Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Grunting Hogs and Braying Asses--How Not to Sing in Church

WORSHIP AND IDOLATRY
 
Calvin and Luther on music in worship
T
he late Kurt Cobain likely did not have a clue he was screaming the anthem of an entire generation in his 1991 hit “Entertain us.” 

With the lights out it’s less dangerous;
Here we are now entertain us.
I feel stupid and contagious;
Here we are now entertain us.

Cobain and many pop musical entertainers like him became the idols of a youth culture that wanted what they were delivering, entertainment. But, tragically, it was not only the teen spirit of the unbelieving world that joined in the mantra “entertain us.”
Christians in the contemporary church have been stumbling over themselves to catch up with the world. The transformation is nearly complete. We have refashioned what we do in worship to look like pop entertainment on the stage at a Nirvana concert, necessary changes constantly being revised to match the vicissitudes of each iteration of the latest thing since 1991.

IDOL FACTORIES
“…every one of us is, even from his mother's womb,” wrote John Calvin, “a master craftsman of idols.” Calvin and the Reformers of the 16th century knew something that we have almost entirely ignored today. Left to ourselves, we will create idols out of almost anything, including those who entertain us. Intractable rebels against God, we cast about to find something else to venerate, to bow down to, to worship. But when we Christians do it, we keep telling ourselves that we’re not doing it, that it’s still all about Jesus.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in medieval worship in the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, the RCC continued to talk about Jesus, his deity, his virgin birth, his bodily resurrection, but over the centuries they had added rivals. Layers of sacraments, including prayers to saints, to Mary, bowing down before images of saints and Mary, lighting candles to them, going on pilgrimages to venerate their relics—all of these and more had supplanted the true worship of God. And Calvin took these perversions seriously because he believed “...there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God.”
Hence, the Reformers set about returning to the Bible alone, wherein they discovered that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. This rediscovery of the gospel of grace led to a return to robust biblical theology about salvation and the gospel. Concurrent with the Reformation of theology was a Reformation of doxology, of how we enter into the presence of the living God in worship.
Knox, Calvin, and the Reformers proceeded to help break the chains of the idolatrous medieval corruptions that had been allowed to infect every dimension of corporate worship.
Because “The mind of man is like a work place of idolatry,” as Calvin put it, they scoured the Scriptures to learn what worship pleases God.

THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE
From their labors came what theologians call the Regulative Principle of Worship. I’d like to demonstrate that everybody in the worship wars has a regulative principle, that is, some controlling idea behind the choices that are made about what we do in church, how we order our service, the place and role of the sacraments, how and what we pray, read, preach, and sing. These components of worship never emerge out of thin air. We do them, or don’t do them, based on what is regulating our understanding.
Everybody has a regulative principle. Some churches regulate their worship by the past, tradition, and how they’ve always done things. There may have been more foundation in generations past, but for all intents and purposes today, they do what they do, how they do it, because that’s just how they’ve always done it.
Others regulate what they do in worship by their preference. These churches order their service of worship by what people like. What makes them feel good in worship, what gives them a sense of having worshiped when they’re finished. People who choose to attend these churches might say, I go to this church because it’s what I like and enjoy.
Still other churches organize their gatherings by the pragmatic principle of worship. They do what they do and how they do it because they believe it works. They regulate how they worship by what fills the church, what draws people into the church. For these churches what is popular and entertaining works. It draws people in.
Closely related to the pragmatic principle of worship are those churches that have concluded that they can do anything in church as long as it is not specifically prohibited in the Bible.
The Reformers rejected all of these principles informing worship. They believed that idolatry results from regulating worship by the past, by the pragmatic, by personal preferences, by doing anything not prohibited.  Calvin and the rest concluded that a prescriptive principle of worship ought to regulate what and how we come into the presence of the living God in worship. They concluded that true worship is commanded worship; we may only include in our worship what God has commanded us to include in his Word.
The Regulative Principle of Worship is summarized in John Knox’s emphatic assertion: “All worshiping, honoring, or service, invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment, is idolatry.”
This meant some pretty serious housecleaning for the Reformers. Iconoclasm, the breaking of idols, resulted throughout Scotland and much of Europe as men, zealous for purity of doctrine and of doxology, tore down the idols that cluttered medieval church buildings.
A century later, the Westminster Divines, the leading pastors and theologians of sixteenth century England and Scotland, encapsulated the Regulative Principle of Worship in the most careful and thorough Reformed confession of faith:

