The Charge of Antinomianism (7): A Dangerous Distinction

Distinctions must sometimes be made in theology. They are good and useful to understand and explain theological terms. For instance, the distinction between the will of God’s decree and the will of his command explains how God summons all men everywhere to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and promises to all who do that they will be saved, and at the same time God wills eternally the damnation of the reprobate who hear that preaching of Christ. The distinction explains the Reformed faith’s rejection of the well-meant gospel offer, which teaches that God offers salvation to all who hear the gospel and sincerely intends and desires the salvation of all who hear. The Reformed faith charges that this teaches two entirely contradictory wills in God.

Some distinctions are bad and are used to undermine the truth; for instance, the distinction between the image of God in the broader and narrower sense. In the broader sense the image of God is defined as man’s rationality and will, and in the narrower sense the image is defined as knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This distinction is bad because the theologians that use it teach that man lost the image in the narrower sense and retains the image in the broader sense. The result is that all men retain the image of God. Because the image of God is good, all men have some spark of good in them. Thus the Reformed doctrine of total depravity is denied. Because of this denial the distinction must be jettisoned.

Mark Jones introduces another such bad distinction in his book: “the distinction between God’s benevolent love and his complacent love has a rich Reformed pedigree.” “Benevolent love” refers to God’s love whereby his chose his people from eternity. “Complacent love” refers to his delight in the good in his people. The questions the distinction was supposedly intended to answer are, “Does God love us more because of our obedience or less because of our disobedience…[does]…the holiness of saints ha[ve] any influence on God’s love for them…and [is] God pleased or displeased with his saints when they obey or disobey his law?”

The problem with the distinction is that while it has a Reformed pedigree in the sense that many Reformed divines taught the distinction, it is equally true that there is almost no agreement on the actual definition, as Jones admits: “Reformed divines have not always expressed these distinctions in the same way.”[1] Besides the ones who made them were not content with only those distinctions, but distinguished and distinguished until there were so many distinctions that the love of God was sliced like a pie. Theologians have not only made many distinctions in the love of God, but also have made outright erroneous uses of these distinctions. For instance, they were used to teach a universal love of God for all men and as a ground for the universal offer of salvation: “so, too, the love of God for all humanity is seen in the death of his Son for our redemption. And finally, the general love of God for humanity is manifest in the universal calling of the gospel.”[2]

Furthermore, respected theologians have denied the distinction between God’s benevolent and complacent love, for instance John Gill. Herman Bavinck never mentioned it, and neither did Louis Berkhof. Heinrich Heppe, who gives the Reformed consensus, does not deal with it.

Among those who used the distinction, and whatever their other disagreements about it may have been, there was a universal consensus: “nonetheless, neither the distinction of categories nor the last category in itself indicates a change in God: for the amor complacentiae [love of complacence] follows creaturely actuality, not as an effect follows a cause, but as a consequence follows its antecedent—simply put, God delights in what he has made.”[3] What this means is that those who taught the distinction insisted that God does not change in his love nor do the deeds of man affect the love of God, but what is in man is the work of the love of God, and in that work God delights not as it is the work of man, but as his own work.

Although Mark Jones appeals to the distinction and insists upon its usefulness, he does with it what the Reformed theologians who taught it denied, that is, man’s works affect a change in God and in his love. Jones says, “We are surely correct also to understand that God’s complacent love for us has a direct correlation to our godliness.” And to make that emphatic he says, “In other words, God cannot help but love us more and more if we become more and more like him. Christians will receive ‘an increase of favor,’ the more we become like Christ.”[4]

To back up his doctrine with scripture, he turns John 14:21, 23 on its head and takes a word of great comfort and makes it the ground for the oppressive doctrine that man’s works are the ground of his deeper communion with God. He does that without any attempt at explaining the text, but only asserting that “Christ’s teaching in John 14:21, 23 confirms the point about varying degrees of communion,” that is, God loves and communes with some more and some less based on their works.

