A True Christian Asceticism?

I would like to present some ideas in response to Prof. H. Hanko’s article, “Anthony and the Ascetics” (The Standard Bearer, June 1, 1990). Why in our age which is so obviously carnal is it not time to advocate that we seek a more ascetic, “other-worldly” life-style in order to keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)? We should listen to I Timothy 6:3-11: “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God,flee these things….”

I understand that obedience to these words is not to be achieved simply by selling our properties and businesses, giving everything to the poor, and living meagerly and frugally the rest of our days (although I could conceive that for some this might be the only way to rid themselves of the snare of riches). Certainly, we should not try to live like “cavemen” or “flagpole-sitters.” But how many of us are truly living according to this Word of God in I Timothy? Just because Anthony and others have gone to extremes in “fleeing these things,” should we condemn the whole idea of asceticism?

My dictionary defines an ascetic as “a person who leads a life of contemplation and rigorous self-denial for religious purposes.” The root meaning seems to be that of exercise. For me, therefore, true Christian asceticism is an earnest striving for godliness, i.e., crucifying our flesh (Gal. 5:24) and being crucified to the world (Gal. 6:14).

These things are accomplished in us by God by a continual, painful process of conscious struggle. This constant, often painful exercise of struggle is absolutely essential in our salvation. Without it we are on the broad way to destruction. To be constantly fleeing from that broad way, in order to find the narrow way of life, is to be constantly engaging in a spiritual form of “world-flight.”

Should we not reevaluate our attitude toward “asceticism”?

I would like to have one of our ministers or professors present a detailed discourse on the scriptural teaching concerning fasting and its spiritual benefits.

John Hilton

Edgerton, MN

Response

Rev. G.M. Ophoff, in the syllabus we used in Seminary on Ancient Church History, writes concerning asceticism as follows:

Asceticism is from the Greek askeoo, to exercise, to strengthen through exercise. By the heathen the term was used for gymnastic exercises but by the fathers of the early church, of moral self-discipline. Yet it would be a serious mistake to define asceticism simply as moral self-discipline. For moral self-discipline—the mortification of members which are upon the earth, the crucifixion of the works of the flesh—is a Christian duty enjoined by the Scriptures. It forms a part of the true conversion of man, the other part of which is the quickening of the new man, the sincere joy of heart in God through Christ, and a living according to the will of God in all good works with love and delight. Every true Christian, certainly, engages in moral self-discipline. He must, for the life of Christ that was planted in his soul, will assert itself. But the normal Christian is not an ascetic…. 

If asceticism (as it was practiced in the early church) is to be known as to its true character, its roots must be laid bare. The roots of asceticism are its motives, purpose and aims, and strivings, its dualism and its view of life in this world. These can be known from an examination of the thoroughly pagan type of asceticism as practiced by the Gnostic and Manichaean sects…. 

Asceticism, it is plain, is a pagan invention. It is based on pagan views of God, man, and the world…

Brother Hilton speaks of a Biblical “asceticism,” but fails to recognize that the asceticism as practiced by some in the early church, and which led to monasticism, is contrary to Scripture.

—Prof. H. Hanko

Appreciation

Your editorials in recent issues of The Standard Bearer dealing with “The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers” afford your readers a fresh insight into the Scriptural and Reformed (distinctively Reformed, that is) view of the Covenant of Grace.

I look forward yet to another installment in this series on the Covenant of Grace. An article that will address itself to the “other side” of this “jeweled coin” which will give expression to what is stated in the Form for Infant Baptism, “…whereas in all covenants there are contained two parts . . . .”

I may also believe from your writings that you gave your readers the “official doctrinal position” of denominations with whom you state disagreement.

Thank you for giving your readers of The SB excellent Scriptural and Reformed materials for our edification and knowledge of the truth handed down to us from our forefathers.

The Lord’s blessings to all writers of articles and readers of The SB.

Henry Doorn

Kentwood, MI

A 10-Year Old Reader

I am ten years old and I really enjoy Rev. A. denHartog’s articles in The Standard Bearer.

I especially enjoyed “Little Children Keep Yourselves from Idols” and “Fear God and Not Man” because they are so easy for young readers to understand.