The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is
instituted by himself, and so limited by his own
revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according
to the imaginations and devices of men, or the
suggestions of Satan, under any visible
representation or any other way not prescribed in the
holy Scripture (WCF 21.1).

Put simply, these godly men wanted the Church to worship God’s way not the world’s way.

PRESCRIPTIVE SINGING
What does the Regulative Principle of Worship tell us about music, about what and how we sing in worship?
For the answer, we will find it instructive to hear practical ways the Reformers employed music in worship. Calvin and Luther agreed about the power of music: “There is scarcely anything in this world which can more turn or bend hither and thither the ways of men. We know by experience that music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts.” Though he argues against those who wanted to condemn all music, still, this knowledge about the force of music led Calvin to be more cautious than Luther. “Therefore, we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious.”
Calvin, who believed that all good things were gifts of God, also knew that, intractable sinners that we are, good gifts can easily become idols. Good things can become god things, as one man put it.
Yet, Calvin maintained a high view of the importance of music in worship. “And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.”
Because Calvin knew the “force and vigor” of music, he gives us wisdom on what kind of music is appropriate in the house of God:

Care must always be taken that the song be neither
light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and
majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a
great difference between music which one makes to
entertain men at table and in their houses, and the
Psalms which are sung in the Church in the
presence of God and his angels.

Calvin understood something about music that we have suppressed in the last generation. Music is not neutral. There are different kinds of music that may be appropriate in various settings, but musical styles are not interchangeable. Not all music is capable of bearing the weight of the majesty of the God into whose presence we are entering to adore. Calvin ranks entertainment music as “light and frivolous” and thereby inappropriate for corporate worship. Only music with “weight and majesty” was appropriate for the worship of the God revealed in Scripture.
Geneva was a party city, a trading center, a crossroads where many merchants, far from home, came and went. He had seen the abuse of music on the streets and in the taverns, music that gave only “…foolish delight by which it seduces men from better employments and occupies them in vanity.” Geneva was a vanity fair, the Las Vegas of Europe, a culture, like ours, screaming to be entertained, and this atmosphere exerted its pressures on the church, as it does today. Calvin had heard with his own ears the force of music when it was combined with unwholesome lyrics:

When melody goes with [music], every bad word
penetrates more deeply into the heart…Just as a
funnel conveys the wine into the depths of the
decanter, so venom and corruption are distilled into
the very bottom of the heart by melody.  

MUSIC WITH WEIGHT AND MAJESTY
Above everything, Calvin wanted music and singing in Saint Pierre to exalt the glory of God, and where better to find such songs than in the inspired Psalms of David? In the Psalms, Calvin discovered “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”
Meanwhile, Geneva became the refugee center of Europe, and Calvin soon learned that God had brought several people with particular musical gifts to the city-state. Clement Marot, court poet of France, he put to work versifying the Psalms in French, and enlisted musician Louis Bourgeoise to compose melodies with “weight and majesty,” but that would also be accessible to common folks worshiping in the church.
 While Calvin was in exile from 1538-1541 in hymn-singing Strasbourg, he wrote several treatises, but he never wrote anything against singing hymns of human composition rather than only Psalms in corporate worship. An inexplicable omission for Calvin, if he was as vehement as some are about exclusive Psalm singing as some insist.
What’s more, during his time as pastor of the French-speaking church in Strasbourg, a hymn of human composition appeared entitled, “I greet Thee who my sure Redeemer art.” Some historians and hymnologists believe it was written by Calvin himself. We may never know this side of eternity, but we do know that when Calvin returned to Geneva, he included this hymn and others in the Geneva Psalter 1551, set to Toulon a fine melody composed by Louis Bourgeois.
Imagine Calvin leading his congregation at Saint Pierre in singing this glorious hymn, not only as a call to worship, but as a rehearsal of the whole of the gospel and the life of a Christian whose only hope is in “the King of glory and of grace.”

