What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 8 of 10 - The Church and Sacraments

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6, and part 7 of this series.]

We believe that the Church is God’s New Covenant community marked by the preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the discipline entailed therein!

The church is a community created by the will of the Father through the work of the Son on the cross, where people believe in him in the power of the Holy Spirit. Wherever God works to create a people for himself, a particular communal life is formed that we can recognize as a church. Reformed Christians believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a distinct covenant people who belong to God and whose life takes a particular shape.

Therefore, the marks of a true church are three: 1) the gospel is rightly preached from Scripture and believed by a community, 2) the sacraments are rightly administered, and 3) church discipline is rightly practiced. A true church exists wherever these marks are present. Each of these marks is wrapped up in the proper practice of the others, and Reformed Christians believe that no church exists wherever these marks are lacking.

The Right Preaching and Hearing of the Gospel

As discussed in a previous post, the church is a covenant community. For all who believe it, the promise of the gospel—forgiveness of sins and new creation through the atoning work of Jesus Christ—ratifies the New Covenant. In other words, when people hear God so as to believe in his promise in Jesus Christ, they become, along with their children, part of God’s covenant people. Those people not only join his church through faith in the gospel, but they are continually given life as the gospel word is proclaimed regularly on the Lord’s Day and throughout the week as Christians share their lives together.

If a community adopts false doctrines and practices that destroy the sound teaching of the gospel such that people are drawn away from faith in Christ, that community can no longer be considered a church of God.

The Right Administration of the Sacraments

Because the church is a covenant community, it is marked out by God given signs and seals of the covenant. In the same way a marriage covenant is signified by the giving and receiving of rings and sealed by the act of sexual intercourse, baptism and the Lord’s Table are signs and seals of the New Covenant community. As signs, they represent to us the work of Christ and his benefits. As seals, they testify to God's faithfulness, assuring us that God will surely do all he has promised. Baptism is the initiatory rite, and the Lord’s Table is an ongoing rite of Christian fellowship.

While Christians debate the exact details of how these sacraments are to be administered (like timing, mode, frequency, etc.) the main issue regarding the right practice of the sacraments involves their meaning. If communities teach and practice that the sacraments confer or infuse grace as though salvation comes through them rather than through faith alone, then the sacraments have been perverted into a system of works and oppose the gospel of grace. So while some Christians baptize infants and others only believers able to give a public profession of faith, while some sprinkle and others immerse, while some celebrate the table weekly and others quarterly, while some use wafers and others a single loaf, these differences do not amount to errors that threaten the right administration of the sacraments. But those who turn the sacraments against the gospel of grace cannot be considered a church. 

Church Discipline

Because the church is a distinct covenant community marked off from the world through the sacraments, discipline is required to faithfully identify who credibly belongs to the church and who does not. Church discipline involves excluding from table fellowship non-Christians and those whose confession of Christ must be questioned. In other words, because the Lord’s Table is an ongoing identification of who is believing in Jesus Christ, it cannot be served to non-Christians or to those claiming to be Christians but living in unrepentant sin. Neither can baptism be applied to those who have no place in the covenant community of Christ. Churches that refuse to apply the marks of the sacraments faithfully cannot meaningfully claim to be true a church.

Jesus did not die merely to forgive the sins of many individuals. He died and rose again to bring a kingdom, and that kingdom is represented and pointed to by the church. Christians are not just saved from their sins but to a new way of life with God’s people. The church cannot be reduced to a location where a pastor preaches and people sing some songs. The church is a community indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus set apart from the world in the preaching of the gospel, its celebration of the gospel in the sacraments, and its loyalty to the gospel in church discipline.

[Editor's Note: Read part 9 and part 10 of this series.]

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 6 of 10 - Covenant Theology

[Editor's Note: Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5 of this series.]

We believe that all of God’s promises throughout history have been fulfilled in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ!

In a previous post, we explained that Reformed Christians believe the story of the world can be summarized in four chapters: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. To specifically understand how the internal aspects of the Bible relate to one another, particularly the Old and New Testaments, Israel and the church, or promise and fulfillment, Reformed Christians focus on the interrelated themes of covenant and kingdom. This is why Reformed Christians can be called covenant theologians. This means the unity of the biblical story should be discerned by looking at the various covenants God has made with his people and their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ and his work to establish the New Covenant with his own blood. While a lot to be said about this topic, three particular points stand out.

God Relates to His Creation by Covenant

Reformed Christians believe God relates to us through covenants. This stands in contrast to other understandings of how man relates to God such as is found in rationalism, individualism, or mysticism.

Covenant is not a common word. So what is a covenant? A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered.  Or we could say a covenant is a life and death relationship sanctioned by a king. Covenant relationships have specific duties, practices, and privileges that shape the nature of the relationship. Throughout the Bible we see God establishing covenants with his people.  At creation, God established a relationship with mankind, and he gave a command that outlined how the relationship was to be enjoyed. When those commands were broken, the bond was severed, and death reigned.

