to his obedience; if we love it heartily; if having it once engraved on our hearts and its roots fixed there, so that it bring forth fruit in our life; if finally we be formed to its rule—then it will turn to our salvation as intended.[3]

Today the Reformation doctrine of Scripture is being undermined in some quarters by college and seminary professors and in other quarters by uneducated demagogues. Some professors contend that unless one possesses arcane knowledge of antiquity, one cannot understand the basic message of the Bible. At the other extreme, some arrogant demagogues contend that they alone, without education, really understand the Bible. Whether these claims rest on appeals to scholarship or appeals to the Spirit, they deny the authority of the Bible. The church still needs to study and believe the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, understandable to careful, grammatical-historical interpretation. The church needs to love and study that Word, confident that it directs us in the truth that we must believe and live.

Regarding worship:

Calvin believed that one of the most serious deformations of the church in the medieval period was the corruption of worship. Worship had become idolatrous, with human inventions and creations replacing divine institutions. Worship had become man-centered, focusing on human actions and reactions. Against this corruption, Calvin insisted that worship must be directed by the Word of God alone:

“I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, seated as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course?”[4]

Protestant worship in our day has become a factory of musical, dramatic, and artistic invention. Singing the Word, praying the Word, and reading and preaching the Word are often viewed as inadequate to produce the experience of God that so many are seeking. Serious worship as the meeting of the covenant people with their God through his Word seems in retreat far and wide. Human wisdom in worship is replacing divine truth, just as it did in the Middle Ages. Those who love the Word need to restore worship according to the Word.

You can read the rest of this article here.  And you can read what the historic Reformed and Presbyterian traditions have believed regarding what the Bible teaches as summed up in their confessional (creedal) standards here.

Living stones in Christ’s Temple (1 Peter 2:4-6)

[Audio for this sermon available here.]

How do we relate the Old Testament to the New?  Because things are so much better in the NT, it can be tempting to downplay the importance of the OT or disregard it altogether.  A close reading of the NT, however, reveals that it makes significant use of the OT.  The letters of 1 and 2 Peter are two places that testify to the fact that what God has disclosed in the NT builds upon and is the fulfillment of OT revelation.  In 1 Peter 2:1-10, Peter’s multiple references to the OT serve to highlight and magnify the promises, privileges and pleasures we have under the New Covenant – which are far better than the Old Covenant, but still in beautiful continuity with it (according to the covenant of grace).

More specifically, what I plan to do this morning is focus on verses 4-6 of 1 Peter 2, where the Holy Spirit teaches us about our spiritual union with God through Jesus Christ.  Using the OT language of Temple, holiness, priesthood and sacrifice, Peter describes our new living relationship with God made possible through the intercession of our final High Priest, the incarnate Son of God.  In the OT, the Israelites were kept at a distance from God because of the guilt of their sin. Today, we come boldly into the inner sanctuary of our Father’s house, through Christ, to offer up sacrifices of thankful service for the glory of our Triune God.

The object of our faith: Jesus, the cornerstone of the Temple of God

In verse 4, Peter sets up his discussion of our participation in the realities of God’s acts of salvation in the OT, by drawing our attention first to Jesus – the one to whom we draw near in faith.  Peter begins this verse with the words: “As you come to him” to describe the posture of trust and belief that God’s gift of faith produces in us.  Peter assumption is that those of true faith, indwelt by the Spirit, will keep on coming to Jesus and his promises, despite their sin and even in the midst of the sufferings of this life.  In the case of the early Christians who Peter was writing to – who were predominantly Gentiles and not ethnic Jews – we understand that they were being persecuted in significant ways for their beliefs.  Like the OT people of God they were strangers and exiles in this world.

With these opening words, Peter has confidence that even in thick of the trials and temptations of this life, true believers will keep on coming to Jesus.  This is because salvation is ultimately a God’s sovereign choice and act.  God is the one who produces faith and he nourishes it over and over again by his Word and Spirit.