I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Savior of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.

Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place;
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of thy pure day.

Calvin knew that if we are to worship aright, we must preserve the pure doctrine of the gospel, and understanding and adoring God’s sovereign authority over salvation and all things was non-negotiable, both in life and as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy power.

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast thou and no bitterness;
Make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee
And ever stay in thy sweet unity.

Our hope is in no other save in thee;
Our faith is built upon thy promise free;
O grant to us such stronger hope and sure
That we can boldly conquer and endure.

The God that Calvin adored with all his being, was a God of “true and perfect gentleness,” one in whom alone the Christian could “taste the sweet grace,” and by whose power and keeping alone be enabled to “boldly conquer and endure.”

GRUNTING OF HOGS
We’ll never know for sure if Calvin wrote that marvelous hymn, but we know for certain that Luther wrote a number of hymns, including the musical accompaniment. Luther is less guarded and speaks of music with little of the caution Calvin used.  
Alongside Calvin, Luther completes our understanding of the role of singing in worship. He laid out his plan: “I wish to compose sacred hymns so that the Word of God may dwell among the people also by means of songs.” Setting to work early, Luther published his first congregational hymnbook, Geystliche Gesangbuchlein, in 1524. He repudiated the “lazy worship” whereby everything was performed for them and the congregation was passive, observing but not participating in singing. But they needed to learn how to sing together. So, Luther began teaching his people to sing like God sings, with full voice.
Ranking music even higher than Calvin, Luther declared, “Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration.” He was being overly modest. He played the lute, composed original music, and was called “The nightingale of Wittenberg” for his skillful singing ability. So important was music, he was an advocate of formal musical education in the school curriculum for all German children.
Typical of Luther’s Teutonic bluntness, he had little good to say about someone who disliked fine music.

A person who does not regard music as a marvelous
creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and
does not deserve to be called a human being; he
should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying
of asses and the grunting of hogs.

Of Luther’s thirty-six hymns, “A Mighty Fortress” is by far and away his best loved. Written likely while Luther was sequestered in Coburg Castle during the Diet of Augsburg, it is a rousing hymn loosely drawn from Psalm 46, wherein Luther defies “the prince of darkness grim” and demonstrates the Christologic hermeneutic of all the Scriptures, recovered in the Reformation. For Luther, Christ Jesus is the “right man on our side.” Though Christ’s name doesn’t appear in Psalm 46, Luther was hermeneutically and theologically correct to name Christ Jesus in his hymn.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
From age to age the same,
And he must win the battle. 

Jesus Christ and his gospel regulate what and how we sing in worship, and he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, or as Luther put, “From age to age the same.” It is inimical to the timeless enduring truth of justification by faith alone to recast it with music that is fashionable, but only for the moment. The trendy vulgarizes the eternal. In the warfare for true biblical worship, Jesus Christ “must win the battle.”

Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and more than twenty-five other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt; preorder a signed copy of God Sings! at bondbooks.net.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

What to Do When Truth and Unity Collide


I hate disunity. There is nothing more soul killing than being at odds with the very people with whom I ought to have the most profound unity. I hate it. That’s probably why Ephesians 2 is one of my favorite chapters of the Bible.[1][AM1]  Christ himself has made peace through the blood of the cross. He is himself our peace “and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14). He has created the church to be one—not dozens or hundreds—his one body reconciled through his blood shed for his church on the cross (2:15–16).

As much as we long for unity, however, Satan is hell-bent on destroying that unity. He does this by disturbing the gospel, by insinuating corruptions into the message. This is the entire history of the church in a nutshell: one [AM2] challenge to the gospel after another.

