I’m Becoming Anglican

I’m writing this post to announce that my family and I are moving to Myrtle Beach to join the staff at Trinity Church, an Anglican Church in the ACNA. This of course means that our family will become Anglican. (For more info on Anglicanism itself: read “What is an Anglican?”)

Why are we doing this? This decision comes after a long and arduous journey investigating church history. I began this journey after being challenged by a Roman Catholic friend to investigate the claims of the differing church traditions. And so I read through the history of the church, and was surprised by what I found! When I read the church fathers, I encountered a different world from mine; a different way of looking at the scriptures, the worship of the church, the sacraments, church authority, and so on. This search is what eventually led me to Anglicanism.

But why did I land at Anglicanism? Here are some brief reasons:

First: Anglicanism’s rootedness in church history. Anglicanism is an apostolic faith. And by that I mean that Anglicanism is not properly a “denomination”. It is not even a church created during the time of the Reformation, though it is a Reformation faith. Anglicanism is more (though not less) than that. Instead, Anglicanism is an expression of what the Nicene Creed calls “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. It retains the historic succession of bishops as an inherent part of the Christian faith, the ancient creeds and councils as authoritative, and the ancient liturgy. With that said, Anglicanism’s rootedness in history is different from the other apostolic churches. There is a certain balance that Anglicanism holds when it comes to its claims to apostolicity.

After going far down the rabbit hole of Roman Catholicism, I realized that I simply couldn’t hold to the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, or the claim that church tradition and scripture were on equal footing. At the same time, I could no longer hold to a very common idea within evangelicalism that tradition is inherently bad. There are many who believe that tradition instinctively corrupts; that, like the Pharisees who “make void the word of God for their traditions” (Matthew 15), any church tradition is inherently wrong. No, far from it. I had come to realize fairly early on in my studies that not only did the early church hold to a tradition, but that everyone holds to some sort of tradition. By that, I mean, no matter how you conceive of it, every person reads the scriptures with a “tradition-lens”, or to put another way, with preconceived doctrines and assumptions.

Even more than that, tradition is a positive concept in the Bible! Paul told the Thessalonians to “hold fast to the traditions” he had passed down, “whether by word or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Paul also talked about the gospel, which had been “handed down” (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). This phrase “handed down” is the Greek word for tradition. Tradition isn’t inherently bad; rather, it is the handing down of certain world views and assumptions from generation to generation. Anglicanism understands this and roots itself in the apostolic church with its practices and traditions handed down through the centuries.

However, another important point must be made: tradition isn’t scripture. Scripture alone is God’s address to his church. It alone is his voice to his people. Tradition is instead the church’s interpretive lens of God’s divine address. Of course, what is assumed is that even this interpretive lens is guided by God’s Spirit. The Spirit dwells in the church, and therefore enables the church to be guided into all truth, as Jesus himself promised. Anglicanism understands all of this. And for this reason, Anglicanism at once affirms the legitimate authority of the church, its councils and creeds, while it also positions the scriptures above the church. Mind you, the Bible and tradition, or the Bible and church, do no contradict one another — they go hand in hand. Rather, they fit one on top of the other. For this reason, Anglicanism is commonly called Reformed Catholicism.

Second, Anglicanism’s broadness. Anglicanism is a Reformation church. Nevertheless, unlike other Reformation churches, Anglicanism is a church that has a broad theological range. To be an Anglican, you must subscribe to the 39 Articles of Religion. However, when you read the 39 articles, you notice almost right away not only how short it is, but how embracing it is. There are your typical polemics against Roman Catholic theology, as is to be expected.

However, unlike other confessional documents, the articles are rather slim and short, leaving wiggle room for dialogue. What this means that there is a spectrum within Anglicanism. There are high and low Anglicans. There are Evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics. Indeed, many of Anglicanism’s greatest theologians disagree with one another on fundamental things. NT Wright and John Webster both sit at the table. Rowen Williams and Allistar McGrath fellowship with one another. For this reason, Anglicanism is catholic in the real sense of the word: it embraces a broad spectrum. It understands that creeds and confessions are guardrails rather than slammed doors. The creeds are protective buffers to protect orthodoxy, but at the same time, they are buffers for broad streets allowing a multiplicity of people within.