So, who exactly then is this object of our faith?  According to Peter, he is: “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious…”  At first, these words seem like a contradictionHow can a stone be alive?  Peter’s analogy makes little sense without the OT and the role that the Temple played in it.  The Temple was the center of the religious life of OT Israel.  It was there where Israel met with God and encountered his awesome presence.  It was there that the covenant community congregated to worship and where the priests offered up sacrifices to God on behalf of the sins of the people.  The Temple was that place where God met with his people.  It was that place of spiritual union between God and his children.

The thing, however, about the physical Temple along with the priesthood and the sacrificial system is that they were provisional.  They had an expiration dateWhy?  Because they pointed beyond themselves to better things to come.  While they did indeed convey God’s grace, they were shadows of the eternal realities of God’s holy dwelling-place in heaven (cf. Hebrews 8-9).

In the fullness of time, that heavenly sanctuary came down to earth in God’s Son: one born of a Jew and under the law.  In John 1, we are told that the eternal Word of God became flesh and literally erected himself like a temple in the body of Jesus.  Jesus came as the fulfillment of everything that the OT Temple stood for and more.  He is God’s dwelling in the midst of sinful mankind.  And yet, God’s very own people, the Jews, did not accept him or his message.

The Jewish nation that should have received their Messiah with open arms – for he is the one spoken of in both the Law and the Prophets – instead rejected him.  Jesus came to bringing salvation to Israel, and yet they chose to build their future upon the faulty foundation of manmade tradition and human will.  But this too is in keeping with the prophecy of the OT.  In Psalm 118.22, the Psalmist writes: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  In Matt. 21:42-44, Jesus identifies himself as the “cornerstone.”  This truth is confirmed by Peter in Acts 4 and then again for us in 1 Peter 2:7.  As the prophets of the OT predicted, the long-awaited Messiah would be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (cf. Isa. 8:14; 1 Peter 2:8).  Jesus was rejected by the Jewish masses in Jerusalem because his message of salvation through suffering and death did not satisfy the demands of the people.

Jesus: chosen and precious in God’s sight

This sad reality does not, however, change the fact that “in the sight of God” Jesus is “chosen and precious.”

While the world hates and despises him, Jesus has nevertheless always been the supreme object of God’s love and delight.  The Father elected or chose his incarnate Son for the most intimate relationship possible.  This is because the pre-incarnate Son, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit have existed in perfect loving union for all eternity.  How can this be so?  The Son, like the Father and the Holy Spirit is God.  As we confess, there is one God, which consists of three Persons, who are of the same substance, and equal in power and glory.  The union of the three persons of the Godhead exists in the most sublime harmony.  It is therefore in keeping with God’s nature and glory for him to choose himself in his Son: not only as the eternal object of his love, but also to fulfill his mission as Saviour of mankind.

For, in the sight of God, Jesus is “precious” beyond compare.  Like a shimmering diamond that reflects back to God the rays of his own glory, such is the invaluable worth of the Son to the Father.  His symmetry and his attributes are of the most pure, most holy and most complete kind.  God the Father is fully satisfied with his Son – even without reference to what Jesus has accomplished in this world.

And yet, the perfect and unremitting love, joy and glory of the Triune God has overflowed toward sinful mankind – you and I – in the saving work of Jesus.  And this has only served to further amplify and magnify the worth of the Son in the eyes of the Father.

Living stones and holy priests in Jesus

Jesus is God’s chosen servant who was given a mission before time began to be the Saviour of the world.  God elected his Son for this mission because he is the only one who can be mediator between God and sinful humanity.  As the God-man, Jesus is the only one equipped to fulfill God’s promise of redemption.  He alone was qualified to live a life of perfect obedience to the law.  He alone was able to bear God’s wrath for the sins of mankind through a life of suffering, which culminated in death on a cruel Roman cross.  And he alone was able to triumph over sin, death and hell, by rising from the dead.

Do you believe this or is this an offense to you?

Beloved, it is because God has chosen his Son and counted him precious, that we are able to come near to God.  By the Father’s grace and through his Spirit, he has enabled us to believe in his Son.  By God’s mercy, we have not stumbled over the cornerstone of the church, but instead we keep on coming to him as the source of forgiveness and eternal life.

