The question is not, “Who makes a church Reformed?” The answer to this question would be, “the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” By his Spirit, Jesus Christ himself, who is the head of the church (Eph. 5:23), creates a group of believers and their children as his body in a certain place at a certain time in connection with qualified men as elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3). As the creation of Jesus himself, this congregation preaches the pure gospel of holy scripture, administers the sacraments rightly, and exercises Christian discipline upon the unfaithful, the disobedient, and the impenitently unholy (Belgic Confession, Article 29).
But the question is, “What makes a church Reformed?” The sense of the question is, “What are the characteristics of a church that is truly Reformed, especially in view of the sad fact that there are many churches that call themselves ‘Reformed’ (or Presbyterian) that are not, in fact, Reformed at all, or that are departing from those truths, or losing those characteristics, that make a church truly Reformed?” The question has enormous practical importance in light of the fact that the young readers of this magazine, like many others, have the calling from God to be members of a Reformed church.
The question that is the title of this article, and therefore this article, are of urgent practical significance because there are such churches—many of them—and there are such developments—many of them—in our day. One result is that members of these churches, especially the young people, are being deceived. They suppose that they are members of a Reformed church when, in fact, they are not. Members of churches where these developments are taking place ignore the falling away of these churches from that which makes them Reformed simply because these churches continue to carry the name “Reformed.”
Doctrinal According to the Confessions
What makes a church Reformed, first and foremost, is that it faithfully preaches and teaches (including the content of its writings) the truths of the Bible as these truths are expressed and summarized in the three confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt (or, for Presbyterians, the Westminster Standards). So vitally important is faithfulness to the confessions in a church’s teaching for making and keeping a church Reformed that the Reformed churches bind all their officebearers by a solemn oath to embrace the creeds, and never to teach contrary to them. The young people who read this article ought to take this opportunity carefully to read the document that binds ministers, elders, and deacons to the creeds: the Formula of Subscription in the back of the Psalter.
But it is also possible, and, in fact, is a reality today, that a church has its officebearers sign the Formula of Subscription without enforcing its requirements. In this case, the minister is allowed to preach (and write) contrary to the confessions. The elders and the entire congregation (which also is responsible for the preaching and writing) do not discipline the minister for his heretical preaching and writing. In view of the heavy emphasis of the confessions on the doctrine of salvation by God’s grace alone, without the will and works of the sinner, an important example of this departure (apostasy) of a church that has the name “Reformed,” indeed the most important example that I could adduce, is that ministers teach that salvation is conditional, that is, dependent upon the sinner; or that God is gracious in Jesus Christ to everyone and offers salvation to everyone in the sincere desire to save all humans (which necessarily implies that the salvation of a sinner is the act of the sinner himself); or that justification is by faith and by the sinner’s own works.
A church that teaches that salvation is partly the work of the sinner himself, or that salvation depends in part on the sinner, and a church in which the elders and congregation permit such teaching, is no Reformed church at all, regardless of the name on the bulletin. It is Arminian (see the Canons of Dordt 2, error and rejection 3).
When a young person is deciding his or her church membership, he or she must decide on the basis of the church’s proclaiming and confessing the doctrines of the gospel of grace. Only then is the church a Reformed church, and only then will the person be Reformed in membership.
There is still another criterion in regard to sound doctrine. This is that a church preaches and teaches sound doctrine at all, and condemns false doctrine as she does so. It is possible that, although a church does not teach false doctrine, it nevertheless fails to teach sound doctrine. The minister declines to teach doctrine in his sermons. All his sermons are “practical”: how to live, especially how to live in love for the neighbor. The minister has made up his mind that he will not be a doctrinal, but a “practical,” preacher.
A church is Reformed only if the preaching is doctrinal. If the preaching is only “practical,” Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, that church is not Reformed. The gospel of Jesus Christ, as rightly proclaimed by a Reformed church, is doctrinal. Because it is doctrinal, it also necessarily is polemical, that is, it exposes, condemns, and warns against false doctrines, especially those that threaten the church at the present time. Refusal to be polemical is not the manifestation of love on the part of a peace-loving minister. It is the symptom of the despising of the doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
My seminary professor, Herman Hoeksema, once exclaimed, “What the church needs, in the first place, is doctrine; what it needs, in the second place, is more doctrine; what it needs, in the third place, is still more doctrine.” Although he was referring explicitly to the church that deposed him for defending the gospel of grace, what he said applies to all churches always: the church needs, the church is founded upon, the church lives by doctrine. And without doctrine, the genuine practice of the members of the church withers away and dies. At best, it becomes mere morality, a kind of Pharisaical outward show.
