Previous article in this series: April 1, 2016, p. 292.
5. Church and world: dual citizenships
Controversy about the Christian life becomes very sharp when we speak of living in both church and world. To be Reformed is to have a unique view of the Christian life, and that view includes a clear vision of how to relate to both church and world. The importance of clear thinking here is especially true in these days when, in Reformed circles, the vision of the Christian’s place in these spheres is “shifting.”
We spoke of church already in connection with the third of the five “C”s in “What It Means To Be Reformed.” But the church needs emphasis again here, even if briefly, as we look at the Reformed Christian life.
When the Reformed Christian’s spiritual GPS asks him to assign an address for “Home,” he enters “Church.” Membership in and life in a true church is the starting point and ending point of his existence. The center of his life is the church—the church as institute. Although he has many interests in the world and a multitude of responsibilities, these interests and responsibilities all trace their significance back to his membership in the church.
What demands that he make the church central is his union with Christ. Christ Himself makes the church central. He ascended into heaven “that He might appear as head of His church,” as the Heidelberg Catechism says. God “put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church,” as Paul teaches in Ephesians 1. “The church He loveth well,” the Psalms teach us to sing. For the Reformed Christian, no minimizing of church is permissible. Hold that thought.
In the world… but not of the world
Reformed Christians also live in, and have a citizenship in, the world. They are citizens in a particular country and reside in an earthly community where not all are Christians. They have responsibilities there. They do not flee the world, Anabaptist-fashion, but live as productive citizens in it, engaging freely but cautiously in all its dimensions. They seek an occupation that fits their gifts, study to advance understanding in science and the liberal arts, and delight in good music and arts. In other words, they live broadly as productive citizens with a view to the welfare of the community. Part of that life is submitting to the magistrate. Reformed Christians usually cast votes for their leaders and, if necessary, write letters of concern to the powers that be. Some will sign petitions to keep a business closed on Sunday, or to bar from the neighborhood a so-called Gentlemen’s Club, an abortion clinic, or a casino. Others will join with fellow citizens—of course, in a manner that does not compromise their Christian principles—to oppose evils like abortion, or do good for the community or nation in which they live. They are citizens of an earthly country.
There is a real danger that we Reformed Christians belittle or even shun these components of the Christian’s existence, huddle in a little corner, and avoid contact with the world. There is a history of Christians making this mistake, and we must not repeat it by an unbiblical understanding of antithetical living. Living antithetically does not mean physical separation from the world. Healthy Reformed Christians grasp the teaching of the Belgic Confession’s Article 36, and appreciate its reference to I Timothy 2’s call to pray for rulers. And even if they do reject the new, but common and foolish, interpretation of—that Babylon must somehow be transformed by our efforts and even become the friend of the church—they also properly understand Jeremiah’s call to seek the peace of today’s “Babylon.”
But if world-flight is a danger for some, for others there is a danger of loving this world, adopting the attitude of a “permanent resident” instead of “pilgrim and stranger.” Reformed Christians today are bombarded with calls to live by “Word and deed” (less and less “Word” and more and more “deed”). Some of these calls imply too much interest in this life and too little interest in the life to come. This is the “shifting vision” of the Christian life I referred to earlier, and explains the improper exegesis of Jeremiah 29, promoted by Neo-Calvinists who seem to dominate Reformed thinking in the twenty-first century.1
The Reformed vision of the Christian life—old-Calvinism, original-Calvinism—remembers what Calvin said: Christians ought to have a contempt for the present life and be busy meditating on the life to come. “…either the world must become worthless to us or hold us bound by intemperate love of it” (Institutes: 3.9.2). Hyperbole or not, these are not sentiments that appear in Neo-Calvinist writings.
Neo-Calvinism’s vision of the Christian life more and more shrinks the church institute and magnifies the world. Their new refrain is familiar by now: Transform society! Renew communities! Indeed, use the church (as organism) to accomplish this! But what is important, in the end, is not the church—merely a “sign of the kingdom”— but the world, which we will transform into the kingdom of God!
In the old Reformed view, the world served the church. The “shifted vision” has the church serving the world. We must opt for the old view. It is confessional, biblical, and has history on its side. The old view has a clear understanding of the Christian’s place in the church (member!) and world (stranger!).2
Be ready to suffer
Christians suffer for many reasons. God’s good providence leads us into suffering for our spiritual growth—sufferings of illness and loss, heavy disappointments and blackest sorrows. God the Father sends evils upon us, and turns them to our spiritual advantage (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 26). Calvin spoke of three essential ingredients for Christians to grow: the Word, prayer, and suffering.
But there is also a suffering that comes from being in the world.
If Christ’s church is your priority and the world is not your home, Christian living will be costly and very painful. Because most citizens of this world have no love for the church, their animosity will be strong toward Christians who devote their lives to the church instead of the world. Consider: if Christians can, but will not, use their means to feed the world’s multitudes and heal the world’s sick, transform communities and advocate social justice, they will be drummed out of the city just as Jesus was when He refused to do these very things. He could have. Jesus had the power to feed everyone, the ability to heal all the sick. He would have been able even to throw off the yoke of Rome’s unjust oppression. But He would not, because of the nature of His kingdom. And because He would not, they crucified Him. So consider again: if Jesus would return today and refuse again to focus on these social issues, the false church would hang Him with as much animosity and disgust as they did 2,000 years ago.