Third, liturgy. Over the past several years, I’ve come to realize that much of contemporary worship revolves around a certain assumption. I say this as someone who had this assumption without even realizing it. The assumption goes like this: if worship is to be truly authentic, it must be extemporaneous. Structured liturgy stifles this extemporaneous worship, and therefore worship services must be unstructured. I do affirm the gift that contemporary worship is, but I strongly disagree with this assumption. There are two reasons why.

First, there is no truly unstructured worship service. There is always some sort of order. Even if it’s three songs and a sermon, that’s order. But second, structure is necessary for improvement in every area of life, so why not the worship of God? If I want to get into shape, I must discipline myself to run, exercise, to achieve that goal. If I want to graduate from college, I have to discipline myself to study. It is not the case that I should only run when I feel like it, or study only when I enjoy it. No there are structures I put in place to achieve the goal I want. Likewise, if I want to worship God with increasing vigor, it follows that discipline and structure does not hinder but aid my goal. This is what liturgy is. It is a disciplined way of worshipping God that does not impinge but rather aids worship of God.

And indeed we see certain liturgical disciplines in the scriptures. For instance, we are told in Acts that the early Christians prayed three times per day, something that the Jews did before them. In fact, we are told that even after they had become Christians, Peter and John would go to the temple for the daily prayers “during the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1-6). This means the apostles retained the Jewish practice of thrice-daily prayer in the temple. We have evidence that the early church did this after the apostles as well.

Or, take the heavenly visions in Revelation as an example. Revelation is a book that gives a glimpse into the heavenly worship of the saints and angels, and it’s filled with liturgy! Revelation 4:8 tells us that angelic creatures, day and night, never cease to sing in unison, “holy holy holy, is the Lord God almighty!” Revelation 5:11 likewise tells us that the whole company of heaven, “thousands and thousands”, said together: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing”. Revelation 8:3 tells us that angels offer incense to God in prayer. We are told that there is kneeling and prostration. If this is what is happening in heaven, should our worship include this as well?

Another example is Paul’s mention of hymns and early forms of the Apostles’ creed. For instance, Paul quotes an early form of a hymn in Philippians 2:5-10. Or, in 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul quotes an early version of the creed. He does the same in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. What this means is that elements of the earliest Christian liturgy not only informed Paul’s theology, but they were so well known among the early churches that Paul could quote them without explanation.

What all of this means is that liturgy is an embedded part of the Christian faith. Anglicanism understands this, and includes the ancient liturgy in its worship.

Lastly, the sacraments. I worked with the assumption for many years that sacraments were something I did for God. I got baptized to say something about my faith. Baptism was, in essence, my work of response to God’s salvation. The Lord’s Supper is something the church does to celebrate and mentally remember Jesus’ sacrifice. However, as I read the early church fathers in tandem with the New Testament, I realized that the sacraments are never referenced as human actions, but as divine actions. Of course, the sacraments are things humans do. But in our doing them, it is God working and willing to save. Take baptism for instance: Paul says in Romans 6 that “we were buried with [Christ] in baptism”. Notice the passive language: we were buried. This is something that happens to us. Likewise, in Titus 3, Paul explains: “[God] saved us not according to works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration”. What is that washing of regeneration? Most commentators agree it is a reference to baptism. The key here is that baptism is a passive affair for Christians. It is not something we do, but God does. This is why the 39 articles says,

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church. (XXVII)

Notice the wording: “not only…, but…”. It is not only a sign of profession; rather, those who receive it rightly are indeed grafted into the church. What this means is, as Peter says in 2 Peter 3:21, “baptism now saves you”. Or to put another way, God uses baptism as an instrument of his gift of salvation. It is important to notice that the articles clarify that baptism must be received “rightly”. To put it negatively, baptism doesn’t work automatically. Baptism doesn’t mean auto-salvation. Rather, it must be received with faith. Especially in case of those baptized as infants; baptized children must grow into their baptism with lively faith in Christ. If, down the line, they leave the church, their baptism becomes not a means of salvation but a means of damnation. Nevertheless, all things considered, baptism is an instrumental means of salvation.

Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is not a symbolic action done by the church, but rather an action of Christ whereby he feeds us and sustains us with his very life. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Paul assumes that the bread and wine somehow participate in Christ’s body and blood; and, that in the partaking of these elements, Christians really and truly partake of him. As the 39 articles say, the “Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper”. Mind you, not carnally (we aren’t cannibals); rather, as the articles clarify, we feed on Christ “only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith” (XXVIII). The mechanism of feeding is by faith. We don’t munch on Christ with our teeth. The bread remains bread and wine wine. Rather, through the sacramental action of the church, with faith, we mystically, spiritually, but really and truly, feed on Christ. Again, notice the way the 39 articles don’t try to figure out Christ’s presence in the supper. There is much more negation in the articles than affirmation. We do this, not that or that. This is the point: sacraments are mysterious and strange means of God’s salvation.

I certainly have not explained everything, but you can take this as a starting point! I hope it’s informative/helpful.

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Simultaneously Righteous and Sinner: What does it mean?

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One of the slogans that came out of the Reformation was the Latin phrase “simul iustus et peccator”. Iustus means just or righteous, and peccator means sinner. Translated then, the phrase means “the righteous person is at the same time a sinner”.

What does this phrase mean? Robert Jenson, in his book Lutheran Slogans, offers the problem of interpreting this phrase:

There is a problem of interpretation: what is it which is supposed to have “at once” a predicate, iustus, and its contradictory, peccator? At first glance there seem to be only two possibilities: it is either the righteous person who is also a sinful person, or it is each act of the person that is at once righteous and sinful (p 71)

In other words, to what does this simul refer? Does it refer to the person as person? Or to his acts as such? Is the Christian a mixture of sinfulness and righteousness? This is certainly a common Reformation interpretation when viewed in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. If righteousness is imputed rather than imparted, then a Christian viewed as righteous while still being sinful. This option produces what Jenson calls a platitude. “When the devote parish secretary falls into backbiting the organist, she does not merely thereby cease to be a righteous person” (p 71). Well, yes, we can agree. But I would also add that this also leads to an overly extrinsic understanding of salvation. Does God merely “cover” our unrighteousness, and not change us? Polemics against this type of construal have called it a legal fiction: God judges us as good when in reality we aren’t. That, I believe is problematic.

Jenson offers the second option, that the simul refers to the actions of the Christian. Every action a Christian does, even righteous, is “stained” with sin. It is mixed. This leads, Jenson says, to “moral nihilism”: “surely the justified must sometimes do a good thing” (p 72).  But very often Christians, in the name of “humility”, will not recognize any good they have done. But we know that Christians are enabled to do good!

Jenson offers another interpretation of this phrase:

In Luther’s own theology, the preferred framework for discussion of such matters is a dualism of “the old man” and “the new man”. The old man is drowned in the waters of baptism and the new man is born of them; baptism makes a definitive before and after. Yet the old man must thereafter “daily be drowned and put to death”; he has not simply gone away but again and again intrudes into the present from the past. This by no accident reminds us of Paul’s ability at once to speak of himself and all believers as dead to sin, and nevertheless, in the first person and the present tense, to lament the sin which inhabits him and cry for delivery “from this deathly body”.

Having regard to both Luther and Paul, I suggest that simul iustus et peccator is properly a slogan for the eschatological situation of believers.

Jenson means to say that in baptism, the old sinful man is killed, and the new man comes forth out of the waters. This is properly an eschatological reality: we have already died and risen with Christ in baptism. And thus we are a new man. And yet, the old man can swim, as it were. He comes to bother us from our past, and thus, Luther says that daily we must put him back into the waters and drown him.

Gerhard Forde has spoken of the simul as two total states:

Luther’s view of justification can be understood only as a complete break with the attempt to view it as a “movement” according to a given standard or law, either natural or revealed… [For Luther, justification] does not come either at the beginning or end of a “movement.” Rather, it establishes an entirely new situation…

Luther proposes a thinking ad modum scripturae in which the divine imputation is the creative reality which, by the fact of the imputation, unmasks the reality and totality of sin at the same time.