The text he cites as such clear proof of the distinction between the love of God’s benevolence and complacence has nothing to do with the distinction at all, and it was not in Christ’s mind when he spoke. In verse 21 Christ spoke of a mark whereby believers may be confirmed in the reality of their faith, namely, that they love Christ. Faith—that saves without love—loves Christ and out of that love keeps his word against all the wretched persecution, slander, and false doctrine of the ungodly world and apostate church to the loss of name, standing, job, friends, family, and life.

About these verses Luther said, “Therefore, says Christ, I will give you a sure sign by which the true Christians, who are in me and in whom I am, can be recognized, namely, the observance of my commandments…if you preach and profess freely and intrepidly; if you hazard property and honor, life and limb, for this; and if you love one another as heartily as I have taught and commanded you. This will be the test and proof of true faith in me.” About verse 23 Luther said, “Therefore Christ always contends against this [the devil’s tactic to have believers despair of God’s love] and arms us with the weapons of defense by assuring us that he himself vouches for the Father’s love. If we believe in him and are in his love, there is no longer any anger in heaven or on earth; there is nothing but fatherly love and all goodness.” He called this “a beautiful and charming message. It costs us no hard labor, and no one need go on distant pilgrimages in search of it or torment himself with arduous works. It costs no more than what we have already in ourselves, namely, that our hearts adhere firmly to it in faith, that our lips make public confession of it, and that we show forth and prove our faith with love toward our neighbor.”[5] That is indeed a charming message. It contrasts sharply with the oppressive doctrine of works taught by Jones, who teaches men to work for the love, favor, and approval of God.

The way to deal with this distinction in the love of God is to dismiss it despite whatever pedigree it might have among Reformed theologians. It is unhelpful, unneeded, unscriptural, and dangerous. God does not change but is the same from eternity to eternity in his word and in all his perfections. With this truth he comforted sinning Jacob: I change not! (Mal. 3:6). Furthermore, God is not dependent on man, but is independent. Man does not affect God, but God affects man with his love, changes him, and moves him from misery to salvation. Salvation from beginning to end is one massive triumph of the unchanging love of God. The one legitimate question that the distinction sought to solve, namely, is God pleased or displeased with our sins? is easily solved without the distinction. God is displeased with the sins of his people exactly because he loves them; and exactly because he loves them with an unmerited and wholly gracious love, he overcomes their sins and brings them to repentance. He also delights in the good that he works in them and sanctifies their works with his grace.

Because Jones makes God’s love of men, especially in their experience and conscience, dependent on man’s works, this doctrine must necessarily affect his doctrine of assurance.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 84.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:564.

[3] Ibid., 568

[4] Ibid., 86–87.

[5] Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of John, in Luther’s Works (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 24:146, 157.

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Previous posts in this series:

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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Next article in series: Assurance by Works

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The Charge of Antinomianism (2): A Novel Definition

Antinomianism is the error that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the justified Christian. It is a real threat to the church and to the holiness of the church. The Bible warns against it. It is gross heresy. Antinomianism is also a false charge raised by the opponents of grace against the truth to slander it and to make it appear wicked in the eyes of the churches. Christ, Paul, and Luther all suffered this false charge. It is being used yet today against the doctrines of grace. The instrument for this attack is a novel and historically inaccurate understanding of what constitutes antinomianism.

This novel definition is found in the recent book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? written by the well-known, learned, and articulate author Mark Jones. The book has been widely reviewed, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The book is viewed as a correct analysis of antinomianism, is presented as a new tool in the war on antinomianism, and its author is cited as a recognized authority on the subject. The book is being recommended to members of the pew as sound and Reformed and instructive for understanding antinomianism and its threat to the churches today.