By Heresies Oppressed
In 1866, one stalwart Anglican vicar, Samuel Stone, ministering in the baddest part of town in London, planted his flag for the church’s unity on the authority of the Bible. John Colenso, an Anglican bishop in Africa, had begun teaching that the Bible contained truth but was not the infallible, inerrant, God-breathed revelation of the redemptive purpose of God in Christ. This was too much for gospel-loving Stone.[2]

Though he was an unimportant, nobody vicar, serving in an unprestigious part of London, he did what he could. He wrote a hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.” Stone knew his Bible and he knew when and where to plant his flag. He knew that when men tamper with the meaning of the Bible, they will soon enough be tampering with its central figure, Jesus Christ. Stone knew that without Jesus there could be no salvation for sinners in his flock—and he cared deeply about his flock.

The story is told that Stone came upon several young toughs trying to hurt a little girl in his congregation.[AM3]  Stone, who had been a championship athlete in his university days, rolled up the sleeves of his clerical robe and punched the stuffing out of the boys. In another fashion, Stone rolled up his poetic sleeves and wrote a hymn to inflict blows on the Enemy of the gospel and his minions. But the hymn is not finally controversy centered; it is a glorious celebration of the unity of the invisible church: “Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.” By the enemies of the gospel the beleaguered church he so much loved was “sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” Not only did Stone know there was a serious problem, he knew the solution, “Yet saints their watch are keeping.”[3]

Pastors equipping their flocks to keep watch, to be vigilant in the pew, to search the Scripture as they listen is the only solution. Knowledge of the Bible’s message as codified in confessions of faith is the great bulwark protecting the unity of what the church believes and preaches.

The Justifiable Slap
There truly is a war on, and the church must never lay down its arms when the gospel is under attack. The Enemy does not want us to realize that it’s a counterfeit of unity that gives the Enemy a place at the table. This side of the church’s heavenly rest, enemies of the gospel will [AM4] insist on a place at the table, all in the name of unity, but it’s a cheap charade of unity. Where there is a discrepancy between the visible unity of the church and the truth of the gospel, the church must always find its unity, not around the name of a denomination or an individual minister, but around the pure doctrine of the gospel.

Though there are sad examples of churches splitting over paint colors, many of the church’s divisions down through the centuries have been the result of faithful pastors and theologians holding the gospel line against the encroaching error of the enemies of the gospel. It is in the heat of these controversies that the church’s greatest creeds and confessions have been forged. Without men standing for the unity of the truth, rolling up their sleeves and entering the fray of controversy, there would be no pure gospel message left.

One particular gospel-destroying challenge to the church’s unity was confronted by the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. This disturber of unity wasn’t [AM5] the color of the carpet. Ministers were denying the deity of Christ.

According to tradition (or legend), St. Nicholas got worked up listening to Arius blaspheme Jesus, saying that Christ is not the Son of God, the only Savior of sinners. Fed up with the blasphemy, St. Nicholas rose to his feet and slapped Arius across the mouth.[4]

Indiscreet as that may have been, out of the heat and blows of that conflict came the glorious credo, the Nicene Creed: “I believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Where would the church be without this confession? Where would the unity of the gospel be without this glorious truth?

Why does this matter? For Reformer Ulrich Zwingli it mattered because there is no salvation outside the atoning sacrifice and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. “Who seeks or points out another door errs,” wrote Zwingli, “yes, he is a murderer of souls and a thief.”[5] Put it like that, and a slap on the mouth doesn’t sound so out of place after all.

Unity of Truth
Historically, men who champion the drift away from the confession are often the same ones who are quick to declare all who disagree with them as schismatics disturbing the unity of the church. But doesn’t it seem more logical that the divisive ones are those who want their individual interpretations, their pages of criticisms of the confession, to become the new articles of faith?
Loyalty to an individual (1 Cor. 1:12–13), to a celebrity preacher or a particularly learned one, may prove to be more of a setup for unity faking than for real oneness. Like artificial additives in your favorite meal, artificial unity is never good for the genuine unity of the body. Loyalty to an individual, sooner or later, erodes the church’s larger unity around the pure doctrine of the gospel summarized in a confession of faith.