The church needs sound doctrine in the catechism classes. You young people must be thoroughly taught doctrine especially in the class of “Essentials of Reformed Doctrine.” Such teaching makes a church Reformed in the future. By her minister, the church must apply herself to the teaching of doctrine in this class, both by his thorough preparation and by his lively teaching. The young people must attend this class as though their life and the life of the church depended on it. They do.
Machen on the Doctrinal Church
In his classic book, Christianity & Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen demonstrated that the fundamental difference between Christianity—not simply Reformed, or Presbyterian, Christianity, but Christianity—and unbelieving liberalism is that Christianity is doctrinal, whereas liberalism is practical—all about “Christian living.” “Christianity is…life, not a doctrine,” says the liberal. Responds the Christian: “Christian doctrine lies at the very roots of faith.”
In a new biography of another orthodox theologian who, with Machen, opposed the unchristian liberalism in the Presbyterian church in the early 1900s, the author describes the main thinking of the liberals this way: “Christianity [is] a life and not a doctrine” (Geerhardus Vos, by Danny Olinger, 2018, 238). Liberals in the church despise and oppose sound doctrine because they are enemies of Christianity.
The liberal theologian preaches “the modern exaltation of ‘life’” at the expense of “doctrine.” He is fond of attacking emphasis on doctrine as “dead orthodoxy.”
“[This non-doctrinal] liberalism is not Christianity.” This is a warning that all “conservative” Reformed churches need to hear as much today as they did in the early 20th century.
In defending Christianity as doctrinal, Machen argued that Christianity is also necessarily “polemical”—something that liberalism despises, denies, and opposes with a passion. “Truth cannot be stated clearly at all without being set over against error…A large part of the New Testament is polemic.”
As I have already suggested, what makes a church Reformed is also church discipline. This is the excommunication in various stages of those who teach false doctrine and who fail to live the holy life that sound doctrine produces.
If a church tolerates heretics or young people who openly, impenitently fornicate (by “shacking up”), this church is not Reformed, even though it excuses itself by appealing to its love for the minister or for the young people who are living together outside of marriage. The obvious truth about such a church is that it does not love God. Does it need to be said? A church that does not love God is not Reformed.
With reference once again to the life and history of Machen, the “liberal” church does not refuse to exercise discipline altogether. It does discipline. It disciplines J. Gresham Machen and those who like him uncompromisingly confess the truth of the gospel, condemning false doctrine, and who expose the liberal church’s other evils.
Observance of the Sacraments
A Reformed church has the highest regard for Christ’s two sacraments: baptism, by which those (elect) who are baptized are united to Christ, and the Lord’s supper, by which believers feed on Jesus Christ.
One aspect of a Reformed church’s high regard for baptism is its urgent calling of the parents to rear their baptized children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord Jesus (Eph. 6:4). This includes the church’s preaching and the elders’ exhorting the Christian school according to Article 21 of the Reformed Church Order of Dordt: “The consistories shall see to it that there are good Christian schools in which the parents have their children instructed according to the demands of the covenant.” A Reformed church is covenantal in that it confesses and holds dear the establishment of the covenant with the children of believers. The extension of the covenant with the children carries with it the calling of a distinctive, Christian upbringing of the children in “good Christian schools.”
An aspect of the Reformed church’s high regard for the sacrament of the Lord’s supper is the church’s opening up the sacrament to her young people, or converts for the matter of that, only by way of a credible (doctrinal!) confession of faith. In regard to confession of faith also, there can be weakness today on the part of consistories. The minister and elders concentrate on the young person’s life and conduct, minimizing his or her knowledge of and commitment to sound doctrine. But confession of faith is confession of faith. Doctrine is primary. A Christian life is important, but as the fruit of a faith that is doctrinal.
A Reformed church bars from the Supper any member who publicly lives an ungodly life (see Article 76 of the Church Order of Dordt). This is the exercise of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31). A church that refuses, or neglects, to discipline members who go on impenitently in public sin, but allows them to partake of the Supper, thus corrupting the holy Supper of the Lord, is no Reformed church, regardless of its name and reputation. On the contrary, it has every reason to doubt whether it is a true church of Jesus Christ.
This is the description, however brief, of a Reformed church. These qualities make a church Reformed in reality.
Young person, if your congregation shows these spiritual characteristics, you may not leave it.
If your church lacks these marks, you may not remain in it.
Originally published June 2020, Vol 79 No 6