(A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, Kindle loc 2552-2554, 2571-73)

Forde introduces the concept of divine imputation being a creative reality: God declares us righteous for Christ’s sake, and in so doing, creates new creatures. He does his word to us. For Luther, Forde et al, justification not a process of improvement. Rather, it is the death of the old man, and the resurrection of the new. There is no movement from unholiness to holiness as such. Rather, God by his baptismal-word effects in us death and resurrection. And in so doing, he kills the old man, and raises up the new. Forde continues:

If one persists in thinking in terms of a process, the simul iustus et peccator will of course turn to poison, perhaps at best a false comfort for lazy sinners. It becomes merely the word that no matter how hard we try, we have to settle for the fact that we will never completely make it because we are, after all, simul iustus et peccator. (Kindle Loc 2580-2581)

For Forde, this totally misunderstands the issue. The phrase means that in justification God does away with the old man as total sinner, and brings the new man as totally righteous out of the waters of baptism. There is a total break between the two. There isn’t some strange mixture. And thus, as Jenson says, “The peccator I still am after baptism is precisely my ‘old man’, my pre-baptismal self, reaching from that past needing to be thrust back again and again” (Lutheran Slogans, 74).

And this is why Luther conceived of sanctification as a return to baptism. What do we do there? We put the old man back where he belongs, and live out our baptismal identity. There is of course improvement, but as Jenson says elsewhere,

Sanctification is the continual return to baptism, from the errors and forgettings and perhaps plain unbelief or crime into which life after baptism will lead us. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past… And if indeed I do become more sanctified as time goes on,… this will be because such fresh starts come closer together and are each time more drastic (A Large Catechism, p 55)

 

“God takes time in his time for us” – A Theology of Time

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Russian Orthodox Icon, “Creation of the World”

I’ve owned Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theologies for quite some time now, and have just gotten into them! I am currently reading his second volume, which is a fascinating survey of God’s works. Volume 1 is about God in himself, volume 2 is God as he relates and works outside of himself.

In his third section, Jenson considers God’s relationship to space and time. For Jenson, God’s triune nature, time and space, and creation are not competitive concepts. God, in Jenson’s mind, is not to be considered separate from creation and vice versa. Instead, creation is something included in God’s being. God makes “room” in himself for creation to live.

However, much of Western theology considers creation as necessarily separated from God. There is God in his eternity, and then there is creation in its time and space. They are related of course, but nevertheless separate. Jenson takes issue with just this construal. He traces this concept of God and time back to Augustine:

For Augustine, Jenson says, God’s eternity is conceived as his bare presence. To be present is to be eternally there. Thus Augustine conceived of God as an ever-present being, ontologically unchanging and completely realized.

But what is time then, if eternity is presence? For Augustine, time is the passing of presence to non-presence. “Past or future things, according to Augustine, have no being as they are past or future, but only insofar as they are somehow present.” (kindle loc 393). What this means for Augustine is that time is less of a thing, and more of an absence. If eternity is presence, time-past or future is non-presence. “Thus throughout his discussion Augustine is pressed to the verge of answering ‘What is time?’ with a flatly Neoplatonic ‘Nothingness'”. (loc 405) Of course there is a past, and there is a future. But how can we conceive of it? Augustine answers with the concept of memory. Past and future are present in terms of our presence stretching back or forward. Thus, eternity is presence, and time is the passing of presence.

For Jenson, however, this is problematic not simply because it verges on making nothingness out of history, but because of what it does to God’s being. God, in Augustine’s mind, is sheer ontological presence. He is considered in Augustine’s mind as one infinite Being. Humanity, on the other hand, is the passing of being into non-being. Thus the world and God are at odds.

Jenson proceeds by first saying, “God is not sheer presence” (loc 459). For Jenson, it is a category error to consider God ontologically. God is not the eternity of presence. Rather, God must always be considered within his trinitarian relations. God is a “life among persons” (ibid). God is a life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And therefore, say Jenson, “creation’s temporality is not awkwardly related to God’s eternity, and its sequentiality imposes no strain on its participation in being” (ibid). The world’s being temporal and God’s being eternal are not at odds if God is understood in terms of relationship.

But how so?

Jenson gives a long but helpful answer:

The life of God is constituted in a structure of relations whose referents are narrative. This narrative structure is enabled by a difference between whence and whither, which on cannot finally refrain from calling past and future, and which is identical with the distinction between the Father and the Spirit. This difference is not measurable; nothing is God recedes into the past or approaches from the future. But the difference is also absolute: there are whence and whither in God that are not like right and left or up and down, that do not reverse with the point of view. Since now we find that which we know as time is located within and enabled by this structure, the last inhibition is surely removed. It indeed better suits the gospel’s God to speak of “God’s time” and “created time”, taking “time” as an analogous concept, than to think of God as not having time and then resort to such circumlocutions as Barth’s “sheer duration”.

