The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Confessionalism Adrift Amid the Siren Cries for Relevancy – Part 3
I have spent the greater amount of time in this address seeking to persuade you of my claim that even amongst those who claim to be reformed; we are drifting from our confessional roots and convictions; from our confessional standards as they are historically understood. What is the solution? In the time that is left, I will only be able to begin to sketch out the way forward.
Our reformed confessional standards are the only reasonable basis for a stable definition of reformed theology, piety and practice. That’s why all those who are called to be ministers of word and sacraments in reformed churches need to be taught thoroughly the reformed faith and be able and ready to confess and proclaim and teach the faith once delivered to the saints. This is the task of the ministry.
2 Timothy 4:1-5 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
I am not seeking here to give an exhaustive exegesis of this text but to highlight the thrust of Paul’s words to young pastor Timothy. Notice first of all that this is formal language; Paul’s words are in the style of a formal charge. He is not passing on some casual advice during an informal intern meeting at Starbucks. Rather it is as if he was saying, as it were, “Timothy, get on your feet; stand up straight and place your right hand in the air for I am about to charge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus with regard to what you are to do in the gospel ministry.”
So what was Timothy to do? He was to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). Paul is saying, “Timothy, preach the word! In its application, you are to reprove, rebuke and exhort. Now Timothy, not everyone is going to get it straight away so you are going to have to be patient and teach your hearers. Timothy I don’t want you to be naïve, you also need to know, that the time is coming when some will not want to hear the Word, they will want teachers who will tell them what they want to hear, but Timothy, don’t change the message and don’t change the method. Timothy, I know it is hard but don’t come and tell me that what you have been charged before God to do is not working and ask me for some alternative message and strategy that will be more relevant and popular. Timothy, no matter what others are doing, no matter what the people demand, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Westminster Seminary California and the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. They believe the historic Christian faith as summarized in the ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions and catechisms. They are dedicated to training men for the Reformed, pastoral ministry. As students at these institutions you have a tremendous privilege and responsibility. Here at WSC and the IRBS, your calling, as students, is to study and prepare, in school, with pastors and scholars, to become pastor-scholars. Many in our day want to undermine the necessity of the scholar component in pastor-scholars. We need more pastors! they cry, but we don’t need trained scholars. To be ready and able to “preach the word …reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching … fulfill your ministry” demands extensive study in the various theological disciplines. The Bible is not to be read in a vacuum; we read it with the church through the ages. The Church has been thinking about and interpreting the Bible for a long time. So we need pastor-scholars who are not only trained to read God’s Word as it was written in the original languages, but who have been trained in the confessional reformed tradition. This is not something done quickly, easily, or cheaply. Many of you have sacrificed to have this opportunity. Many others sacrifice alongside you, as faithful donors, to give you this opportunity. Maybe you think from time to time, “Is it worth all the sacrifice and labor?” It is worth it. You have an invaluable opportunity given to you; don’t waste it.
How does this work out when you leave seminary? How should what you learn at self-consciously confessional, reformed institutions shape and impact any pastoral ministry to which God may call you in the future? This is too large a topic with which for me to deal in any depth in the remaining time so let me rather suggest just one very practical application; the wording of ordination vows in reformed churches. The wording should reflect in detail that to which the minister is committing himself before God and the remedy the church has should he fail to keep his vow.
The following is the wording of the relevant vows I took at my ordination at Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Placerville, CA with regard to my confessional subscription. The particular phrasings were adapted from the Canons of Dort.
Do you sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare your full subscription that you heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the confessional standards of this church, do fully agree with the Word of God and do you promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by your public preaching or writing.
By the grace of God, I do.
Do you declare, moreover, that you not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine but that you are disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert yourself to keeping the Church free from such errors.
And if thereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in your mind, do you promise that you will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend these same, either by preaching or writing, until you have first revealed such sentiments to the other elders of this church, that the same may thereby be examined, being ready always to submit to the judgment of the elders of this church under penalty in case of refusal, of being by that very fact suspended from your office.
And further, if at any time the elders upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine of this church, may deem it proper to require of you a further explanation of your sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confession of Faith, do you hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such requisition, under the penalty above mentioned, reserving for yourself, however, the right of appeal in case you should believe yourself aggrieved by the sentence of the elders; and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, you will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.
By the grace of God, I do.
If I were able to go back to my ordination, I would do one more thing, in addition to taking these vows. I would have the church’s confession of faith, 2nd LBCF, set out on a table and I would sit down and sign it before the congregation. Again this is not something that we can mandate for all ministers to do but it is a powerful, visible symbol of our commitment that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the confessional standards of the church, do fully agree with the Word of God and that we promise diligently to teach and faithfully to defend this doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preaching or writing.
Will these things, in and of themselves, guarantee the success of confessional reformed orthodoxy? It would be extremely naive to claim such but what they do provide is a solid foundation for remedy when things begin to drift or go awry. Churches may claim to be confessional and reformed but, in reality, are not. Ministers may say they are reformed but judged against the confessional standards of the church, historically understood, it may turn out they are not.
This is where the value of confessionalism is proven. A confession provides clarity of definition with regard to our theological identity and it defines our relationships. It brings together who we are and what we believe and provides the objective means to dialogue with those with whom we differ. Our reformed confessions are the means for the public affirmation and defense of truth; the church is to “hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). Our reformed confessions serve as a public standard of fellowship and discipline. The biblical model of the local church is not a union of those who have agreed to differ but a body marked by peace and unity. The church is to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). And what is true of life within the local church is also true of fellowship between local churches and in particular, in Associations of Churches. What right thinking local church or association of churches, which values the preservation of its own doctrinal purity, as well as its own peace and unity, would seek fellowship with another body, knowing nothing of its stand on matters of truth and error? Our reformed confessions also serve as a concise standard by which to evaluate ministers of the Word and sacraments. The Minister of Word and sacraments is to be a “faithful man” (2 Timothy 2:2), who “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9). Our reformed confessions contribute to a sense of historical continuity. Our confessions unite us to a precious heritage of faith received from the past and are a legacy by which we may pass on to succeeding generations the faith of their fathers.
What is the ultimate motivation to be faithful in holding fast the form of sound words?
What will keep us going in these difficult days, faithful to our confessional, reformed identity and convictions? Personal popularity? A guaranteed, large and appreciative congregation? The outward success of culturally relevant programs? No, it is the conviction that God will reward our labor not our results. 1 Corinthians 3:6-8 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.
This understanding of the minister’s work is sorely needed. People are inclined to think far too often that the minister is responsible for the increase. This thinking has practically turned our churches into business institutions, with the people as stockholders, committees as boards of directors and the minister as the chief executive officer. As far as the Bible is concerned, the pastor’s job is not to be successful as judged by outward results, but to be faithful in preaching the gospel. If the minister functions in this way, God will reward him ‘according to his own labor’
Thank God it is our labor, not the results of it, that forms the basis for reward. Benjamin B. Warfield writes, ‘What a consolation this is to the obscure workman to whom God has given much labor and few results…'(1).
May God help us to resist the siren calls of this day to slip our moorings from our confessional roots and convictions as they are expressed in our confessional standards as they are historically understood, as He did our reformed fore-fathers in their generation, and may He enable us to stand firm and hold to the traditions that we have been taught (2 Thess 2:15), looking to Him to give the growth and He sees fit.
(1) Geoffrey Wilson, 1 Corinthians: A Digest of Reformed Comment (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978) 49