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 3 of 10 - By Grace Alone through Faith Alone

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

We believe that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone! 

Salvation by Grace Alone

From start to finish, salvation is a gift of grace from God in Christ and in him alone. Every story we adopt to narrate our world puts us at the center as the protagonist and requires our efforts to bring about salvation through some idol. But Jesus is the actual protagonist of history who brings salvation to us as a gift of undeserved favor. Our efforts at self-salvation will fail, and only when we lay down our attempts to save ourselves through our efforts by submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can we be saved.

One important implication flowing from the doctrine of salvation by grace alone is the need for individual conversion. Conversion describes the application of grace upon an individual, whether gradually or in a dramatic and immediate way, such that they respond to the gospel in faith as they are born again into new life. Many believe themselves to be Christians because they were born to Christian parents or in a nation or community largely influenced by Christianity. But Christianity is not an ethnic label or set of communal values one is born into naturally. Each person must be born again by the Spirit and individually be converted through repentance and faith in Christ. Only by God’s grace does this occur. It is not a work of man.

Salvation through Faith Alone

Reformed Christians insist that salvation from sin to God comes in Christ alone. He is the only mediator between God and man. He is the only sacrifice for sin that can atone. But Reformed Christians also insist that this salvation is applied to individuals through faith and only through faith, not through works. In other words, the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection comes to sinners as a gracious gift of God by the Holy Spirit when he gives sinners faith in him and his good news. Salvation does not come to sinners through good works.

Salvation is a gift of grace received through faith, not acquired by participating in religious rituals (even good ones like baptism, communion, Bible study, or prayer). Believers receive salvation through resting in the promise and announcement of God that sin has been defeated by Jesus Christ.

Through faith in Christ, sinners are united to Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and justified before God. This means he declares us righteous before him on account of Christ. Through faith, we possess a righteousness that has come to us from outside of us and not because of us. Jesus’ death becomes our death because we were truly present through our union with him when God’s judgment was poured out on him. His resurrection becomes the guarantee of our future resurrection.

This faith through which sinners are saved should not be confused with intellectual assent or knowledge of a historical fact. The faith through which sinners receive the grace of God in Christ is a trust in, hope in, and love for God that transforms a person’s life such that good works are produced. But salvation itself comes through faith and not through works.

But why is salvation in Christ through faith alone? There are at least two reasons, both relating to the Reformed Christian’s understanding of sin.

Because Sin Has Pervasively Corrupted Us

Reformed Christians believe that there is no aspect of our humanity that has not been corrupted by sin. Each descendent of Adam’s race is corrupted in body, mind, will, spirit, and whatever else we possess as humans. Because of this pervasive depravity, there is no aspect of our being, of society, or of creation that we can draw upon or act out of that can merit God’s pleasure or achieve righteousness. Apart from God’s grace, sinners are cut off from God, unable to seek, know, or desire God or fellowship with him. Sinners need to be made new before they can have fellowship with God and enter his kingdom. Faith is a disposition of the total person which can only be exercised if God the Holy Spirit makes a person new, giving a person new birth. Creation itself must be remade into new creation for God to dwell with his people. This leads in to the second reason why salvation is through faith alone.

Because Sin Makes Us Completely Unable Not to Sin

Apart from new creation, sin and death will reign over this world. Despite all our attempts otherwise, apart from the new birth, sinners are not able not to sin. This doesn’t mean we cannot ever do anything good and that our every action is as evil as can be. Certainly, we sometimes love and seek to bless others. But everything we do, even the best things we do, are always tainted by sin in some way. Nothing meets the righteous requirements God’s character and design for creation require. Our motives are mixed. We take pride in our good works. We lack wisdom and act immaturely.

So sinners are pervasively corrupt, and we are not able not to sin. Therefore, no work of man can ever be the instrument through which salvation in Christ can be received or the foundation upon which salvation rests. Salvation is a gift of grace from beginning to end, and it is received through faith in Jesus Christ and only through faith. The Holy Spirit makes us new creations and gives us faith in Jesus Christ according to the plan of God the Father.

Reformed Christians believe that salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. This is the fundamental matter, the central doctrine, of the Christian faith.

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