The author’s conclusions are being accepted as the new standard for exposing antinomians, and his implied program to root out these “unwelcome guests” is being carried out, beginning with his charges of antinomianism against those who maintain and stubbornly defend the truth of the unconditional covenant and with it all the doctrines of grace. At the very least he has succeeded in raising the suspicion that where the unconditional covenant and the pure gospel of grace are taught antinomianism lurks.

Jones minimizes the classic definition of antinomianism: “we have not understood the debate if we simply identify antinomians as those who flatly reject the use and necessity of the moral law in the life of Christians.”[1] This also comes out in his repeated warnings that antinomianism “must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., ‘against the law’).”[2] Again he writes, “Antinomianism is more complex than its etymology might suggest.”[3] He concludes, “If antinomianism is understood simply as all indicatives without imperatives, and legalism simply as all imperatives without indicatives, then there has been very few true antinomians or true legalists in the Christian tradition.”[4]

For him to define an antinomian as one who is literally against the law—that is, one who says, “God saves sinners, so let us sin”—is inadequate. By this he ignores the obvious. By this he also fails to recognize that this is exactly what those real antinomians who appeared in the Bible and in history did: they flatly rejected the law and lived however they pleased. For proof one need only read Jeremiah 7 or Revelation 2 or examine the history of the Anabaptist antinomians during the time of the Reformation.

Flatly rejecting the use and necessity of the moral law is the outstanding characteristic of real antinomians today. They are against law; they reject those who bring the warnings and admonitions of the law and are characterized by lawlessness. For example, where is the law of God about marriage honored today? It is ironic in the extreme that the warnings against antinomianism come from those who by appeals to grace defend or fail to condemn the rank violations of the law of God concerning marriage by pew and clergy. Those who live impenitently in the sin of divorce and remarriage are comforted in that wickedness and given an honorable place in the pew and in the offices. Where is the outrage against this antinomianism of rampant and undisciplined divorce and remarriage? It is troubling in the extreme that from the same quarters as issue glowing reviews, recommendations of, and appeals to the world’s movies and music—evidence of antinomian worldliness—there comes also this shrill cry of antinomianism. What of the patent violations of the Lord’s day by those who do not diligently frequent God’s house and are found instead working, at the beach, at football games, or on boats? Where is the indignation at the ungodliness of labor union membership, lodge membership, and membership in other worldly associations that are rife today in Reformed and Presbyterian churches? What of the antinomianism of the near universal acceptance of the doctrine of common grace that flatly denies the antithesis and encourages unity with the ungodly world? What of the antinomianism of false doctrine that is tolerated by vigorously and viciously defending those who teach it, so that in Mark Jones’ own church, the Presbyterian Church in America, and others, heretics who have the audacity to deny that justification is by faith alone have been exonerated and doctrinal lawlessness against the creeds and in rank violation of the oath of subscription reigns?

Antinomianism is present wherever these evils take place, whoever participates in them is an antinomian, and churches that tolerate such guests undisciplined at their communion tables promote antinomianism. Antinomianism as denial of the law is not as rare today as Mark Jones assumes. However, this all passes him by in his pursuit of a new understanding of antinomianism.

It is a serious fault of a book that purports to teach about antinomianism that the fruits of the antinomian error in the actual ungodliness that characterizes the life of the antinomian are not pointed out, dealt with, and condemned. There is hardly a syllable in the whole book dealing with these very real manifestations of antinomianism today. It is a serious fault of the book that, without a single rebuke from this instructor about the antinomian error, it allows unwelcome guests at many Reformed communion tables to continue in the illusion of their righteousness and allows many Reformed churches and officebearers to tolerate that lawlessness. One would expect, at least in fairness to the Reformed world, which Jones charges with the “real problem” of “practical antinomianism,” that he would point this out for the brethren.

