Prof. Gritters is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

“Let your joy in God be stronger than your sadness in sin.”

(Luther, on Philippians 4)

“The highest and best part of a happy life consists in this, that God forgives a man’s guilt, and receives him graciously into his favour.” “The Holy Spirit has exhorted the faithful to continue clapping their hands for joy, until the advent of the promised Redeemer.”

(Calvin, on the Psalms)

Come unfaithful sons of the Reformation (preachers) have removed the ancient landmarks, so that their flocks wander about, doubtful of what is their spiritual heritage. As we saw in the last article (October 15, 2004), our heritage is the ancient confession of our natural spiritual depravity. Without Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). Based on Scripture, the Reformed confessions put this testimony in the mouths of the church’s children, on account of which depravity we all “often sigh.” Though we are not naturally (!) inclined to this confession, we make it anyway in obedience to the Scripture’s description of us. But many have lost this heritage.

Confessing our depravity, we reap the copious harvest of a proper humility in our lives together, a sense of our need to mortify our flesh, a healthy wariness of ourselves, and a humble trust alone in Christ for our salvation. Robbed of this proper assessment of myself, I will not live in humility, do not confess daily the source of my sinful deeds deep in my nature, neglect the painful work of mortifying the flesh “more and more,” and lose sight of the path to the cross.

When a Reformed Christian witnesses a denial of our present depravity, especially in the name of “helping the poor man have a little self-worth,” he weeps, because the results are quite the opposite. Rather than building him up in Christ, this new thinking builds him up apart from Christ. But when a man is driven to the bottom to see himself as he is, God’s mercy lifts his head up, to consider Jesus Christ and to find his “worth” in Christ. Strange contradiction. But not to one who knows Scripture: The last shall be first. To live you must die. To seek one’s life is to lose it, but to lose one’s life is to find it.

Then the Christian can live (and die) happily (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2)! I am a happy Christian only when I live so. I am happy in my relationship to God. I am happy in my relationship with others. I am happy as I live with myself. I am happy under the blessing and favor of God, who makes the humble happy (see the Beatitudes). Contrary to the thinking of some, the confession of depravity—assessing myself properly—does not produce the fruit of a depressed, gloomy man. It creates a happy man, whose happiness is deep, solid, and lasting. A Reformed believer is a happy believer. Sorrowful (indeed, often), yet always rejoicing (II Cor. 6:10).

To our great dismay, we have found how shallow is the happiness that comes in other ways, especially the ways that take an end run around penitence.

To make that clear, I want to show more than what are the bitter fruits of refusing to confess the depravity of my nature. True, the believer must have vital interest in the danger of neglecting to come clean with regard to what his flesh really is. But I am interested in the danger a Reformed believer faces at this point when he maintains his Reformed theology intellectually, but denies it practically.

For the danger is very real that, unable to put a chink in the theological armor of the Reformed believer, the Adversary finds the opening where the theology must be lived. To confess the truth is one thing; to live it from the heart is quite another (“they confess me with the mouth, but their heart is far from me”; cf. Is. 29:13Matt. 15:8). The great Adversary loves folk whose lives contradict their confession, who are “holy blasphemers” rather than “pious sinners” (to use the language of the colorful Reformer). Or who have not assimilated the lessons of James: “Show me your faith.”

Reformed Christians, heavily fortified against the theological denial of depravity, must pray for thick bulwarks all around the city. The way of salvation to which we have been chosen is belief of the truth; it is also a holy life (II Thess. 2:13).

Let me ask myself, in my relation to God, whether my daily happiness truly comes in the right way. The “right way” starts with a deep sorrow “towards God” and faith in Christ. Our gracious God then thoroughly cleanses our soul with the blood of His Son, delivering us from the excruciating misery and awful shame of sin. This is the joy and peace that surpass understanding. In this way, and no other way, we find what Luther calls the “joy in God” that is “stronger than our sadness in sin.” When he explained his 95 theses, Luther worked out the theology of Romans 5:1:

The confidence of Christians and the joyousness of our conscience (are) that through faith our sins become, not ours, but Christ’s, upon whom God laid the sins of us all and who bore our sins…. All the righteousness of Christ, in turn, becomes ours. For He places His hand upon us, and it is well with us; He, the Savior, blessed forever, spreads His garment and covers us.

When I “own transgression,” then God forgives me (Ps. 32). Then the floodgates of God’s blessings open, and I am swept away in the consciousness of His love. Then I know myself to be chosen by God, precious to Him, purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ. Then I experience the real beauty of being renewed by His regenerating Spirit, an heir of all things, and even holy with the goodness of His Spirit. But only when I confess transgression.

Is this the experience of the Reformed Christian? Do I stand in public, quietly thanking God that I am not like “those others.” Or am I on my knees, begging mercy? Do I trust in Jesus Christ for God’s approval of me, or in my own faith or holy life? Do I yearn for God’s “approval from on high” (Ps. 17), or do I love someone else’s judgment of me more? Those are the tests of an orthodoxy that is alive.

When we go off track here, the wheels come off quickly.

How does it go between me and my neighbor? Is the blessedness of our relationship that I, in lowliness of mind, esteem him better than myself (Phil. 2:3), because I truly understand myself? Is this the life of the communion of the saints for me: that in deep thankfulness to God for loving such a wretch as I am, I use my gifts for the advantage and salvation of others?

What a delightful life together (to say nothing of how God-honoring it is!) when this is the first battle we wage: to live so! What joy, when God gives us such a good beginning, that others see us not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Rom. 12:3). What safety when such perfect love casts out fear of others (I John 4). What a delightful life among the brethren when the knowledge of God’s love for us proves itself in a charity that is not puffed up, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, believes all things, bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things (I Cor. 13:4-7).

And what relief for the poor, tired believer, who has spent his life trying to find significance in himself and in things, rather than in Christ. Then the rich man who has found his way to Christ (remember: because he’s first traveled to the bottom) can truly imagine driving to church in a rust-heap, wearing an old pilled suit, or go home to a crooked, leaking bungalow, without the means to improve it…and be happy. He’s learned to sing, “And, having thee, on earth is naught that I can yet desire.” Or, retaining his riches, he can come to church and honor the poor member whom he formerly despised as “lazy.” Then the educated man will lay aside his arrogance in his degreed erudition, and use his knowledge to bless the “least” of Christ’s brethren (Matt. 25:40). Then the capable athlete will not exalt himself over the klutz, the pretty girl will humbly love the Leahs among her peers, and the successful businessman will shed his corporate conceit for humble charity.

Why? Because they have all assessed themselves according to Scripture, found themselves “wanting,” and fled together for shelter to the cross of the One “altogether lovely.” Then our winters will be past, the rain over and gone, the flowers will appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds will come, and the voice of the turtle will be heard in our land (see Song of Solomon 2:11-12).

What a faith is the Reformed faith! Lived!