Lindsey Baldwin

Charlotte, NC

A Voice from Tasmania

I write with regard to the article in your February 15, 1990 issue titled, “Committee for Contact with Other Churches,” in which it is stated, concerning the Burnie Congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, that “The saints there grew in spiritual understanding and knowledge of the Reformed faith under Prof. Hoeksema’s ministry, for they had long been without a pastor of their own. . .” From all accounts it is true that the people of the Burnie congregation greatly appreciated the ministry of Prof. Hoeksema while he was in Burnie. I wonder, though, if you are aware that Rev. A.I. Morgan, while he was a minister of the E.P.C. of A., faithfully ministered in the truths of the Reformed faith in the Burnie Congregation from May 1982 until February 1987. (Prof. Hoeksema was in Burnie from August 1988 until April 1989.) For a substantial part of that period Rev. Morgan traveled from his home in Launceston to Burnie, every weekend, to conduct morning and afternoon Lord’s day services as well as other meetings on occasions. This work was undertaken by Rev. Morgan while he was interim Moderator to the Burnie Church Session. While Rev. Morgan was never called by this congregation to be their pastor in the full sense of the word, I believe his labors there ought not to be ignored.

Please note that I do not wish, in any way, to diminish the understanding that the Burnie congregation is in need of a pastor. I should also note that Rev. R.A. Fisk was pastor of the Burnie congregation from 1978 until Rev. Morgan’s appointment as interim Moderator in 1982.

Peter W. Morgan

Lilydale, Tasmania Australia

From a Former Baptist

I would like to thank Professor Engelsma and The Standard Bearer for the thoughtful and edifying series of articles on “The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers.” I was especially pleased with the clear differentiation that was made between the Reformed and the Baptist understandings of baptism. The topic of this series is especially close to my heart as I was raised and even baptized in a Baptist church. Yet as I gradually learned and embraced the Reformed truth in discussions with Rev. J. Kortering and Rev. H. Veldman I realized the serious error of the Baptist position. I am thankful to say that these discussions amongst many others led to my confession of faith in Grandville Protestant Reformed Church.

The crucial difference between the Baptist and the Reformed conception of Baptism can be seen in how they view the impetus and efficacy of baptism. The impetus for baptism amongst Baptists is always the work of the one being baptized. Whether this be in “Arminian Baptist” circles where one must have “accepted Christ into his heart” or in the “Calvinistic Baptist” churches where in the words of Rev. W. Oosterman (Standard Bearer, July 1, 1990) that if one “understand, believes, and repents he/she is baptized and becomes a member.”

The efficacy of baptism is also dependent on the work of the one being baptized in most Baptist churches. This is why the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century baptized people again. They believed that baptism must follow regeneration to be efficacious. The practice of baptizing people more than once still occurs in some Baptist churches today. I know this because my mother was baptized twice. She was baptized once when she was twelve years old, and because she felt she had not “accepted Christ” at the time of her baptism, the Baptist church that we attended thought she needed to be baptized again. This time at the age of forty-four.

In stark contrast to the Baptist view of baptism, the impetus and efficacy of Baptism in the Reformed tradition lies solely in the Covenant that God has established with His people and His sovereign eternal decree of election. As Professor Engelsma has clearly illustrated in his articles, the impetus for baptism in Reformed Churches is the Covenant that God has established between His people and their seed. Thus in the new covenant baptism occupies the same position that circumcision did in the old covenant.

I will never forget the words of Rev. H. Veldman when we discussed these issues. He said, “The doctrine of infant baptism is one that I hold most dear. Why you might ask? I will tell you why. The doctrine of infant baptism perhaps more than any other doctrine teaches God’s sovereign election in salvation. You see, grace is not bestowed upon every child that is baptized, but only the children that are elect. What possibly could this child have done to deserve this grace? It clearly is God’s sovereign counsel that determines where grace is bestowed.” Infant baptism is a compelling enactment of our place in God’s covenant. We are not capable of doing anything to merit God’s favor. Yet through God’s eternal mercy He sees us through the shed blood of Christ. Because the efficacy of baptism lies in God’s eternal decree of election, I need not be baptized again even though I was baptized in another church under a different method of baptism.

I would like once again to thank Professor Engelsma for his excellent series of articles that clearly distinguishes a grace that is in some way earned from the Grace that is given by God in His Covenant.

Steven J. Spencer

Ann Arbor, MI