Jesus told His disciples, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you” (). That is, be ready and willing to suffer for living the Christian life in the world but not of it, a stranger in it. Be assured that God will use the suffering to teach us many good things. He has before. That’s why Luther once quipped, “Suffering is the best book in my library.” He meant it. He knew it by experience.
6. Past, present, and future
The sixth “satellite” that guides us in the Christian life we label Time. That is, the signals sent from this “satellite” to our spiritual “GPS” give believers a good understanding of the past, of the present, and of the future. We cannot know how to behave in the present without asking how our spiritual ancestors behaved in the past. At the same time, what we do today has everything to do with our hopes for the future. If we forget the past, we become fools in the present. But if we have misdirected hopes, matters are no better because we work for the wrong goal.
Here, one can draw a straight line from the Christian life to one’s eschatology (the doctrine of the end times). Neo-Calvinists must admit that their hope for world-transformation is a form of post-millennialism, the old but ever-recurring error that promises a future Golden Age on this earth and pins man’s hope on this world. The old error appears as persistently and as annoyingly as “Whac-a-mole.” It keeps popping up even if in different forms. It steers man’s hope away from heaven to earth. It makes him earthly-minded.
If Christian children will live properly in the present, let them “learn from history.” So says Psalm 78, exhorting Christians to pass in tradition from father to son what God did in the past. But at the same time that Christians learn history, they are forward-looking. They fix their eyes on the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. That makes them heavenly minded.
“I believe an holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The ancient creed might not address our relation to this world, but it certainly helps us focus on what is most important. And it is not this life.
7. An all-comprehensive embrace
We label the seventh in our system of “satellites” that direct believers in Christian living “An All-Comprehensive Embrace.” That title is our reminder that the Christian life lays claim to every area of life, and from birth to death. It extends to my work and my play, to my public life and my private life. The Christian life is not merely church membership and Sabbath observance. It does not claim my work and then leave out my play, or regulate my public life but ignore what I do in private. Christ my Lord is Master of everything. Every square inch of this creation is His. So is every little millimeter of my life.
With body and soul, both in life and death, I am not my own, but belong to Jesus. I love and serve God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. Whether I eat or drink or whatever I do, I do it with an eye on God’s glory. From birth to death, in every dimension. There is no “neutral zone” where man reigns sovereignly, no area of our life about which God says, “That’s your business, not mine.” My life is God’s.
The signal sent from this satellite must not be received wrongly, though. But it has been. Badly at times. Some have heard this “all things” embrace and concluded that Christians have no freedom. Or no freedom to make their own choices and decisions. Or no freedom to make choices and decisions different from their Christian neighbor. This wrong view of the Christian life supposes that if we all do our spiritual calculus properly, we will all come to the same decisions with regard to the smallest details of life.
This thinking smothers Christians. It robs them of their liberty in Christ. This subject really warrants an entire article. Here, at the least, it deserves mention. No one may command you how to vote, whether or not to marry, or whether or not to “carry.” You are free to vacation or take retirement, or to refrain from both. Where the Word of God does not give specific direction, you are free to use and enjoy, or to decline to use and enjoy many things. To lose this dimension of Christian living is to lose my liberty in Christ—an essential element of the gospel itself.
Yes, I make all my decisions with an eye on God and His law, the God who lays claim to everything about me. And I will serve Him because I love Him.
8. An earnest desire for more
The last biblical truth that directs us in Christian living—our eighth satellite—is that we must always be pressing forward, going higher, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We may never be satisfied with the status quo in our life. “Further up and further in” is the way C.S. Lewis put it.
“More and more” is the language of the Reformed confessions, by my count at least nine times! David wants to “praise God more and more” (). Paul urges the Philippians that their love “abound more and more” ( ), and warns them never to suppose they have attained ( ). Paul had taught the Thessalonians about the Christian life, how they “ought to walk and to please God.” Now he presses them to “abound more and more” in it ( ). We aim at this increase with confidence, believing that the Lord Himself will “increase you more and more” ( ), because He wills to bring us “from glory to glory” ( ).
In the end—and here we come back to the beginning and center of it all—love for our Lord who loved us, who married us, and who owns us—love for Him will make us ask, What progress have I made in the Christian life? Every day anew, and every year again, how may I grow closer to Jesus Christ, whose I am, and whom I serve? I am a Reformed Christian.
1 A noteworthy exception at Calvin Theological Seminary, one of the centers of Neo-Calvinist thinking, is Calvin Van Reken’s 2003 convocation address entitled “The Shifting Vision of the Christian Life.” Later published as “Christians in This World: Pilgrims or Settlers,” in Calvin Theological Journal 43 (2008): 234-56, it is a bold corrective of the errors inherent in Neo-Calvinism.
2 For a lengthier explanation of the prevalence of Neo-Calvinism in Christian colleges, see my “A (Sharp) Pastoral Warning to Students in Christian Colleges,” beginning October 1, 2010 (SB, vol. 87, 4).