In the almost 100 years of the PRCA’s existence we have endured trials, but none quite like the present pandemic and the consequences. For nine weeks now (May 15), churches have been unable to assemble for public worship. The initial shock has worn off, giving way to discouragement for some, frustration and sometimes anger for others. The pandemic has forced consistories to face difficult questions, not the least of which is whether this is a question of obeying God (“Assemble for worship on my Lord’s Day”) rather than man (“Stay home!”). God leads us on very unusual paths.
We may be very thankful for the care of our pastors, elders, and deacons, who have in these most difficult times given careful thought to our spiritual wellbeing. They encourage us by phone calls, visit the sick and troubled saints, determine how to meet as councils and consistories to do their work, and even engage in the essential work of discipline, which is trying in the best of times. We may be especially thankful for the elders’ calls to the minister to ‘preach the word’ in this ‘season’ (2 Tim. 4:2). Connecting to the Internet’s livestream on the Sabbath is not the kind of assembly we want, but it is a kind of assembly. It’s not the fellowship we desire, but it is a kind of fellowship. It’s not the communication of the gospel that we would describe as the regular preaching of the word, but when it is commissioned and overseen by the elders, it is the administration of the Word that has been a powerful means of grace. Thankful as we may be for this, only the most deep-seated introvert is not grieved by it all.
What is written about the pandemic in the secular press these days is a mix of helpful comment and some very noxious propaganda. What is written in the Christian press is sometimes more helpful and is what this editorial wishes to be. Here, I propose that Reformed believers can look at the present crisis in the light of Reformed theology and take lessons from all six ‘chapters’ of Reformed doctrine. Let the breadth of our Reformed faith form our thinking about, and govern our reaction to, the present distresses.
Theology (the doctrine of God): sovereignty and justice
First, God is sovereign over His creation and His providential power brought about this pandemic. All things come by God’s fatherly hand, including diseases (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10). It was not by chance that the new virus began where and when it did and spread as it did, so that the whole world comes almost to a halt, with economies ready to deflate, even collapse. Our God has “done his will…among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35), a testimony that unbelieving Nebuchadnezzar knew to make. God even controls the hearts of men, of kings and princes, even when they “act unjustly” as Guido deBres confessed when he was wickedly imprisoned (Belgic Confession, Art. 12). If deBres could confess that regarding unjust imprisonment, we may confess that God turns governor’s hearts as He turns the rivers in their courses (Prov. 21:1), even when they decree: “No public gatherings!”
It is grievous to hear Christians deny the sovereign control of God over the pandemic. As one young writer recently pointed out on the Young Calvinists blog (https://youngcalvinists.org), world-renown theologian, N.T. Wright, mocks the confession that Reformed believers make of the sovereign God who does His pleasure (Is. 46:10) in the pandemic. Wright belittles “some Christians” who “like to think of God as above all that.in charge of everything…. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.” Rev. Wright does not believe the Scriptures, for “our God is in the heavens, he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.” Wright cannot subscribe to our Belgic Confession that “nothing happens in this world without his [God’s] appointment” (Art. 12). Guilty as he is of the “damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing, but leaves all things to chance,” Wright does not have the “unspeakable consolation” that we Reformed Christians have. We confess that this sovereign God watches over us “with a paternal care.”
So are we patient in today’s adversity? If we, Reformed believers, confess that in adversity the doctrine of providence makes us patient (Lord’s Day 10), are we being patient these days? Are we praying for patience? Are we “letting patience having her perfect work” (James 1:4)?
Second, God is the righteous judge, bringing judgment upon the world’s unbelief and other sins. If nominal Christians have difficulty testifying God’s sovereign control over the virus and its repercussions, they will find it impossible to confess that the troubles are God’s judgments upon the wicked world. But the Reformed faith confesses that God is “terribly displeased with” man’s disobedience and rebellion, and punishes them “temporally and eternally” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 4). Pandemics and foolish rulers are some of them.
Unprotected by the blood of Christ, unbelievers know these troubles are God’s heavy hand of judgment against them, and precursors of worse to come in hell. They know this, for “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). But protected as we are by the blood of our Redeemer, we see these troubles as the correction of a benevolent Father. We are sure that viruses and governors are not against us, but for us.
Are we humbled by, and submitting to, these corrections? Pandemics force us to stand before the judgment seat of God. Do we see ourselves as deserving the judgments of God? Do we see ourselves as guilty or innocent? If we are innocent in Christ, are we confessing that all things are ours, because we are Christ’s (1 Cor. 3:21-23)? Why the complaints?
Anthropology (the doctrine of man): frail and fallen
It is not difficult in these days when a microorganism can bring a strong man to the intensive care unit and perhaps to the morgue to hear that humans are frail, like the grass, quickly and easily cut down. “In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth” (Ps. 90:6). “All flesh is grass…. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass” (Is. 40:6-8). If our sovereign God can bring the human race to its knees with a little virus, surely man is frail. Our God is great.
How we frail creatures of the dust, even Christians at times, like to boast of strength, of advancements, of the wisdom of humans! And how God, so effortlessly, humbles sinful pride.
