Previous article in this series: March 1, 2016, p. 244.
The Christian life: how vital!
If being Reformed referred only to what a person believed, being Reformed would be hard enough. But being Reformed has to do with one’s whole life. That not only makes matters harder, it brings our discussion of “What It Means” into a whole new realm—the realm of Christian living. This explains why, in this series of editorials, instead of asking, “What is the Reformed faith?” we have asked, “What does it mean to be Reformed?” To speak only of the Reformed faith could too easily allow us, in our weakness, to think only about what Scripture requires us to believe. But to speak of being Reformed compels us to realize that the God of Christianity makes demands, not only upon our brains and tongues, but upon the entirety of our lives.
From that point of view, it is not difficult to understand why some ancient fathers, even some Reformed fathers, constructed their “dogmatics” in a very different way than we may be familiar with. We are accustomed to the formulation and order of our “Essentials of Reformed Doctrine” catechism book, which treats doctrines in this order: God, Man, Christ, Salvation, Church, and the Last Things. And though that is the order of our Belgic Confession, it is not the order of the Heidelberg Catechism. Nor was it Calvin’s approach in his exposition of Christianity in his Institutes, where he treated prayer before predestination, and described the doctrine of the Christian life as one of the essential elements of his work. Calvin integrated the teaching of the Christian life—seamlessly—into his whole system explaining Christianity.
One very different way in which some church fathers wrote their manuals of doctrine was to use the outline of the three Christian graces of Faith, Hope, and Love. In the first part (Faith), they explained the doctrines found in the Apostles’ Creed. In the second (Hope), they expounded the Lord’s Prayer and the biblical call to meditate on the future life. In the third (Love), they explained the Ten Commandments as how the Christian must love God and the neighbor. I am not proposing here that Reformed Christians follow that order in writing their systems of doctrine, although that would be a good way to test whether our understanding of Christianity is balanced. But I am suggesting that if a Christian does not give a significant place to “the Christian life” in his understanding of “What It Means to Be Reformed,” he both misses something our fathers did not miss and he forgets that the Christian faith cannot be separated from the Christian life.
“What It Means to Be Reformed” includes a proper understanding of and a genuine living out of the Christian life.1
A variety of approaches
There is more than one right way to consider the Reformed view of the Christian life. We could follow the approach of the Heidelberg Catechism in its third section, and thus explain conversion, good works, the Ten Commandments, and prayer. Or we could use Calvin’s description of a half dozen or so elements that he considers to be essential aspects of the Christian life. Luther also had his own unique and important emphases. There are probably as many ways of looking at all of the “indispensable elements” of the Christian life as there are people looking at them.
It would be most consistent in these editorials on “being Reformed” to describe the Christian life in terms of everything that we have already said about being Reformed. I mean that the Christian life must be explained from the Reformed confessions (Reformed is being “Confessional”). I mean that our explanation must be tested with the Scripture (sola Scriptura). I mean that we are to ask whether there may be depths or dimensions of the Christian life that the fathers before us missed, or that we have lost (semper reformanda). And so forth. But, in my judgment, we may not start describing the Christian life except in terms of living before the face of God, our Friend (Reformed is being “Covenantal”).
I use an analogy to describe the Reformed view of the Christian life. Finding our way in our Father’s world can be compared to using a GPS to find our way in a car. A Global Positioning System does a number of things: it fixes our present location; it finds “home;” and then, most importantly, it directs us where we need to go. At times it even warns us when we have taken a wrong turn. The GPS functions by receiving radio signals beamed down from a whole system of stationary satellites, all of the signals working together to guide us on our way.
So I suggest eight truths that, like synchronized satellites, beam down their signals to the believer’s heart and mind to guide him both in understanding and in living the Christian life. Of course, the mature Christian may launch other satellites—factor in any essential element that he judges to be missing. But I trust that these eight will give the kind of biblical guidance that will not allow the Christian to go too far off course, and direct him on paths where he will find the footsteps of his ancestors:
1. Union with Christ—the Covenant
2. The Law of God as Standard
3. The Glory of God as Goal
4. A Spiritual Attitude: Humility, Willingness, Gratitude
5. An Awareness of Space: Existence in both Church and World
6. A Sense of Time: Knowledge of both Past and Future
7. An “all things” Reach
8. A Desire for “more and more”
1. Union with Christ—the Covenant
To find our way in the Christian life, our “north star” is the reality of the covenant. We return to the beginning of our discussion of what it means to be Reformed. Reformed Christianity is “covenantal.” Christians are God’s friends and members of His family. As a Christian lives his life, he lives it as a friend of God.
This first satellite governs all the others. Without this one, none of the others can function. Through this, all the others give the right signals.