Some will always become [AM6] enamored with new ideas, with new discoveries that lead to new ways of reading books of the Bible, with reconciling the Bible with science or modern psychology, and then they will set to work recasting the confession of faith in the image of the latest discoveries. The [AM7] Enemy wants this to flourish, so he will help to shape the argument in ways conducive to his object of corrupting and disturbing gospel unity. With careful handling from behind the scenes, the argument will proceed with the enticing wording [AM8] of preferring a biblical theology to a systematic theology.[AM9] 

A convincing-sounding assertion. Who doesn’t want to come down on the side of biblical theology? Though it seems to be an effective construction for taking the high ground in the discussion, there’s a nagging problem. Men who use this argument are more than hinting that they no longer think biblical and confessional theology agree. Bear-baiting the confession and the Bible may be evidence that a minister no longer really believes the system of theology he once vowed he believed.

Here’s how this may sound. In one minister’s preaching, the doctrine of imputed righteousness was so increasingly absent that an elder finally asked him if he still believed the doctrine. “Well, imputation is not a biblical term,” he replied. “I want a biblical theology, not a systematic one.[AM10]  Presumably many ministers who might make this kind of argument will, nevertheless, still believe in and use the word Trinity, which is also not a biblical term but one used in systematic theology. Wouldn’t it make sense to go all the way and stop using the word Trinity? The selective application of this argument may reveal that, at the end of the day, what is at issue is not simply a preference for biblical language over confessional. Rhetoric can work well as a smokescreen. [AM11] [DB12] 

The gospel has been handed down to us in words, words that have been carefully defined and codified in our confessions of faith. When the plain meaning of those words gets toyed with, there’s probably a reason. Saints keeping watch will sit up and listen when they hear this kind of doublespeak. Judging from the Enemy’s schemes, the gospel is likely in the crosshairs. Hence, it is only “by being vigilant in our confession, [that] we can protect the church’s unity.”[6]

A Stream with No Banks
One ruinous counterfeit being substituted for the pure doctrine of the gospel and eroding unity may sound particularly appealing to families with kids. “Covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation, for the ‘doers of the law will be justified’ at the final judgment.[AM13]  As with all error, there is a miniscule kernel of truth here (a stopped clock is right twice a day). However appealing it may sound, point to our covenant faithfulness rather than to the steadfast faithfulness of the Savior, and all that remains is a counterfeit of the gospel. An attempt to swallow this kernel will [AM14] demand a theological Heimlich maneuver to prevent death by choking.

Ministers who say these things to their congregations hasten to tack on that this faithfulness is all done in union with Christ. Then they hasten back to what seems to have become the main thing. I’m inclined to think that when we hear confusing messages like this, we’ve just heard the fine print. However vigorous the large-print affirmations of orthodoxy are, as with politicians and journalists, [AM15] it’s the fine print that reveals what someone really believes.

Although a message of salvation by covenant faithfulness erodes grace[AM16] , advocates of this latest version of law-creep insist that their teaching is in the broad stream of the reformational confession of faith to which they still claim to ascribe. But to say that the way to salvation is by any degree of law-keeping faithfulness is nothing short of a reinvention of justification in the bland image of works righteousness—Rome without the bells and smells. If the banks of the confessional stream were this wide, we’d be looking at another worldwide flood, a confession with no boundaries at all.

Though I may be accused of being too meat-headed to grasp the intricate theological nuances, there’s one nuance I do understand: what a message like this produces in the flock. It will nudge hearers back into the default mode of looking to their “covenant faithfulness,” to their performance, to their obedience for their acceptance before God. Any teaching that does this will inevitably diminish in our minds and hearts the glories of the finished work of Christ in our place and will proportionately lessen our love and gratitude to Jesus for all that he has fully accomplished for us.

Favorite Sound Bites

Meanwhile, others attribute to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and mastermind of a movement designed to stamp out Reformation Christianity, the curiously similar admonition, “Use human means as though divine ones didn’t exist, and divine means as though there were no human ones.”[8] Good luck trying to find the original source on either of these, but in your search you will discover, as I did, that these variously attributed lines are also favorites among some Mormons, even some Muslims—strange theological bedfellows, indeed.

