Relabelling our Bibles

As I mentioned in my previous post, the very names that were given to the two parts of the Christian Bible give us the framework for understanding it.  When referring to the two parts of the Bible, our Latin-speaking forefathers spoke of the “Vetus (Old) Testamentum” & the “Novum (New) Testamentum“.  As Richard A. Muller points out, “the Latin term testamentum has a double meaning: either covenant or a legal bequest.”1  The translation “covenant” fits the biblical content far better than a mere inheritance (a legal bequest).  Therefore, we could just as easily re-label the two parts of our Bibles the “Old and New Covenants”.2

But aren’t there more covenants in the Bible than just the old and new?  Of course.  These two are unique, though, because God articulated them within an official collection of documents.  Similar to the way in which the American Constitution provides the legal foundation for our society, the Old Testament gave the Israelite nation its standing as an official nation.  Surely, this collection told the Israelites about other covenants with Adam, with Noah & creation, with Abraham, and the future new covenant, but the collection in and of itself is attached to Mount Sinai and has become obsolete insofar as it constitutes God’s People (Heb. 8:13).  Presently, it is the New Covenant collection that constitutes the People of God.  It must never be separated from the Old Covenant, though.  The Old serves as its authoritative prologue, giving us the necessary context for understanding the New.  While we are no longer required to keep the civil and ceremonial aspects of Old Covenant law, we do learn a great deal about God, His moral law, His Messiah, the salvation He grants His Church, and the praise that is due His name.

1.  Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 297.

2.  The labels of Old and New Testament/Covenant are not inspired but are interpretations of the Bible’s content.  Given the ancient pedigree of this interpretation, we must give it great respect and consideration.

The root of evil

Question 7: From where, then, does this depraved nature of man come?

Answer: From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby, our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.

Western individualism hates the notion that one person’s decision could have consequences for someone else.  But were God to conform His ways to each culture’s preferences, contradiction and chaos would ensue.  Whether we like it or not, the all-wise and infinitely good God of the universe made Adam the representative Head of mankind; reality can’t be sugar-coated.  His obedience to God would procure eternal life for him and his descendants, but disobedience would bring spiritual death (“one trespass brought condemnation for all men” Rom. 5:18a).

Though God gave him every chance of success by equipping him with moral uprightness, he submitted himself to the word of the serpent instead.  As a result of his guilt, he and his descendants were cast out of His Kingdom.  Spiritual death ensued, making us, by nature, morally twisted and destined for judgment (“by the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners” Rom. 5:19a).  In other words, at the root of all the evil in the world is the failure of our forefather, not some “mistake” in God’s design of us.

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

So What’s This Reformed Stuff About?

[Encouraged by the prospect of a church plant on the west side of Cincinnati, UnalloyedGrace has begun a series of posts introducing the beliefs and practices that make Reformed churches unique within the Christian tradition.  Here’s the first installment.]

In Daniel R Hyde’s Welcome to a Reformed Church, Dr. Guy Prentiss Waters, in the foreword writes:

In the church of Jesus Christ, signs all around are pointing to renewed spiritual life. A younger generation of men and women has embraced Reformed theology in numbers unparalleled in recent memory. Web sites, conferences, publishing houses, and seminaries dedicated to promoting Reformed theology are flourishing. Most important, God is changing lives by the gospel of His grace… [click for more]

Harmony or Dissonance

Is the Bible a mere library, a collection of books written by different authors on diverse topics?  Or does it have an inherent unity?  And if so, how do you relate its apparently disparate parts?  For Adam and Eve, a single sin brought banishment from God’s presence; yet, the worst of all sinners found fellowship with Christ.  Wickedness in the world brought the great Flood, whereas the subsequent heights of mankind’s sin have provoked no such judgment.  How do we account for the diversity of the experiences of God’s people at the time of Abraham (pilgrimage), under the Law of Moses (theocracy), and post-Christ (pilgrimage)?  What gives?!

The ancient names given to the two parts of the Christian Bible give us the answer; the concept of “testament” (Latin: testamentum), or its synonym “covenant”, brings unity to the Bible’s diversity, harmony to its differing notes.  Keep up with this series (and invite others to do so, too) as we consider God’s covenants and why they give us the framework for understanding the Bible’s unfolding story of salvation.

The baseball bat did it!

Question 6: Did God create man thus, wicked and perverse?

Answer: No, but God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.

Blame-shifting is a part of life.  A father asks his son whether he broke the window with the baseball and the son replies, “No, the baseball bat did it.”  Our first line of defense after God’s Law teaches us of our sinful natures and actions is to, similarly, shift the blame to God, saying, “This is really your fault, God!  You made me in such a way that I’m unable to keep your law.  If you would have done a better job, I would be just as loving and good as your Law commands me to be.”

This would be an instance of refusing to recognize that the problem is within us, though.  By nature, God gave us everything we needed to keep the Law.  Our minds did not distort the knowledge of God and our hearts were not prone to hate Him.  We were even created in God’s very image, which includes positive righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  Our nature was fully equipped and disposed to obey and attain eternal life.  The problem is not with God’s success in creating us.

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

Disasters and Christian education

Thus far, I’ve articulated the purposes of NAPARC, which are:

The final purpose for its formation is to assist one another in times of disaster relief (pretty pertinent to the recent storm) and in Christian education [Constitution, Art. III.4].