God takes time in his time for us. That is his act of creation. (loc 464)

This is a fascinating passage. God is a narrative event of Father, Son and Spirit. Yet this is certainly not measurable within our conceptions of time. There is not past in God or future. And yet, there is a narrative of relations. There is the Father and Son and Spirit who relate as a family of love. Thus, it would be better in Jenson’s mind to understand creation as an event in which God includes us within these “eternal” relations. In his act of creation, God makes space for his creatures.

To take another metaphor, God is a great exchange or conversation. Creation is thus the expansion of this triune conversation to include things that are not God. Jenson says this in his A Large Catechism:

The [God] creates something new, means that he expands the field of his conversation: he refers, e.g., to an earth, and how could God lie? Indeed, God as the triune God is in himself a great Conversation. That he creates, means that the Father, Son an Spirit among themselves mention others than themselves: they speak together of, e.g., the great sea beasts, and so there are the great sea beasts, god converses the world into being (loc 394)

This is a conception of time and space as participatory. We participate in God’s very life through his expansion of his triune relations. This is of course not to say that we become “part of God”. And yet, we subsist in him. We find our very existence within him.

This, I think, is a better construal of time and history.

 

 

Connecting Incarnation and Atonement

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Icon of the incarnation

Andrew Purves, in his work, Exploring Christology and Atonement, says something very enlightening about the work of Christ: “Atonement is not so much a work of Christ apart from who he is, but rather Christ himself as work” (p 35).

What does this statement mean? He means to say that much of the western construals of the saving work of Christ are abstracted from who he is as incarnate God. Or to put another way, too many atonement theories disconnect Christ’s work from his identity. John McLoed Campbell says about the atonement: “The faith of the atonement presupposes the faith of the incarnation” (p 35). In other words, the theology of God’s incarnation cannot be detached from God’s work for us in his death and resurrection. The incarnation must inform what we believe about the work of the cross.

However, this is often not the case. Many theories of the atonement could and in fact do do away with the incarnation and still remain intact. The incarnation is an add on, an accidental necessity, not inherently necessary. Purves notes that many understand the atoning work of Christ as something “external to his person” (p 37). He quotes TF Torrance who calls this an “instrumental” view of the work of Christ. Christ took on human flesh, not because it was absolutely necessary, but to use as an instrument. He took our flesh in order to make payment, or to satisfy justice. However, he could have atoned in some other way.

Purves continues:

Such a view [of the atonement] need not but will likely tend toward a perspective on the atonement in which God needs to be propitiated in order to be gracious toward us. In such a view the love and forgiveness of God may be seen as the effects of the atonement. Further, an instrumental perspective on the atonement as an external work of Christ, as something that he does rather than having its ground in who he is, implies a corresponding view of our relation to Christ that is developed in terms of an external arrangement. In the scholastic Protestant tradition this is conventionally developed in terms of an imputed righteousness, in which, while we are and remain sinner, God, for Christ’s sake, regards otherwise… (p 37)

Put another way, Christ became man to give something externalized to God: Christ becomes man and gives God an externalized obedience, and God receives that on behalf of the sinner who, despite God’s forgiveness, remains a sinner. This type of atonement theory does not really need the incarnation. Christ became man so that as a man he could offer a receipt of obedience and payment; but he could have made atonement as the divine Son without his humanity.

Purves is right in noting that this view becomes very common in the scholastic Protestant tradition. For instance, in the Heidelberg catechism, it is asked, why did God become man? The answer:

He must be a true man
because the justice of God requires
that the same human nature which has sinned
should pay for sin.
He must be a righteous man
because one who himself is a sinner
cannot pay for others (Q 16)
Notice, why did God become man? There is nothing necessary in this incarnation except that as man Christ can now pay a price for sin. This is a legal reality located outside of the inner logic of the incarnation. It presumes that perhaps Christ could have paid for sin without becoming fully man.

 

But now, if we are to connect the incarnation to the atonement, as Purves says, what new theological situation do we find ourselves in?

