Home » Sermons » Old Testament » Deuteronomy » Ecclesia Reformata et Semper Reformanda Secundum Verbum Dei

 

Ecclesia Reformata et Semper Reformanda Secundum Verbum Dei

 

Deuteronomy 7:6-11                               Ephesians 2:1-10                                       Luke 18:9-14

(The Church Reformed and Always Being Reformed
In Accordance With the Word of God)

I: — What comes to mind as soon as you hear the word “Protestant”?   Many people have told me that they think first of protest; we Protestants engendered a protest movement, and we’ve never moved beyond a protest mentality. We exist only as we criticise someone else.

If this were the case, then Protestantism would be inherently parasitic. Parasites are creatures that can’t live on their own; they have to latch onto another creature and draw their sustenance from it.  Protestants, if protesters by definition, would forever need something to protest against or else we couldn’t survive.  Protestants, if protesters by definition, would always know what they are against but likely wouldn’t know, if they even cared, what they are for.         Protestants, if protesters by definition, would be incurable contrarians; ornery curmudgeons, chronic nay-sayers and fault-finders.

The truth is, the Latin word (always be aware that Latin is the language of the Reformation) protestare is entirely positive. Protestare means to affirm, to assert, to declare, to testify, to proclaim.  The Reformation didn’t begin negatively as a protest movement.  It began positively as an announcement, a declaration, an affirmation, a witness. There was nothing parasitic about the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century and there is nothing parasitic about the Protestant ethos now.

If protestare means to affirm, declare, testify, what are we declaring?   To what do we bear witness?

 

II: — The Reformers upheld the priority of grace in all the ways and works of God; the priority of grace in God’s approach to us and God’s activity within us.  The Reformers maintained that over the centuries the priority of grace had become obscured as the silt of theological misunderstanding gradually covered up what ought always to be at the forefront of Christian faith, understanding and discipleship.

If people today are asked what they understand by “grace”, most of them will say “God’s unmerited favour.” They aren’t wrong. But what they’ve said is more a description than a definition.  Grace, according to scripture, is God’s faithfulness; specifically, God’s faithfulness to his covenant with us; God’s faithfulness to his promise never to fail us or forsake us, never to abandon us in frustration or quit on us in disgust.

God keeps the covenant-promise he makes to us. We, however, violate the covenant-promise – always and everywhere to be his people – we make to him. We are sinners.  When God’s faithfulness meets our sin, his faithfulness takes the form of mercy. In our reading of the apostle Paul’s letters we can’t fail to notice how often he begins the letter by stating “Grace, mercy and peace to you.” Grace, as we’ve noted already, is God’s covenant faithfulness.         Mercy is God’s covenant faithfulness meeting our sin and overcoming it as God forgives us our sin and delivers us from it.  Mercy, then, is God’s covenant faithfulness relieving us of sin’s guilt and releasing us from sin’s grip.         Peace – here’s where you have pay close attention – is not peace of mind or peace in our heart (at least not in the first instance). Peace here is shalom. Paul is Jewish, and when he speaks of peace he has in mind the Hebrew understanding of shalom.  Shalom is God’s restoration of his creation, and specifically restoration of his people.         Shalom, peace, then, is simply salvation.

Crucial to the Reformation was a biblical understanding of how all this occurs.  According to scripture, God expects us to honour our covenant with him. He looks everywhere in the human creation, only to discover that he can’t find one, single human being who fulfils his or her covenant with God.  Whereupon God says to himself, “If humankind’s covenant with me is going to be humanly fulfilled (only a human, after all, can fulfil humankind’s covenant with God), then I’ll have to do it myself.”    And so we have the Christmas story as God comes among us in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the Incarnation. And then we have the Good Friday story (“God’s Friday”, our mediaeval foreparents called it) where Jesus renders that uttermost human obedience which you and I don’t render; renders that uttermost human obedience which turns out to be obedience even unto death.   And this human obedience unto death, thanks to the Incarnation, is God himself taking upon himself his own just judgement on sinners.   This is the atonement.

In the Incarnation and the atonement the covenant is fulfilled. Jesus Christ is the covenant-keeper.  You and I, sinners, are covenant-breakers.  Then by faith we must cling to Jesus Christ our covenant-keeper.  As we cling to him in faith we are so tightly fused to him that when the Father looks upon the Son with whom he is ever pleased, the Father sees you and me included in the Son.  Covenant-breakers in ourselves, by faith we cling to the covenant-keeper with whom we are now identified before God.  And that is our salvation.

Salvation is by grace alone, since God has graciously given his Son to be the covenant-keeper on our behalf. Salvation is by faith alone, since all we need do, all we can do, is embrace the Son who has already embraced us. Salvation is on account of Christ alone, since Jesus Christ is both God’s mercy pressed upon us and human obedience offered to the Father on behalf of us all.

