Depravity and Regeneration (11): "In the way of a holy life of obedience"
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is the eleventh entry of a series of articles written by Rev. Wilbur Bruinsma. The tenth entry is Depravity and Regeneration (10): The Exhortations to Good Works.
The synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America in 2018 constructed a wonderfully beautiful and concise statement concerning the faith of our fathers. “We experience the Father’s fellowship on the basis of Christ’s perfect work, through a justifying faith in Christ, and in the way of a holy life of obedience” (2018 Acts of Synod, p. 81, Article 62, B, 2, c, 3). I say this is beautiful and concise because it explains that life within God’s covenant is based entirely on the work of Jesus Christ alone in his death and resurrection. This statement also explains that we experience the Father’s fellowship because we are justified by (through) faith alone without works. Finally, this statement explains that enjoyment of that life within the covenant is in the way of a holy life of sanctification revealed in obedience to the Word of God and God’s commandments. All the elements are there, including Christ’s work of sanctification.
Since the synod of 2018 the last phrase of this beautiful formula has been brought into question. A protestant to the synod of 2019 wrote: “Considering that there is much confusion and misunderstanding with respect to the meaning of the phrase ‘in the way of obedience we experience covenant fellowship,’ as well as with respect to the correct relationship between obedience and our experience of covenant fellowship, I believe that it is important and would be helpful for synod to replace all such indistinctive language with distinctive language that clearly and consistently indicates that the only relationship between obedience and fellowship is that obedience is the inevitable fruit of experiencing fellowship with God by faith alone” (2019 Acts of Synod, p. 214). We are thankful that synod would have none of this!
However, even though this protest was rejected, suspicion continues among some (especially those who have left) regarding the phrase, “in the way of a holy life of obedience.” An example of such suspicion is found in a letter sent by a consistory to its congregation. We quote: “The phrase ‘in the way of.’ We must be warned that this phrase cannot be used without explanation. Just because our Reformed fathers used this phrase, its use does not automatically guarantee it to be orthodox. In this controversy the phrase was twisted and used in support of false theology that made obedience a condition to covenant fellowship with God, compromised justification by faith alone, and displaced Christ’s work. As a result, the phrase needs careful explanation if it is used.” Now, there is nothing wrong with this warning in itself. We always must be warned about the misinterpretation of various concepts of Scripture. When defining the term “grace” we need to be careful not to give it a definition that is not in keeping with Scripture. Or perhaps better yet, when defining the term “love” we need to be very careful to define this word in a Reformed and biblical way. The same is true when using the phrase “in the way of.” Suspicion with this phrase is created, however, when it is explained only as something that “our Reformed fathers” used, rather than it being a Scriptural concept.
It is true that during the controversy of 1953 Rev. H. Hoeksema wrote: “Let me suggest that instead of using that Pelagian term ‘condition’ we use the term ‘in the way of.’ We are saved in the way of faith, in the way of sanctification in the way of perseverance unto the end. This term is capable of maintaining both the absolute sovereignty of God in the work of salvation and the responsibility of man” (Standard Bearer, Vol.26, No.6, p. 125). Again, he writes: “We are not saved on condition of faith, or of the obedience of faith; but we are chosen to faith and the obedience of faith, and, therefore, we are saved through the instrument of faith, and in the way of obedience. That, and that only, is Reformed language” (SB, Vol 26, No. 4, p. 77). Since Rev. Hoeksema is our Reformed father it is true that our Reformed “fathers” (PR ministers both during and after Rev. Hoeksema’s ministry) used this phrase. But it was not merely a phrase used in order to avoid the error of conditional theology. This phrase, “in the way of a holy life of obedience,” is Scriptural and, therefore, a necessary part in the statement used by Synod 2018.
It is Scriptural and therefore necessary, in the first place, because it takes into account the work of Jesus Christ through his Spirit in our sanctification. Leave the phrase out and one overlooks the obligation God places on his children in the covenant to walk a new and holy life. This, in turn, skirts the truth that by God’s grace and on the basis of Christ’s work in us through his Spirit the believer is called (exhorted) in his life within the covenant to walk a holy life of obedience to God’s Word and commandments (good works). Neither does this deny the reality that such obedience proceeds only out of a true and living faith.
The phrase “in the way of” is Scriptural and a necessary part of the statement of Synod 2018, in the second place, because Scripture uses this phrase, especially in the Psalms and Proverbs. The term “way” in the Hebrew refers to a well-traveled course that leads in the direction of a certain objective. When used in the phrase “in the way of a holy life of obedience,” for example, it refers to that holy course of life the regenerated believer walks that leads to obedience to God’s Word. The believer’s way is the opposite of the way in which the ungodly man walks since the wicked man walks in way of disobedience and unrighteousness. Psalm 1:6: “For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.” In a number of Psalms the term “way” is used together with the term “path.” This Hebrew word, which means “familiar or customary road,” is most often used metaphorically to refer to the course of ones living, the direction of his life. Psalm 25:4: “Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” Or again, in Psalm 119:35: “Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight.” Rev. Cory Griess quotes from Proverbs to prove this same point in his Standard Bearer article of April 1, 2021, Volume 97, p. 302-304.
The point is: the experience of fellowship with God, the joy and peace that accompanies such fellowship is rooted in the work of Christ, imparted through a justifying faith in Christ, and enjoyed as the believer walks in the way of, down the path of, a holy life of obedience. This Scriptural terminology is necessary for the reasons Rev. Griess points out in his article. (The reader would well equip himself to read that article as well as all of them in his series.) For that reason, we may not look at this phrase with suspicion as if it is “indistinctive language” or “the phrase needs careful explanation if it is used.” Of course, it needs to be defined. So do the terms grace or love. The phrase “in the way of a holy life of obedience” must be above suspicion. When a believer through the weakness of his faith gives in to his old man of sin and walks in the way of disobedience and sin, God by his grace withholds from him the joy and peace that he experiences when walking in the way of obedience. God does this in order to bring his child back to him in the way of repentance.
Synod was dead-bolts on in retaining the use of this Scriptural terminology.
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