One Covenant of Grace

The Bible records many different covenants between God and men. The most evident ones are with Abraham, with Noah, with Moses, with David, and with Jesus Christ. Reformed Christians believe that God’s initial creation covenant with Adam was broken.  In that arrangement, mankind was obligated to remain faithful to God’s commands in order to continue enjoying life with God.  However, once sin entered into the picture, God’s grace was necessary for covenant fellowship between God and man.  So God established a covenant of grace with mankind that took various shapes in various times and centered on various people. In other words, God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus Christ were all expressions of God’s one covenant of grace. Despite the differences in the particulars of these arrangements, all of these covenants found their fulfillment in the New Covenant through Jesus Christ.

So Reformed Christians believe we were created to live in covenant with God at creation but due to sin, we now relate to God because of the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ.

One People of God

One of the most significant applications of this understanding of the biblical story involves the question of how Israel and the church relate to one another.  Reformed Christians believe that there is only one people of God. In each stage of God’s progressive work of redemption, God’s people related to God under various terms, but  all of God’s promises and all the covenants came to their fullest and climactic expression in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The church is the true Israel, the new humanity, Jew and Gentile together as new creation.

At first the significance of this reading of Scripture may not be clear.  But understanding the unity of Scripture in this way has massive implications for how we think theologically from Scripture. Remaining posts on what it means to be Reformed will unpack the significance as it relates to God’s law, his church, and worship.

[Editor's Note: Read part 7part 8part 9, and part 10 of this series.]

Why Should I Commit to the Local Church?

In a Western society where individual rights are exalted above all else and the pervasive assumption is that each person’s primary obligation is to him- or herself alone, one of the basic questions that the church has to be able to address is why the church is necessary in the first place. New believers who have spent most of their lives focusing exclusively on their personal needs may not immediately understand why their repentance of sin and faith in Christ carry with them a call to belong and commit to a body of fellow believers. But those who have walked with the Lord and participated in the local church for many years also need to regularly revisit the significance of the church. The stories of the world and the desires of our sinful hearts draw us back to an individualistic selfishness that makes consistent commitment to the church less appealing and more difficult. And when times are hard in the local church—whether due to personal sin or relational conflict or intense need—the temptation to withdraw and take care of ourselves only grows.

Here are nine reasons to commit to a local church that emerge from God’s word. This isn’t an exhaustive answer to the question, but I hope it’s a faithful and beneficial approach that not only clarifies what Scripture teaches but also demonstrates the beauty of life with the church of Christ.

1) God commands us to commit to the church

The most basic reason to commit to the local church is that God explicitly calls us to do so in his word. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We often hear commands like this with the same reaction that children express when they hear a parent say, “Because I told you so,” but that’s not how we should receive this command.  

The Triune God redeemed us from our slavery to self, sin, and death and gives us his word so that we might know how to live into his purposes and flourish as his children. God’s command therefore isn’t intended to stifle or oppress us; it’s intended to direct us in the way of true freedom that is actually best for us. In the gospel, we see that God gave up his son so that we might be his adopted children and he might be our gracious Father, and that ensures us that any command he speaks is ultimately for our good. 

2) Our identity in Christ

The call to commit to the local church isn’t just an arbitrary command. It flows from the message of the gospel and our new identity as recipients of grace. Jesus lived, died, and rose again so that sinners might be reconciled to God. When the Holy Spirit sparks faith in the believer’s heart, he also unites us to Jesus so that we share in everything he accomplished. But when we are united to Christ by faith, we are also united to every other believer who belongs to Jesus. Our commitment to the local church is simply an expression of the spiritual unity we already share through the gospel.

Scripture consistently uses two metaphors to describe the unity and connectedness of believers in the church. First, the church is referred to as a body with many members that are knitted together as one under Christ the head. Second, Scripture calls the church a family in which God is our Heavenly Father, Jesus is our elder brother who shares his inheritance with us, and believers are our brothers and sisters. These metaphors help us understand that God didn’t redeem us so that we could merely have a personal relationship with him as individuals; he redeemed us into a body and a family where we are united to other believers and thus have obligations to care for them.

3) Love requires commitment

Bear one another’s burdens. Pray for one another. Confess your sins to one another. Encourage one another. Exercise hospitality. Meet one another’s needs. There are a whole host of commands that God gives his people as he directs us in the way of love. But these commands are only possible to obey if we are committed to other believers in the local church. In order to actually serve one another in these ways, we must be present with and devoted to the members of the body in intimate ways. The type of love commanded in the New Testament simply can’t happen when we refuse to submit our lives to one another in the local church.