Now notice with me that Peter continues to use the analogy of the Temple and continues to make reference to OT in order to describe the surpassing riches of our new spiritual union with God through Jesus Christ.

For those who have tasted that the Lord is good, Peter writes, verse 5, “… you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.”  See how the Apostle makes the connection between Jesus as the “living stone” and us as “living stones.”  His point is to emphasise the unity of new life that we share in Jesus.  Jesus is the chief cornerstone or foundation of the heavenly temple of God and we his people, like stones, have become part of its majestic architecture.  Peter declares that we are “being built up” – by the power of the Holy Spirit – “as a spiritual house.”

Remember, there is no longer need for the physical temple of the OT because Jesus has fulfilled its purpose and significance in his very own flesh.  Therefore, sinners, you and I, may now come boldly into God’s presence – into the most holy place – through the blood of Jesus.  In 1 Cor. 3:16, Paul calls the church the temple of God in which his Holy Spirit dwells.  God’s Spirit has made us holy through the blood of Jesus, and he continues to sanctify us through the merits of Christ.  By faith in Jesus and through his Spirit, we have truly entered into God’s house through the doorway of Jesus.

In the OT Temple, Israelites were kept at “arms length” as it were from God.  This is because only the high priest could venture beyond the curtain into the most holy place (or inner sanctuary) in the Temple, where God was present; and only once a year.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to offer up the blood of sacrifice to God for the sins of the people.  And this the priest could do only after many cleansing rituals in preparation, and with a rope tied to one ankle for a fast recovery lest God consume him!

This has all changed, however, with the coming of Christ, has it not?  In Jesus, Peter writes in verse 5 of our passage, we as NT believers are all part of “a holy priesthood.”  We, like the OT people of God, are also a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-5).  But the difference is that our priestly service is not preoccupied with and hindered by the guilt of sin.  And our holiness as a “nation” is not dependent on our obedience.  This is because by faith we have the privilege of benefiting from and participating in the holy living and the once-for-all sacrifice for sin of the final high priest in service to God, Jesus Christ!

Our spiritual sacrifices of gratitude to God

In the OT, the high priest would time and time again make a blood offering to God to atone for the guilt of his people due to their sins.  This was to appease God’s wrath, but not forever.  However, not so for the Final High Priest, the Son of God.  For Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the law and offered up his very own body once and for all as a sacrifice for our sins.  He shed his blood to put an end to the OT Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system.  This is why, according to Peter in the last part of verse 5, our service to God is unlike that of the OT priests and unlike that of Jesus.  Instead of offering the sacrifice of the blood of bulls and goats, or our imperfects works, in order escape judgment, we “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

And what are these “spiritual sacrifices”?  The sacrifices that we offer up to God are what he has always desired, which are the sacrifices of holy living in grateful response for our salvation.  Through the intercession of Christ and his Spirit, our works have been made pleasing and acceptable to God.

Think about it, beloved.  You are chosen, precious and holy in God’s sight.  How?  Because you are by faith united to the life-giving person of Jesus though his Spirit.  Just when God started cutting off the branches of Jews, by the mercy of Christ we Gentiles have been engrafted into the vine of salvation.  Just when OT Israel had been divorced and exiled, God has wooed us in marriage by betrothing us to his Son.  Just when the prophets could bear it no longer in their anticipation of the perfect high priest, Jesus became the head of the church and made us members of his very own body.  He has brought us into the Holy of Holies and given us a room in God’s spiritual house.

Brothers and sisters, by faith we have come to share in the love, joy and eternal fellowship of the Triune God.

To know that we Gentiles were once not God’s people, but now we have become God’s people – in the most intimate personal relationship through Jesus Christ – is our hope and joy in the midst of the sufferings of this life.  For even though the world rejects Jesus and therefore oftentimes rejects and persecutes us as well, God’s promise certified in Christ’s blood is that he will never reject us.  “[W]hoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”  Beloved, this good news is the pearl of great price and the treasure of incomparable worth.  Let it, therefore, motivate us to live thankful lives of sacrificial service to God, proclaiming the excellences of his name and his gospel, for his glory in this world.  Amen.

 

Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, April 7 , 2013