On the other hand, it is precisely the union of the incarnation and the atonement that excludes the view of the atonement is reducible to a forensic transaction as fulfilling of a legal contract, or to Christ propitiatingly bearing the cost construed as divinely meted punishment… [Rather], an ontological rather than an instrumental connection must be made between the Christ who makes atonement and the atonement that he makes. Or, in a different set of images, we look for an organic and personal rather than a mechanical and legal connection between Christ and his atonement and ourselves (p 37-38)

If the incarnation is an ontological, metaphysical reality, then the atonement itself must be posited from within the humanity of Christ, rather than legally outside of Christ. It must be seen organically, rather than extrinsically.

Purves explains the atonement in terms of a “magnificent exchange”. This is a term that began with the early fathers, but was also received and used both by Calvin and Luther. The magnificent exchange grounds the atonement in God’s work of the incarnation. A key text used by all the fathers was 2 Corinthians 6:9:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Purves explains how the fathers and early reformers understood this verse:

Christ exchanged his place with our place in an atoning reversal of our status, making an atoning exchange. Christ puts himself in our place so that in him we might be put in his place. This is the meaning of reconciliation, which is an act effected on the basis of exchange (p 104)

In other words, the incarnation relates to atonement by way of an exchange of places. This isn’t a legal exchange: it’s an actual exchange. Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is. Purves continues:

The magnificent exchange must be set in the context of the whole movement of Christ in his descent and ascent… From this we see that the magnificent exchange is not at its core something that Christ does; rather, it is the working out of who he is in his history in our flesh. Christ is the magnificent exchange as God’s gracious saving movement toward us. In himself Christ is the word/act of God to us, and he is the responding and acceptable filial human movement toward God (106)

This is a great passage. Purves rightly says that in himself Christ is God condescended to us in our fallenness and sin, and in our humanity Christ is the perfect filial response of man to God. Thus there is atonement in his own person. God and man are united in this one divine Person.

Thus we can see: the incarnation is itself atonement. God the Son unites himself to us, and in a downward/upward movement makes God and man at one. As Purves says: Christ does who he is!

 

 

 

Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “Being Made Holy”

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In his Large Catechism, Luther says that he “cannot give a better title” or summary to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed “Being Made Holy” (LC, 2.35). He goes on to explain that the entire third article is nothing more than an explanation of how a Christian is made holy.

This is confusing at first, because nowhere in the third article does it mention the Christian being made holy. In fact, most people, when they read the third part of the creed, perceive it as a sort of appendix to the main parts of the creed. The first part is about God the Father as creator, the second is about God the Son as redeemer, and the third adds along with the Holy Spirit a long laundry list of descriptors:

[And] I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic (Christian) church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Whenever I first became acquainted with the Creed, I thought whoever wrote the creed must’ve felt the obligation to cram the rest in.

Luther explains quite conclusively that this is not at all true. What is actually the case, is that everything included in the third article is placed underneath the Holy Spirit because those are things that properly the work of the Holy Spirit! Who makes me part of the catholic church? Who enjoins me to the communion of the saints? Who applies the forgiveness of sins? So on… The answer is quite simply: it is the Spirit who makes these things a reality in the life of the Christian.

Luther explains:

In [this article is] expressed and portrayed the Holy Spirit and his work, which is that he makes us holy… The Holy Spirit effects our being made holy through the following: the community of the saints or Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. That is, he first leads us into his holy community, placing us in the church’s lap, where he preaches to us and brings us to Christ (LC, 2.35-37)

In other words, while we might say it is the work of Christ to accomplish our salvation, it is the work of the Spirit to apply that work to us. And he does this by picking us up out of our state of sin and death, and bringing us into the community of saints and setting Christ before us in word and sacrament. He applies Christ’s work to us through the church. The common trinitarian framework is thus: the Father elects us unto salvation, the Son accomplishes our salvation, and the Spirit effects our salvation.

Luther explains it this way:

The work [of Christ] is finished and completed; Christ has acquired and won the treasure for us by his sufferings, death, and resurrection, etc. But if the work remained hidden so that no one knew of it, it would have been all in vain, all lost. In order that this treasure might not remain buried but be put to use and enjoyed, God has cause the Word to be published and proclaimed, in which he has given the Holy Spirit to offer and apply to us this treasure, this redemption. Therefore being made holy is nothing else than bringing us to the Lord Christ to receive this blessing, to which we could not have come by ourselves (LC, 2.38-39)

The Holy Spirit, by way of the church in its proclamation, “brings us to Christ” and applies his blessings to us. Luther therefore calls the church

…the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God, which the Holy Spirit reveals and proclaims, through which he illuminates and inflames hearts so that they grasp and accept it, cling to it, persevere in it (LC, 2.42).