By this neglect he also turns the attention of the church away from real ungodliness of life as the most obvious and dangerous characteristic of real antinomianism that the church can lay its hands on. It is as if a shepherd would tell his sheep dogs to go sniffing about for the wolf in sheep’s clothes while ignoring the huge loafer wolf lying in the middle of the flock chewing on a leg of lamb. Jones sends Reformed sheep dogs on a nearly hopeless and futile quest to ferret out antinomians according to some vaguely defined theological characteristics.

In Jones’ pursuit of antinomians, he never actually defines the antinomian error. Rather, he seeks to give certain theological characteristics of the antinomian and concludes that “when all or at least most of these errors are combined in a preaching ministry, you have an antinomian. And, despite loud protestations to the contrary, antinomian theology leads to practical antinomianism, which is a serious problem in the church today.”[5]

He also accuses the antinomians in his sights of being duplicitous and hypocritical: “They have a habit of saying mutually contradictory things, as well as affirming truths that they deny in practice. That is, their public ministry is not always in accord with what they will tell you when they are, in private, pressed on certain points.”[6] Jones is interested in the theology of antinomianism, and upon this theology he heaps all of the opprobrium for the practical antinomianism that he sees—but does not explain—as a serious problem today.

It is not that his point about the slipperiness of the real antinomian is not well taken. The real antinomian, as any heretic, is as slippery as a snake in the presentation of errors. Rather, the problem is that when the theological characteristics that Jones cites as indicating a real antinomian are examined one finds that he actually indicts the truth as being antinomian. The book ends up casting aspersions upon the truth, so that Christ, the apostle Paul, Luther, and the Reformed creeds are laid under the suspicion of antinomianism.

Part of Jones’ attack on the truth involves the unconditional covenant of grace.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 124.

[2] Ibid., 124.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Ibid., 124.

[5] Ibid., 128

[6] Ibid.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

Rev. Nathan J. Langerak is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois.

The RFPA welcomes Rev. Langerak as the newest writer for the RFPA blog. 

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Antinomian means against law. Antinomianism is the heresy that denies the necessity of good works in the life of the justified believer and that excuses sin in the life of the professing Christian by appeals to grace. Its blatant form is the teaching that the child of God has been delivered by grace to sin freely. The reasoning of the antinomian is that since God saves sinners by grace alone, let us sin that grace may abound. Its subtle form is the denial that the justified believer must do good works and that he must be exhorted to do good works. The reasoning of the antinomian is that the believer need not be told that he must do good works, regardless of the explanation of this must. An antinomian regards any language of “must” or “necessity” in connection with the believer and good works to be legalism and a threat to the graciousness of salvation.

This heresy was present in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 7. It was present in the New Testament in Revelation 2 among the “Nicolaitans” and in “Thyatira” in “that woman Jezebel” (vv. 15, 18, 20). It troubled Luther in John Agricola and Calvin in Geneva with the so-called Libertines. It remains a real threat today. It is a damnable heresy.

Throughout New Testament church history, the enemies of the gospel of grace have also raised the charge of antinomianism against the doctrines of grace. This disreputable tactic was even used against Christ. While his enemies excused their unbelief in the preaching of John the Baptist by saying that he had a devil, they also slandered the Lord as a gluttonous man and a wine bibber (Matt. 11:18–19; Luke 7:33–34) and implied that his preaching led to those sins among the people.

The false brethren raised the charge of antinomianism against the apostle Paul. In Romans 3:8 he relates that the apostles were “slanderously reported” and that some men affirmed that the apostles said, “Let us do evil, that good may come.” In Romans 6:1 Paul raises his enemies’ objection against the doctrine of gracious justification: “shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” In Galatians 2:17 he raises the matter again: “is therefore Christ the minister of sin?” No doubt this charge of antinomianism was also involved in the persistent attempts mentioned in the book of Acts to characterize Paul as a destroyer of the law of Moses.

Opponents of the gospel also charged Luther with antinomianism. In the preface to his Treatise against Antinomians he responded to those charges:

And truly, I wonder exceedingly, how it came to be imputed to me, that I should reject the Law or ten Commandments, there being extant so many of my own expositions (and those of several sorts) upon the Commandments, which also are daily expounded, and used in our Churches, to say nothing of the Confession and Apology, and other books of ours.