I’m bewildered and saddened by ministers whose favorite quotations—whether from the Bible or church history—seem calculated to invite confusion about justification as a one-time act of God. The flock is in grave danger when its ministers discover a man-centered sounding nugget and then use it as authority to normalize their theological shift and to convince their flocks that their adjustments ought to be accepted as new articles of faith—grave danger, indeed.

How much worse when men misuse Scriptural proof texts to cast doubt on the freeness of gospel grace. Shakespeare must have observed this strategy among some of the clergy in his day:[AM17] 
In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text[?][9]
What’s more, the Bard knew that even
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath.[10]

Making large-print affirmations of doctrinal orthodoxy will always sound goodly on the outside; that’s what they’re meant to do. But what a preacher believes is always in the fine print, and we can be sure the fine print will always be backed up with a proof text.

Blessing confessional errors with proof texts never promotes the doctrinal unity of the church. Rather, these deviations and methods create a “perpetual guerrilla warfare within the church,”[11] waged to lend credibility to the latest confessional departure.

Unity about Forgiveness
An example of a corruption of the gospel insinuating itself into conservative Christianity that I referenced earlier is such a torpedo to the gospel that it requires further consideration here. “Justification—whatever else it is—is the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly obvious that there is such a thing as temporary forgiveness because the Bible says there is. . . . Temporary forgiveness is a biblical datum.” [AM18] It takes little imagination to hear ministers in post-Reformation Amsterdam or Geneva saying similar things about justification.

However confidently asserted, this twenty-first-century minister’s statement that the Bible teaches temporary forgiveness is not shared by a single reformational confession of faith. I doubt Luther would have thought a doctrine of temporary forgiveness was anything like entering the gates of paradise, as he referred to his conversion. Imagine Luther’s glee at the discovery: “At last, I get it. Whatever else justification is, it is forgiveness, but only temporary forgiveness. O the joy! My burden is lifted—sort of, at least for the moment.” Temporary forgiveness would be more like having your head smashed in the gates of paradise as they clanged shut.

Or imagine a hymn of praise to God about temporary forgiveness. The cry of the five bleeding wounds of the Savior in Charles Wesley’s hymn would [AM19] sound more like this: “Sort of forgive,’ they cry, sort of forgive,’ they cry; ‘Maybe not let that sort of ransomed sinner die.’” I can’t imagine a doctrine of temporary forgiveness warming anyone’s heart to praise.

Not only does it make for ridiculously bad hymn poetry, such a declaration is devastating to the central doctrine of justification by faith alone; if justification is about forgiveness of sins and the Bible teaches that you can be justified and have forgiveness of sins—and then lose or forfeit it—the entire structure of reformational theology crumbles.

It is precisely here that the confessional standards help Christians in every generation to continue to believe what the Bible teaches and what the wisdom of our theological forebears taught and believed about the gospel. In the Westminster Confession of Faith there is zero room for temporary forgiveness, a justification that can be had and then forfeited. “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins and rise again for their justification. . . . God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified”[AM20]  (WCF 11.4–5, emphasis mine).

All the persuasive rhetoric to the contrary, what is a confessional datum on the irrevocability of forgiveness is so because it is a biblical datum: [AM21] “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The entire gospel depends on the faithfulness of God to do what he promised. It is the character of God himself that is at stake. God is unchangeable and so are his gifts. If forgiveness is changeable, then God himself is changeable. The central doctrine of justification is about something the immutable God has ordained and already accomplished, as Puritan Stephen Charnock so richly elucidates:

What comfort would it be to pray to a God that, like the chameleon, changed colors every day, every moment? The immutability of God is a strong ground of consolation, and encourages hope and confidence. While we have Him for our God, we have His immutability, as well as any other perfection of His nature. Let us also desire those things which are nearest to Him in this perfection: the righteousness of Christ that shall never wear out; and the grace of the Spirit, that shall never burn out.[12]