 

To affirm that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone is to deny all forms of merit.

(i) It is to deny all forms of moral merit.  Our salvation doesn’t arise because we are morally superior to others and therefore have a claim before God that they haven’t.  Here we should recall the parable of the two men who go to the temple to pray, one a despicable creature as crooked as a dog’s hind leg, without a moral bone in his body; the other a paragon of virtue.  The moral champion boasts before God of all his moral achievements, none of which is to be doubted.  The creep, on the other hand, can only cry “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus tells us that it’s the latter fellow, the one with nothing to plead except God’s mercy – this man goes home “justified” says Jesus, where “justified” means “rightly related to God.”

(ii) It is also to deny all forms of religious merit.  Our salvation doesn’t arise from – neither is it aided by – religious observances of greater or less rigour or notoriety, as if God’s purpose were to render us hyper-religious, what psychiatrists call homo religiosus.

(iii) It is also to deny all forms of institutional merit.  Our salvation doesn’t occur because we have conformed to churchly edicts or traditions or prescriptions.

To affirm with the Reformers that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone is to recover essential truth that had gradually become silted over as century followed century.  “Nothing in my hand I bring” cries the hymn writer; “nothing – simply to thy cross I cling.”

When this gospel truth was declared people gloried in their new-found freedom.  They were freed from any and all forms of trying to placate God or curry favour with him or impress him or bribe him.  They were freed from anxiously asking themselves “Have I done enough? How will I ever know if I’ve done enough? Is my ‘enough’ good enough?” They gloried in the fact that in Jesus Christ God had done what needed to be done. Not only had God kept his covenant with humankind; in his Incarnate Son he had also kept humankind’s covenant with God. Now men and women needed only to own it in faith, thank him for it, glory in the relief it brought them and the release they could enjoy forever.  Their guilt, their anxiety, their guessing games, their insecurity – it was gone. They gloried in the freedom that God’s grace had brought them.

Either we uphold the priority of God’s grace in his way and work upon us and within us or we uphold a meritocracy of some sort, whether moral or religious or institutional, wherein we think we have to earn God’s favour, only to be left assuming that we have earned it (and now are insufferably self-righteous); or we are left assuming that we haven’t earned it (and now are inconsolably despairing.)

Grace, mercy, peace (shalom).  The priority of grace means that God’s loving faithfulness will see his people through their disobedience, through their covenant-breaking. The priority of grace means that God has pledged himself to see his people saved by his free grace for the sake of their glorious freedom before him.

 

III: — The priority of grace, continued the Reformers, entails “the priesthood of all believers.” Protestants have always been quick to speak of “the priesthood of all believers.”

I’ve been asked more than once, “If everyone’s a priest, then what’s the meaning of ordination?   Is there any place in the Protestant understanding for an ordained ministry?” Plainly there is. Before we probe what’s meant by “the priesthood of all believers”, then, we should understand the place of ordained ministry.

The ordained minister doesn’t have powers, spiritual powers, that unordained Christians lack.  To be sure, denominations customarily prescribe that it is the clergy alone who preside when Holy Communion is administered in congregational worship. We must understand, however, that this is simply to maintain order.  It isn’t the case that the clergy alone preside because the sacrament will “work” if they administer it but it won’t work if a lay person administers it. It “works” ultimately (i.e., it is a vehicle of Christ’s cementing himself ever more firmly into the believer’s life) just because Christ has pledged to give himself afresh to us, unfailingly, every time Holy Communion is administered (i.e., Christ invariably keeps the promises he makes), regardless of who administers it.   The ordained minister doesn’t have powers that others lack.

The ordained minister does have, however, a responsibility that others don’t have. Specifically, the ordained minister is essential to the church in that someone, by vocation, aptitude and study – someone has to ensure that the congregation’s understanding of Jesus Christ doesn’t drift away from that of the apostles.

The apostles are the normative witnesses to Jesus Christ. While Christ is different from James and John and Peter – that is, Christ is person in his own right and can never be reduced to the apostles – hearing and obeying Christ himself, Christ in person always takes the form of hearing and obeying the witness of James and John and Peter. In other words, we honour Jesus Christ only by honouring the normative witnesses to him.  We receive him only insofar as we receive them.  It is the responsibility of the ordained minister to see to it that the congregation doesn’t drift from the apostolic understanding of our Lord, but rather in all aspects of individual faith and congregational life the congregation conforms to the apostolic pattern of believing upon Jesus and obeying him.