Roland Bainton in his definitive biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, wrote, “The same retort was given to Luther as to Paul. If we are saved not by merits but by mercy, ‘let us then sin that grace may abound.’ Both Paul and Luther answered, ‘God forbid.’”[1]

The Reformed creeds also mention these insinuations of antinomianism against their doctrine by the enemies of the truth. In question 64 the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “But doth not this doctrine [gracious justification by faith alone without works] make men careless and profane?” Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, “Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that, on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love to God, only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” The conclusion of the Canons of Dordt addresses the charge that the Arminians hurled against the truth:

That the doctrine of the Reformed churches concerning predestination, and the points annexed to it, by its own genius and necessary tendency, leads off the minds of men from all piety and religion…that it renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please, and therefore, that they may safely perpetuate every species of the most atrocious crimes.

The Reformed may well say with Luther that they too “wonder exceedingly how it came to be imputed” to them that they reject the law, since the creeds contain expositions of the ten commandments, require the discipline of spiritual transgressors by use of the keys of the kingdom, and emphasize the necessity of good works in the life of the justified believer.

The reason the charge of antinomianism comes against the Reformed doctrines of grace is not merely that those who make the charge have an interest in the law, which is lacking in the Reformed and in their creeds, since the Reformed also preach the law. Indeed, the Heidelberg Catechism requires the Reformed preacher to do so “strictly” (Q 115). Rather, the reason is that those who raise the charge against the Reformed and their doctrines of grace hold to entirely different doctrines of salvation, of grace, and ultimately of the law itself. The Pharisees accused Christ of antinomianism because they wanted salvation by works, and likewise the Roman Catholics accused Luther, the Judaizers accused Paul, and the Arminians accused the Reformed.

Thus the issue in the false charge of antinomianism against the Reformed doctrines of grace is not first about the law, but about the nature of divine grace. Does grace enable the believer to fulfill conditions unto salvation, conditions that include obedience to the divine law, or is grace the power of God to save the believer from his sins by justifying him wholly without his works and then also working in him to walk in all the good works that God ordained for him from before the foundation of the world in thankfulness for that salvation and for the glory of God? Does God accept the sinner into his fellowship, grace, and life by faith only, or does God accept the sinner into his fellowship, grace, and life because of what the sinner does—even partly—by grace? Is grace truly grace, or is grace mingled with works in the salvation of the sinner, so that grace is no more grace?

Those who raise the false charge of antinomianism object to salvation by grace, salvation that is wholly by grace and mercy. They object to the doctrine of the salvation of the sinner, beginning in gracious election as the only source, continuing through the atoning cross as the only ground and foundation of that salvation, coming to a dead sinner to regenerate him, granting to him the gift of faith, justifying him without his works by faith only, and sanctifying him, which is manifested in a life of thankful obedience. They object to the doctrine that makes the entire salvation of the elect child of God, including his works, God’s gracious gift to him. These objectors charge that if salvation, fellowship with God, and eternal life do not in some sense depend on what a man does, the most powerful motivation for good works is removed.

The false charge of antinomianism raised against the doctrines of grace is that they are inherently antinomian, so that preaching them makes men careless and profane. In the bold language of the Arminian opponents of grace: the doctrines of grace from their “own genius and necessary tendency lead off the minds of men from all piety” (Conclusion to the Canons). This false charge of antinomianism maintains that the unholy and careless lives of church members are exactly the result of teaching the doctrines of grace, so that the doctrines themselves are at fault, and teaching them is the cause of that wickedness. The doctrines of divine predestination, of the perfect atoning death of Christ, of justification by faith alone without any works, of faith as a gift of God, and of the preservation of saints are to blame for the wicked lives of those who believe them and for wickedness in churches that maintain them, because these doctrines make men “carnally secure,” exactly because their salvation does not depend on their works. The fault lies in the doctrine of the Reformed. It must be changed to ward off its antinomian tendencies, and it must be changed by making the salvation of man contingent in some sense on his works.