It’s important for us to also notice that, while this sort of commitment will indeed be more demanding and more taxing than a life of care-free individualism, it’s also more beautiful. When our relationships are grounded in mutual exchange (what we can do for one another) and convenience (how easy it is to be around one another), then those relationships are necessarily fragile and unable to truly weather difficulty. But when we belong to a church family that is bound together by the gospel and committed to one another in love, there is a security, a stability, a resilience to our relationships that gives us confidence that, even when we sin, we can depend on our brothers and sisters to stand by us in grace.

4) Jesus gave pastors as gifts

In Ephesians 4:12, the Apostle Paul writes that upon ascending to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, Jesus gave pastors (also called elders, shepherds, and overseers) to help equip the saints for the work of ministry and build up the body of Christ into maturity. In our cultural context, we often chafe and recoil at any notion that we ought to submit to authority or oversight or instruction, but the Bible calls pastors a gift given by Christ for the good of his church. None of us would claim that we are completely self-sufficient, perfectly wise, or faultlessly knowledgeable on our own. That would sound blatantly arrogant. But when we refuse to submit our lives to the local church and the oversight and teaching of godly pastors, we’re essentially saying with our lives that we lack nothing and require no assistance from anyone to help us along in the Christian life. As sheep in Christ’s flock, we need to be shepherded by qualified elders who’ve been set apart to minister God’s word to us.

5) The church is a context for mutual edification

In the local church family, believers have a context for mutual edification. In other words, the church community is a place to be served by others while you serve them too. In the same way that we need pastors to help us toward maturity and conformity to Jesus, we need other believers to serve us through all the ins and outs of everyday life. We need them to pray for us, to help us see our sin, to apply the gospel to our hearts, to exhort us to holiness, to share wise counsel, to open up their homes, to generously meet our needs, and to be strong where we are weak. But the church community also provides us with a family that we can serve. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12 that every believer is equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the church for the common good. So as other members are ministering to us, we are called to serve them as we depend upon the gospel and walk in the power of the Spirit. Only when there is a commitment to one another in the local church can this sort of mutual edification take place. 

6) The keys of the kingdom

The church is the community created by the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and the family of redeemed sinners who’ve been granted citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus gave his church the keys of the kingdom—the message of the gospel in word and sacrament—so that the covenant community, led by its elders, could distinguish who belongs to the kingdom of Christ and who does not. By preaching the gospel, the church declares the good news by which people enter the kingdom through faith. By administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table, the church visibly marks those who belong to Jesus.

The concept of the keys of the kingdom helps us understand just how foreign the idea of the solitary, individual Christian is to the Bible. Jesus gave his church the message of the gospel and the signs of the gospel so that the church could mark those who belong to Jesus and vouch for their confession of faith. The assumption is that entering the kingdom of God by grace through faith in Jesus means entering the local church through baptism and continuing in fellowship with the church through the Lord’s Table.

7) The discipline of the church

As recipients of the keys of the kingdom, the local church is charged with ensuring that its members are in fact walking with the Lord in faith and repentance by exercising church discipline when a professing believer’s unrepentant sin calls his or her confession of faith into question. To modern ears, discipline sounds frightening and threatening, but in God’s design for the church, discipline is in fact a precious blessing. Christians have a family of other believers who keep watch over our life and doctrine and regularly help us repent of sin and honor Christ. We are often blind to the presence and extent of sin that grips our hearts, so a community of grace that’s committed to our faith and holiness can help us discern what we might otherwise be ignorant of. This is a true gift.

Discipline happens all the time in informal interactions where fellow Christians recognize sin, call one another to repentance, and apply the gospel to one another’s lives. In the event that a church member indulges in unrepentant sin, discipline may take the form of excommunication, where the church withholds the Lord’s Table because the body can no longer affirm with confidence a person’s confession of faith. This kind of discipline protects the wider church, demonstrates to the world that such unrepentant sin is inconsistent with faith in the gospel and the Christian’s identity, and is intended to wake the unrepentant person up to the seriousness and danger of sin so that they might be restored to the church family. Though such discipline is admittedly painful for a time, God calls the church to exercise discipline for our good. Apart from the local church, we can all too easily rationalize away our sinful desires, practices, and patterns, but the body of Christ is able to care for us by exhorting us to put to death our sin and by encouraging us with the gracious and empowering message of the gospel. 

8) The life of the church forms us for discipleship 

We’re always being formed by the stories we hear, the practices we embody, the rhythms we inhabit, and the people with whom we participate in life. The message, practices, rhythms, and people that make up the life of the church in turn shape us for discipleship that trusts and obeys the Lord Jesus. Just consider corporate worship. The weekly practice of coming together with the family of God to hear God’s grace in the preached word, to receive the signs and seals of his covenant in the sacraments, to offer corporate prayers, to confess our sins to God and one another, and to sing songs of praise to the Triune God helps to form our expectations for the Christian life and to cultivate the habits of our hearts. We’re not only gaining information; we’re training our hearts together so that we know how to depend on and worship God through all of life. Our participation in the worship of the church and the life of the community exercises a remarkable formative power that serves to equip and prepare us to live faithfully in the world as God’s people.