The church is effective in its ministry as mother principally because the Holy Spirit causes her to be effective in her preaching. The Spirit illumines, enlivens, and causes believers to accept the gospel and cling to it. Thus, Luther proclaims, “outside the Christian community,…where there is no gospel, there is also no forgiveness, and hence there can be no holiness” (LC 2.56). And why? Because the Spirit is the worker of the Christian community, making the proclamation of the gospel and effective ministry.

How might we summarize the third article then? Luther rightly says it: “being made holy”.

Defining the Church

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On page 13 of his Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Five, Geerhardus Vos asks this interesting question: “Is it easy to give a definition for ‘the church’?”. Vos answers candidly: no.

Just pages before, he gave the instances and meanings of the NT usage of the word “church”. The most common Greek word used is, of course, ekklesia. It is common to define this term as those “called out of”. But there are several contexts in which the “called out ones” are defined.

For instance, there is the idea of the universal church: those called out of sin to union with Christ. “In the first place, it is those called by Christ and to Christ” (p 10). This has no bearing on local assemblies, but rather to the mystical reality of all the elect gathered and united to the head. Paul commonly uses the metaphor of body and head in terms of the universal church, ekklesia catholikos (catholic church). This is the church in its most comprehensive context: those in earth and heaven, united to Christ the head and receiving the benefits thereof.

However, the term ekklesia has yet another usage in the NT; and that is of the local assembly. “The second meaning of the word “church” is that of the local, visible church — thus, the gathering of believers who meet in a particular place or city” (p 11). Vos lists off numerous references in the NT of the church gathered in Antioch or Asia etc. What this means is that ekklesia can refer to a specific gathering of people, and not to the comprehensive reality of the catholic church.

For this reason, Vos explains, “the matter [of the church] is considered from differing viewpoints” (p 13). He mentions three viewpoints, or starting points, from which one may define the church:

a) From election: Some say that the essence of the church is not latent in any external institution but in internal unity with Christ (p 13)

Vos reasons that this is the opposite view of the strictly sacramental churches: some say that those who partake of baptism are ipso facto part of the church. This reasoning is “from the outside in” (p 13). However, reasoning from election is starting from the opposite end: from the inside out. The elect are those inwardly called and regenerated and thus are part of the external body. But, says Vos, those elect not yet born or those still unbelieving cannot properly be said to be part of the church. They have yet to be implanted into Christ, yet to repent and believe, and are by definition outside of the church!

There is another option, noted above:

b) From baptism: Engrafting into the body of Christ and belonging to it are outwardly signified and sealed in baptism. Thus we no longer have to do with the invisible church, but with a visible form that it assumes. (p 14)

This reasons not from election but from the sacramental life of the church: those participating in those ordinances are said to be part of the ekklesia. The difficulty lies, Vos rightly reasons, in what he calls a “valid baptism”. There are some members that receive baptism that “it would be difficult to call…believing brothers” (p 14). Vos later goes on to distinguish rightly between one who has received the sign of baptism and one who has received the grace of baptism. The two often do not meet, although ideally they should! Just as some Jews received circumcision without receiving the inward reality of “the circumcision of the heart”, so too many receive the sign without the seal. And although one cannot go on to judge the genuineness of a Christian’s baptism, nevertheless, this does not guarantee salvation.

As an aside, this was one of the Reformation’s sacramental emphases: sacraments, although salvific, are not automatically salvific. The Westminster Confession talks about the “efficacy of baptism”, but clarifies by saying:

Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (28.5)

One might interpret this article by saying that sacraments are indeed efficacious but must be received rightly. Infants admitted to baptism, for instance, are indeed participants in grace, but if one rejects or even neglects baptism through unbelief or sin, that baptism is to no effect. Baptism is not an automatic grace.

Vos moves on to his third option for defining the church:

 c) Finally, some have begun with confession. Insofar as confession is the principal external means to manifest the invisible essence of the church and to cause it to materialize outwardly, it already belongs under the preceding approach. Confession, however, is also a bond that binds the members of the church together in the external form of the church. To this extent, it is what is characteristic for the visible church in its institutional form (p 14)

Put another way, confession or outward profession, enables the reality of the inward invisible church to become visible in an institutional form. It brings invisible and visible together. Vos holds this to be the most ideal in defining the ekklesia. And of course, those who make their profession have already been part of the elect from all of eternity and presumably have already participated in the sacramental life of the church.