None of these troubles would be among us except for our fall into sin and the resulting curse that still blankets creation. Reformed believers admit that “by sin [man] separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal [in the body]…death” (Belgic Confession, Art. 14). The suffering and death we endure today are the result of our fall in our first father, Adam. In him, we are to blame. “…in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22).
So our hope is not in medicine, which can at best prolong our life a few extra years, but in the forgiveness of sins and the gracious redemption of our bodies. United to Jesus Christ, these weak, dying bodies will be made like unto the glorious body of our Lord Jesus Christ. This corruption must put on incorruption and this mortal, immortality. Death will be swallowed up in victory! (1 Cor. 15:53, 54).
Are we duly humbled by our own frailty, our own sinfulness, our own undeservedness? Do we so love our Lord Jesus that we want to be like Him in His glorified state?
Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation): sanctification and hope
As are all afflictions, this present affliction is for our profit. By our present suffering, God works grace in us. For “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). This pandemic will last “but for a moment” (thus, we do not “faint” when burdens pile up), and while it does, it works in us “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
So the Reformed faith confesses in Lord’s Day 9, that God “will make whatever evils He sends upon me, in this valley of tears, turn out to my advantage; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing, being a faithful Father.” At every baptism, Reformed believers confess in the Form for Baptism that our Father “averts all evil or turns it to our profit.”
One great profit is God’s sanctification of us. More and more we loosen our grip on earthly things and cling to God and heavenly things, think less of this life and more of the life to come, hate the sins that plague church and world and love truth and right. Less and less we have aspirations for this side of the grave; more and more we hope for heaven. In the body we groan, waiting for our final adoption, the redemption of our bodies. “We believe…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting!”
Are you living in that hope? Have I expressed that hope to others, to help them?
“Merciful God, quicken our Christian hope and purify us through these troubles!”
Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church)
What is worship? and what is the relationship between the church and the state? are two crucial questions the people of God have been asking recently.
Regarding worship, the churches have learned that, although we have pretty definite opinions, we have not clearly codified what specifically constitutes the public worship God requires. An elder contacted me recently about this question and I responded by saying that the churches have never formally declared either all of the elements that are required in every worship service, or what conditions must be met for a service to be “official” worship. The Heidelberg Catechism indicates that on the Sabbath we have prayer, singing, preaching, sacraments and offerings; but nowhere are mandated the benedictions, doxologies, Apostles’ Creed or reading of the law.1 As to the conditions to make worship official, we have assumed that they would include 1) it is a public gathering of believers; 2) it is a call to worship by the elders; 3) there is oversight of these elders; 4) with a minister who preaches the gospel at the commission of the elders.
Neither have Reformed documents made this clear. But we have been pondering these questions, and that’s for our profit.
Even harder is the question whether the church, as an institution independent of the civil government, must comply with a government’s orders not to assemble, when the reason for the order is public safety, the physical protection of the citizens. In the relation of church to the state, the Reformed faith gives good instruction. On the one hand, when the government commands the church to disobey God, she must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). The Church Order is clear: the church “may never suffer the royal government of Christ over His church to be in the least infringed upon” by the civil authorities. On the other hand, the Reformed faith has a long history of distinguishing herself from the Anabaptists and revolutionaries, confessing that Reformed believers honor the king (I Pet. 2:17), are subject to the “higher powers” that are “ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1, 2), and pray for them (I Tim. 2:2). We submit even to ungodly authorities, patiently bearing with their weaknesses, because it pleases God to govern us by their hand (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 39). The Belgic Confession’s last article says, “Wherefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates…and confound that decency and good order which God hath established among men.”
How to apply these principles is very difficult when the government forbids public gatherings for the sake of public health. No one may lightly disobey the government’s orders when they profess to be acting for the public good. So we have been praying for wisdom for our consistories, and we submit to their rule, too, for “it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” If our consistories make judgments to assemble, in the face of apparent orders to the contrary, may they make very clear to their members why they have so decided. Is it 1) that in fact the law does not forbid churches to assemble? or, 2) that the law does not clearly forbid churches to assemble, even if it may appear to do so? or, 3) that the law does forbid our assemblies, but we must disobey a law that forbids worship? In this case, may consistories be very clear in their instructions to their members why, when the government forbids assemblies for public protection, they must still disobey. The people of God need these good explanations, with careful distinctions and, likely, an appeal to what God’s people have done in such circumstances in the past. This is especially important so that the people of God learn how to behave in the days ahead, when antichristian powers will oppress the church severely.
Which is the subject of eschatology. But space requires an end at this point. I write in the middle of May 2020. The next editorial will appear, God willing, in July. Perhaps at that point, matters will be clearer for the church. God permitting, I will write about Eschatology (the doctrine of the end times—the Antichrist) and Christology (the wonderful reality of our compassionate Christ on His throne).
1 Until 2001, the PRC’s Church Order did not even use the expression “official worship service.” And one of the formal decisions our synod made was that the reading of the law and reciting the creed were not “essential.”