The ground of all comfort and confidence for sinners is that the immutable God justifies sinners based on the righteousness of his Son. He forgives my sins based on zero fitness in me, and he continues to forgive them based on zero fitness in me. He freely justifies sinners, as the Westminster divines put it, “for Christ’s sake alone. . . . Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification” (WCF 11.1–2). The apostle Paul declares without equivocation that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Whatever else that means, it clearly has to mean that the justifying gift of forgiveness of sins is irrevocable too. In fact, “God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified.”[13]

I, for one, am counting precisely on this fact: the permanence and irrevocability of the forgiveness of my sins in the good news of Jesus Christ. Tamper with forgiveness and all that remains is abysmally bad news.

Confessing Our Unity
Whether from the various faces of law-creep or from the enervating error of temporary forgiveness, “by being vigilant in our confession of faith we can protect the unity that the Spirit has given us.”[14]
Everyone has their theological boundaries; some are in the right place and protect the gospel from errors, while others remove the ancient boundary stones and broaden the stream so as to enfold the latest new ideas and errors. “To talk theology at all is to talk boundaries and always has been.”[15] The great danger in the church, however, is when we ignore the boundaries, when we arrogate our opinions over the enduring bulwarks of the gospel, and when we stop openly and honestly acknowledging and submitting to confessional boundaries.

The church will enjoy unity, walls of hostility broken down, peace and harmony, only insofar as it stands “firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). A confession of faith is the “open statement of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2), so critical to maintaining the unity of the body.

The church of Jesus Christ, the city of God, is a glorious body, made so by its Head and Savior, Jesus Christ. Though the church is beset by corruptions of the gospel in every generation, the church’s unshakeable foundation truly is Jesus Christ her Lord. We can take comfort that
Soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.[16]

Alas, when undershepherds set themselves above confessional unity, we should not be surprised when the flock soon has plenty of reasons for weeping, the sheep left defenseless, exposed to the ravages of encircling wolves.

Douglas Bond, author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't), from which this post is an excerpt, has written numerous books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Learn more at bondbooks.net.


[1] As Ephesians 2:11–22 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, I have written a hymn on its theme of the unity of the body Christ, included in appendix A.
[2] Erik Routley, Hymns and Human Life (London: John Murray, 1952), 114.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Gene Edward Veith, “Putting St. Nicholas Back in Christmas,” The Lutheran Witness, December 2011, http://witness.lcms.org/pages/wPage.asp?ContentID=1153&IssueID=61.
[5] Ulrich Zwingli, “The Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli,” in Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1901), article 4, http://www.chinstitute.org/index.php/eras/reformation/zwingli/.
[6] Michael Brown, “Schism and the Local Church,” Tabletalk, May 2011, 25.
[7] Variously attributed to Augustine and by some to Ignatius Loyola, though I was unable to find an original source for the quotation other than in the vast repositories of Christian clichés.
[8] Though usually attributed to Ignatius Loyola, a form of the quotation appears in Spanish Jesuit Balthasar Gracian’s Art of Worldly Wisdom (1637, maxim 251). In 1982, Joseph Jacobs translated the phrase as “Use human means as if there were no divine ones, and divine as if there were no human ones.” See Balthasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, trans. Joseph Jacobs, http://www.intellectualexpansionist.com/art-of-worldly-wisdom.pdf.
[9] William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, III.ii.77–79.
[10] Ibid., I.iii.96–100.
[11] Carl R. Trueman, “How Consumer Culture Fuels Change,” Tabletalk, April 2010, 15.
[12] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (Evansville, IN: Sovereign Grace Book Club, 1958), 143.
[13] Ibid., 11.5.
[14] Brown, “Schism,” 25.
[15] Carl R. Trueman, “Why Do We Draw the Line?” Tabletalk, July 1, 2012, accessed January 20, 2014, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/why-do-we-draw-the-line/.
[16] Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation,” Trinity Hymnal (Atlanta: Great Commission, 1990), 347.