To start with the teaching of the covenant is biblical. From Adam to Noah, and Enoch to Abraham, the saints walked with God as His friends. This is the life of God’s people—to walk with Him. God’s determination has always been to walk with us. So when His people became a nation, He placed His tent at their center, as close as He could get, to show that He was their Friend. At times, God would speak in family terms: “I am your Father, and you my children” (; ; etc.) Other times, as a husband to his wife: “I am married to you” ( ). As our Friend, God tells us the “secrets” of His covenant ( ). When He does, the Christian responds, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me” ( ).
Christians live so close to God that they say, “For me to live is Christ” (). In a very real way, we may identify our life with Christ Himself. “I live,” we exclaim, “yet not I, but Christ liveth in me….” So Paul reminds us: “Know ye not that…ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: …in your body, and in your spirit [ye] are God’s” ( ). And he comforts us with the astounding testimony that “all things are ours” because “we are Christ’s…” ( ).
To start with “covenant” in describing the Christian life is also Reformed, that is, it is confessional. The Heidelberg Catechism will not launch into its exposition of man’s misery, redemption, and way of living in gratitude, until it first has the believer confess: “…I, in body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Before anything else, we say: “I belong to Christ.” Sincerely and willingly I will “live unto him.”
In a very real sense, which is not to be taken as hyperbole, everything about the Christian life is found in that simple, but profound confession: I belong to Jesus; I am not my own. Nothing about the Christian life is to be understood apart from that.
Covenant friendship explains why we pray without ceasing, study His Word regularly, attend public worship, and offer our lives as sacrifices of praise. “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (). We are the Lord’s!
If a Christian would begin every day making that confession, letting that truth sink down deeply into his soul, it would be all he needed. Everything else flows out of that. Everything. We are God’s. And He is ours. That is the covenant.
2. The Law of God as Standard for Christian Living
The second “satellite” that guides Christians in their life is God’s law. Any life may be examined by the law to determine whether it is Christian. Hold up a life to the standard of the law, and if it meets that standard, it is Christian. If it fails to measure up, to that extent it is not Christian.
But Christians are interested, not first of all in judging whether or not their lives or someone else’s life are Christian, but in asking, “How is this covenant life with God to be lived? What pleases my God who so loved me that He did not spare His own Son for my life? How must I conduct myself so that my life shows that I truly am His bride?”
Sometimes we think we give the law a very important place in our lives by saying, “Keeping the law is how a Christian shows gratitude for God’s covenant salvation.” Or, “If you know God’s covenant, you will obey the commandments to love God and to love your neighbor.” And that is something.
But it is not everything. To put it only that way is to risk thinking that “living in covenant salvation with God,” and “obeying God’s commandments,” are two separate realities. In fact, they are one.
Obeying God’s law is not how we respond to covenant life with God; it is how we live covenant life. Imagine your non-Christian neighbor asking, “How would you describe the Christian life? What does covenant life with God look like? How does the Christian life take shape?” To put the question in more intelligible, Christian form, we might ask: “When the Covenant Husband (Christ) draws His dear bride to Himself and loves her, what would you see in the privacy of their home?” The best way to answer those questions is: Read the Law of God. Open the “book of the covenant” () to read the “words of the covenant” ( ). These words describe the relationship itself of covenant love between God and His friends. Again, obedience to the law is not a response to the covenant; it is covenant life.
God’s friends have God as their God, and no other (the First Commandment). They love Him and serve Him. They know, trust, and submit to Him. They expect all good things from Him only. They love, fear, and glorify Him. All this is how our Reformed confession puts it. This is what it means to live like a Christian. This is not merely a response to some other covenant salvation; this is covenant salvation: I have God as my God!
God’s friends worship God spiritually (the Second Commandment). Their relationship with Him is not outward and formal, but inward and spiritual. Of course, graven images cannot represent God. But neither do they serve any purpose at all for spiritual fellowship with Him. They that worship Him, Jesus said, must worship Him spiritually. So God fellowships with us, the Heidelberg Catechism says, and teaches us, “not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word.” This is what it means to live Christianly. Once more, this is not merely a response to some other covenant salvation; this is covenant salvation: I live with my Friend spiritually—by the Spirit of His Son sent so that He would always be with me ().
God’s beloved bride loves His name (the Third Commandment). God’s name and reputation mean the world to Christians. They not only refuse to take His name in vain, they use His name—reflect on His works and worth. That’s “life” for them. Even in everyday life among friends, we love to use the names of the ones we love.
And so it goes with the Fourth Commandment, as God’s beloved people rest securely in His bosom, hear His gospel of peace and grace to them. We have a whole day devoted to worship of the One we love. But devotion to Him and rest in His bosom takes place not only on the special day of rest but all the days of their lives. This is covenant. This is the Christian life.
1 This understanding of the closest relationship between doctrine and life also explains why, in the history of Reformed seminary education, ethics was taught by the professor of dogmatics.