9) Faithful witness

The natural impulse of the human heart is to celebrate, praise, and share with others the things that bring us the greatest joy. As Christians grow in our delight over the grace of the gospel and the fellowship we enjoy in communion with God, we also grow in our desire to exalt God, reflect his character, and make his gospel known to others. Individual Christians can certainly speak the truth of the gospel, but it takes a church community to truly engage in holistic, faithful witness to the world.

The church shows the world that the gospel creates a covenant community, a body, a family of grace. The church reflects the restoration that the gospel brings to relationships that would otherwise be characterized by hatred, conflict, and division. The church demonstrates the character of Christ’s kingdom through the love believers express for one another and the world. No individual Christian is able to witness in these ways; these components of faithful witness that display the renewed corporate life under the Lordship of Christ are only possible when believers are committed to one another in the community of the local church. If we desire to faithfully witness to the gospel and the kingdom of God, then we must do so together. Faithful witness can’t be accomplished alone. 

God crafted our redemption to be a salvation from sin into the covenant family of the church. While committing to the local church certainly brings its share of inconvenience and hardship, by the merciful design of God the church also provides us with abundant benefits and blessings. May God captivate us with his wisdom, humble us with his grace, and delight us with the prospect of living in community with his people.

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 1 of 10 - Reformed Means Christian

The Danger and Need for Labels

In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul rebukes the Corinthians for dividing into factions and adopting various labels to identify each party with different church leaders. For this reason, many Christians today reject adjectives that modify or characterize the kind of Christian church to which they belong. This is a good impulse since Christians receive our identity from Jesus Christ, and Christ’s body should not be divided. Labels can suggest or reveal that we are finding in some doctrinal difference or practice a deeper identity than the one we have in Christ and his people.

But labels don’t have to function this way. Labels can be used as shortcuts that stand in for a much longer explanation concerning what a particular group or person believes about a set of issues. That is how we seek to use the label “Reformed” when we describe Trinity Church. Labels like “Reformed,” “Wesleyan,” or “Roman Catholic” allow us to quickly give others a context for discerning how we understand Scripture without jettisoning our primary identity as Christians.

The Purpose of This Blog Series

However, labels only work this way if people know what they mean to communicate. That is the purpose of this series of blog posts. We hope to outline briefly what it means to be a broadly Reformed church. These posts will not attempt to argue about why we think being Reformed is important. Nor will they cover extensively the historical contexts and events that led to Reformed theology’s particular articulation. These posts seek to identify the Christian tradition to which we belong.

“Reformed” Means Christian

That said, the first, primary, and fundamental thing that being Reformed means is that we are Christians. The Reformed are not trying to discover a faith unknown to Christians in ages past but to hold on to and stay faithful to what Christians have always believed from Scripture. Early in the history of the church, Christians adopted what we call the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the central doctrines taught in Scripture. This creed was called the Rule of Faith, and it guided Christians for centuries to know what a faithful reading of Scripture looked like. One of the great leaders of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, organized his most significant theological work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, using the Apostles’ Creed, seeking to explain what each line meant. Reformed Christians hold to the central doctrines of the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the deity of the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and coming judgment.

Another important term Reformed Christians have used is “Evangelical.” This simply means that Reformed Christians understand the gospel of Jesus Christ to be central to Christianity. At times, the church has lost sight of the gospel or allowed the message to be clouded, but the true church has never been snuffed out. A faithful remnant has always held to the true grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Being Reformed also means that our identity is not primarily found in a reaction to something else but flows from the center outward into all of life. Many Christian traditions find their central identity in important but secondary doctrines. For instance, Baptist identity is rooted in a perspective on baptism that flows from a particular controversy over that issue at a particular moment in history. Methodist identity flows from a particular organization of Christian community and discipleship in the 18th century. Anglican identity comes from its geo-political heritage in England. But despite being known for positions on secondary doctrines, the Reformed tradition should not be understood as breaking off from other Christians over a certain issue but as a movement toward the center of the faith that reconnects our identity with the gospel. As the source of the church’s life, the gospel as center works itself out into all of life.

Therefore, a Reformed church is a Christian church that believes and proclaims the gospel as its life giving foundation. It is a church whose identity rests in the historic Christian faith. Reformed Christianity is a whole-life-forming tradition rather than a splinter narrowly focused on a particular controversy. Because of this, the Reformed tradition is comprehensive, articulating a way of believing and living in the world that shapes every aspect of life.

[Editor's Note: Read part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8part 9, and part 10 of this series.]