Having this ideal, Vos transitions into his next section by clarifying that this struggle for a definition of the church is why the Reformed hold to a distinction between the invisible and visible church (p 15). “One may not place them beside each other dualistically as if they were two churches”, however (p 18). The invisible and visible church are two sides of the same church (p 18). But this remains a reality: one may belong to the visible institutional church without being vitally united to Christ; and likewise one may not belong to the institutional church and yet still, in God’s grace, united to Christ.

Imputation and Obedience

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Saint Paul, teacher of justification by faith

Many critiques have been launched against the Protestant doctrine of divine imputation within the last century. Some of these critiques are understandable and even valid. For instance, some say that, within Paul’s thought, the transformative — sanctification — is not completely separated from the legal — justification. This is true. Luther himself saw this, and acknowledged that the legal leads to or even causes the transformative. When a judge acquits a criminal, this inevitably leads to a change in his life. He doesn’t return to jail after he has been acquitted! He is freed by the acquittal. It is the same with believers: if God acquits, he transforms. Those whom God has justified he necessarily sanctifies. The two are integrally connected, even organically connected.

With that said, justification within the Reformation tradition is still necessarily distinct from sanctification. Justification relates properly to something outside of the believer that is “accredited” or to the believer. Christ is the true just one, and thus his obedience and death are said within the Reformation tradition to be “imputed” to the believer. Imputation is not a legal fiction: it is something very true of Christ, but this truth of who Christ is is done on our behalf and thereby credited to our account. Christ obeys for us, and dies for us. This obedience and death is accounted to sinners who don’t have obedience and who deserve to die in their sins.

This is principally what Paul means in Corinthians when he says that “Christ died for our sins“. Christ’s death was not for himself, but for us! Imputation comes from the logic that our “moral account” is bankrupt. Language of course falls short here. But the point is that we have not obeyed God. Thus, we are said to be in a “debt”. Christ approaches the Father on our behalf, one might say as our defense lawyer, and offers the Father on our behalf, within our skin, what we didn’t. The apostle John uses this imagery when he calls Christ our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1-2). This is what the priestly office of Christ is all about: he becomes our advocate and offers himself on our behalf. This offering is his entire life and death; and it covers and amends our wrongdoings.

What is important to realize, is this advocacy doesn’t cover simply initial justification. It also covers the believer’s sanctification. Even though in sanctification we are made intrinsically holy, we do not reach complete holiness in this life. Even our best works are “stained”, as it were, with impure motives or weaknesses. Even the best works we give to God are really not good enough. It seems in my mind that this should be obvious.

It is for this reason that Christ’s priestly obedience is imputed even to our own intrinsic holiness in sanctification. This is the reasoning of Christ’s continued priestly intercession: he continually and always offers his saving work on our behalf to the Father. Based on this intercession, the Father graciously receives and accepts even our weakest efforts toward holiness. If our holiness were not stained with unholiness, why would Christ need to continually intercede on our behalf?

The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this reality quite well:

Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF, 16.6)

God looks at our works with a filter, as it were. Because believers are in his Son, he receives sincere works of obedience even if they are not entire holy. In fact, he receives them and imputes them as if they were his Son’s obedience. That is to say, he treats and delights in our works as he treats and delights in his Son’s work.

Now, at this point, many may read this and say: isn’t that a legal fiction? Can God really be said to be honest if he accepts impure works as if they were pure?

But this is a principle that everyone practices whether we know it or not. I enjoy my 4 year-old daughter’s crayon drawings, not because her sketching technique is on a professional level, but because she’s my daughter. I judge her talent through a filter: because she’s my daughter, I delight and reward her efforts even if they aren’t very good!

Or take another example: I am said to be a “son” of my wife’s parents, not because I am biologically their son, but because they receive me as their son by virtue of my marriage to my wife. This is the logic of imputation: we receive things or persons by virtue of some other reality. It isn’t fiction, it’s imputation.

Just the same, God receives and even delights in our sincere works of holiness “for the sake of Christ”. Our works are, as it were, graded on a curve, and received joyfully when we offer them up in the Son. We are like little children scribbling with crayons; and God takes great delight in those scribbles!