The issue also involves the nature of God’s work of grace in renewing the believer. Who is the believer by God’s grace? Those who raise the false charge of antinomianism against the doctrines of grace imply, if they do not explicitly teach, that the believer is one who, if he is told that his salvation is all of grace and without his works, will seize on that doctrine and use it to live carnally. Thus the believer in essence remains a worldly person who will take every opportunity, including the preaching of grace, to rush into wickedness.

Those who raise the false charge of antinomianism do not merely recognize the constant threat to the holiness of the church from the believer’s own flesh, which must be mortified daily, and the abuse of the doctrines of grace by unbelievers—careless and profane men who have never known the grace of the forgiveness of sins—who evilly seize on the doctrine of salvation by grace and use it as a cloak for their wicked lives and evil hearts. But in reality those who raise the charge of antinomianism deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers and the effect that the Holy Spirit works by the preaching of the believer’s gracious salvation in their hearts and maintains also by the proper preaching of the law.

Behind this evil attack on the doctrines of grace stands the inveterate opponent of the truth, the great rebel, slanderer, accuser, and lawless one, who, transforming himself into an angel of light, puts himself and his ministers out as the great upholders of the law of God in order to destroy the truth and the law and the churches with them.

This false charge is now being leveled again by means of a novel definition of antinomianism.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2017), 225.

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Next article in series: A Novel Definition

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Garnishing Sepulchers

October 31 has come and gone for another year.

For some that date will always be associated with Halloween. It calls to mind candy and costumes and cavorting around town. It means mobs of little football players and Disney princesses knocking on doors and squeaking, “Trick or treat.”

For others that date is known as Reformation Day. It has less to do with chocolate as it does with the church, less to do with bonbons as it does with the Bible.

October 31, 2016, marked the 499th anniversary of the Reformation of the church in the 16th century. Nearly five centuries ago, a then-obscure Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Far from looking to start a reformation, Luther was merely interested in initiating a debate with his colleagues about certain points of doctrine. But Luther’s modest intentions became, in the providence of God, the spark of the Reformation fire. Through the subsequent labors of Luther and fellow reformers such as John Calvin the church was restored to her foundations on the Word of God.

Those who trace their spiritual heritage back to the Reformation remember October 31 as Reformation Day.

But for those of us who claim the name Reformed, there is a question: “Are we truly thankful for the work of God in the Reformation? Or do we pay mere lip service to the name Reformed?”

In Matthew 23 Jesus excoriates the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, raining upon them woe after woe. In v. 29 he says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous.” In other words, he says, “You are hypocrites because you sing the praises of the prophets but don’t hold to a word that they taught!”

Is this true of us who claim the name Reformed? Are we guilty of hypocrisy, building the tomb of Luther and garnishing the sepulcher of Calvin, when in reality we want nothing to do with what they actually taught? Do we claim to be children of the Reformation when in reality we are ignorant of what they actually restored to the church?

If so, then we are guilty of as gross a form of hypocrisy as that of the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day!

If we claim the name Reformed and celebrate the Great Reformation, then we ought to know the truths of Scripture that were restored to the church at that time. And knowing them, we ought to confess them. And confessing them, we ought to defend them. And then what lives in our hearts and is confessed with our mouths must characterize our lives.

And this all because we love these truths of the Bible. Far from being a cold, superficial confession of what our forefathers clung to before us, there is a warmth and fervor and zeal for them living in our hearts.

Faith of our fathers only? May it never be!

Faith of our fathers, living still? May God grant it!

And in our generations after us!

Till Jesus comes!

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This post was written by Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of Doon Protestant Reformed Church in Doon, Iowa.

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