Imagine you worshipped in a Reformed church in Saskatchewan and there were no Reformed churches near you.  After hearing about a natural disaster like the tsunami in Japan, you could be confused about where you could send aid if your denomination did not have a presence there.  But having an official relationship with NAPARC churches would inform you that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which has a presence in Japan, is a trustworthy place to send your money – they hold a common faith and confession.

Similarly, what if you were part of a small church and became convinced that your community did not have an appropriate means of educating your children?  Well, your unity with other NAPARC congregations would go a long way in finding like-minded people  (assuming there were other congregations nearby) to partner in starting a Christian school or homeschooling coop.  Similarly, NAPARC congregations frequently hold conferences together, giving Christians an opportunity to form new friendships and to learn about those from different Reformed backgrounds.

Why the Law is “bad news”

Question 5: Can you keep all this [i.e., love God and neighbor] perfectly?

Answer: No, for I am prone to hate God and my neighbor

In and of itself God’s moral law (“love God and your neighbor”) is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, God’s law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12).  The reason that the law is often called “the bad news” is because we are unable to keep it.  The problem is not in the law but in us; our obedience has never been complete and perfect.  When God’s law tells us of God’s demands and reveals our sin and misery (e.g., Rom. 3:9-20), it tells us in crystal clear terms what our conscience has already uttered (Rom. 1:32; 2:13-15) – we have violated the law of love.

Tragically, our condition is even worse than that we have failed to obey God’s moral law.  This disobedience is not a mere slip-up by people that are inherently good.  No, we have an inclination toward hate (Eph. 2:1-3).  Our nature is now twisted and corrupted and we worship created things (including ourselves) instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:18-23).  We are also prone to love ourselves to the detriment of our neighbors.  In the first sin events of Adam and Eve, we submitted ourselves to the instruction and command of the serpent.  Having been cast out of the Garden and still wandering “East of Eden”, we generally do his bidding, rejecting our Creator and our neighbor.

(To avoid misunderstanding: God’s “common grace” has prevented us from living as rebelliously as we could.  There is still a remnant of good in mankind, but the good we see never meets the standard that God originally set.  Societal “good” is never done with perfect love for the Creator and neighbor.)

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

Cooperation in missions wherever possible and feasible

We live in a time in which Christian networks are all the rage. Various conferences, coalitions, and parachurch organizations are being formed in order to encourage evangelism and church planting across theological traditions.  Cooperation amongst Christians is an encouraging thing to see.  This is, in fact, one of the reasons NAPARC was formed, i.e., for the “propagation of the Reformed faith” (Constitution Art III.3) and to “promote cooperation wherever possible and feasible on the local and denominational level in such areas as missions…” (Constitution Art III.4).

It is important to note a difference between the “network model” and the “NAPARC model”, though.  While the NAPARC model seeks cooperation in missions, this cooperation is exercised within official ecclesiastical structures.  In other words, because these churches have an official relationship, they are able to hold their church plants and church planters accountable for their actions, methods, and message, even if the plant occurs across denominations.

While we would hope that networks and coalitions would move toward a more ecclesiastical expression of unity in missions (the ministry of the visible Church must be our primary means for fulfilling Christ’s Commission), there are things we must also learn from them.  These informal partnerships are leading to numerous church plants, sacrificial giving of time and resources, and deep commitments to evangelism and loving one’s neighbor.  Though there have surely been ways in which NAPARC churches have cooperated in missions, their boldness in the spread of the gospel is surely worth emulating.

The Law is not the Gospel

Question 4: What does the law of God require of us?

Answer: Christ teaches us in sum, Matthew 22, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Great confusion and spiritual distress will arise in a Christian’s life if the law and the gospel are not distinguished from one another.  The law teaches men and women of God’s demands for moral uprightness (Right now, I am speaking of “law” as God’s unchanging moral standard, not as the covenant that came down at Sinai.).  In short, the law commands perfect love – love for God and neighbor.  This love is written upon our hearts (Rom. 2:13-15) and must be fulfilled personally, perpetually, and perfectly.  To obtain a fuller sense of the law’s demands, one may turn to the Ten Commandments, which the catechism explains later on, or to the various commands in the Old and New Testament that call people to live an upright life.

Just think about the implications of this distinction. If the law relates to God just requirements, it does not speak of His grace.  Therefore, it does not inform us of the accomplishments of Jesus Christ and His gracious gifts of forgiveness and free righteousness.  Instead, the law enjoins that we personally achieve righteousness.  Some old sayings go like this: “What the law demands, the gospel gives.  The law says ‘do’ and the gospel says ‘done’.”  In short, if we make “love” or even “following Christ’s example” into the gospel, we have confused justice with mercy and misunderstood God’s glorious grace.

Photo credit to Nataraj Metz

To “hold fast the confession”

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Heb. 10:23)

Theological liberalism has brought denominational giants down to their knees.  So much so, that the “Mainline” denominations would be unrecognizable to the ministers, elders, and members that founded them in the New World.  It would be like a civilian, who had fled her war-torn city, returning to see nothing but ruins and saying, “I don’t even recognize this place”.

Jesus Himself warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)  Paul echoed Jesus, saying, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30)

In that chapter of Acts, Paul not only warned the elders of the Ephesian church of impending danger, but he also charged them with protecting their church.  Given that Christ’s Church is larger than a single congregation and seeing the pattern that was given throughout the Old Testament (elders & Sanhedrin) and the New (cf. Acts 15), church leaders regularly meet together in order to protect their sheep.  They do more than this but not less, and NAPARC facilitates it because we find strength against sin in numbers.  “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Eccl. 4:12)