Make no mistake.  Left to itself – that is, in the absence of the ordained minister – a congregation will always drift.         First of all it drifts by retaining biblical words but filling them with non-biblical meanings. Drift is underway when the word “sin” is equated with immorality.  (No one in this room is flagrantly immoral or criminal, yet everyone in this room is sinner through-and-through.)  Drift has occurred when the word “faith” is thought to mean “feeling optimistic in general.”   Drift has occurred when the word “God” comes to mean “a cosmic power in the universe that’s greater than any one of us or all of us put together.”

The next stage of drift is substituting the reading of poetry or Reader’s Digest for scripture at worship; the singing of such nonsense as “God is watching from a distance” (how could anyone endorse this drivel in light of the witness of both Testaments and the Incarnation in particular?) instead of hymns that speak of the Holy One of Israel; or as my own minister suggested one day, using juice and cookies at Holy Communion instead of bread and the cup.         Left to itself a congregation always drifts and will continue to drift until it has turned 180 degrees away from the gospel without knowing it.

Ordained ministry is essential to the church just because someone by vocation, aptitude, and study has to ensure that the congregation doesn’t drift away from what the apostle Jude calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

 

Then what is meant by the “the priesthood of all believers”?   In the Older Testament, priests are those engaged in the service of God, specifically in an intercessory service. “Priesthood of all believers” means that the congregation as a whole (first) and any Christian (thereafter) may and must engage in an intercessory service on behalf of his or her fellow-Christian.

Think of the matter of confession of sin.  In his tract The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) Martin Luther maintained that there are several forms of confession. One is what is done here Sunday by Sunday: as part of public worship the minister gathers up the people’s confession of sin and voices it before God, even as in the name of Jesus Christ the minister pronounces absolution (pardon, forgiveness) for the people.  This is a public, liturgical form of confession.

Then, said Luther, there’s a private form.  Someone visits the clergyman, unburdens herself concerning the sin she can no longer deny, and awaits the pastor’s pronouncement of absolution or pardon.

There’s one more form, says Luther: any Christian at all may hear a fellow-Christian’s confession of sin and pronounce absolution in the name of Christ.

We must be clear about this matter.  We are not dealing with psychotherapy, or at least not dealing with psychotherapy in the first instance.  We are dealing with something profounder than that, a spiritual matter of ultimate significance. The Reformers were convinced that since the Church is defined as the people of God rather than defined in terms of clergy function or clergy hierarchy; since the Church is the people of God then the people of God can hear each other’s confession and pronounce God’s pardon in the name of Christ.

This is not a devaluation of the ordained ministry. It is rather the elevation of God’s people.

The mother who overhears her child’s prayers at night and who listens to her child’s tearful repentance during the day is engaged in a priestly activity.  The board member who offers counsel to the fellow-board member who is too embarrassed to speak with the minister is engaged in a priestly service. Jean Vanier, the Canadian born to the aristocracy who has given himself to disadvantaged folk, especially men who are severely intellectually challenged; Vanier also spends much time visiting the impoverished, the sick, the confused, the forgotten geriatric patient in the back ward of a substandard facility. Vanier says that frequently he comes upon someone whose mental or bodily distress is overwhelming. All he can do in such a situation, he tells us, is put his hand on the sufferer’s head (a scriptural sign of intercession) and say “Jesus.” This too is priestly service.

Another dimension to “priesthood of all believers”: any Christian’s daily work, done as under the scrutiny of God, done with integrity, done conscientiously, done so as to give full value for compensation received; any Christian’s daily work, done so as to please God, has the same spiritual significance as the work of clergyman, monk, or nun.

I wince whenever I hear it said of someone offering herself for ordained ministry, “She has decided to enter full time Christian service.” Full time? What about the homemaker? Is her Christian service part time? Which part of the homemaker’s day is “Christian”?  God is honoured by the labourer who renders a day’s work for a day’s pay. God is never honoured by the clergyman who waits until the Saturday night hockey game is over before starting to think about what he’s going to say Sunday morning.

“Priesthood of all believers” means there are no higher callings and no lower callings.  There is no double standard of discipleship for ordained and non-ordained. There is only the integrity in the workplace that is to characterize whatever we do for a living. There is only the service we can render on behalf of a needy neighbour whose suffering is undeniable. There is only the word and truth, pardon and patience of Jesus Christ that all Christians are privileged to mirror to each other, since all of us are to be icons of our Lord to our fellow-believers.

 

The title of today’s sermon is Ecclesia Reformata et Semper Reformanda Secundum Verbum Dei – the Church reformed and always being reformed in accordance with the Word of God, the gospel. The truth is, no church, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, can coast.  All churches, all denominations, all congregations become silted over with accretion after accretion that may look like the gospel but in fact has nothing to do with the gospel; silted over, that is, until the gospel is obscured – unless – unless such congregation or such denomination is constantly being reformed in accordance with the gospel.

 

                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd      

 February 2011                                             

Central Presbyterian Church