R.C. Sproul's Blog
March 24, 2017
The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) has been used so often as to make it a motto or slogan. People have used it to support a surprising array of theological and ecclesiastical programs and purposes. Scholars have traced its origins to a devotional book written by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. Van Lodenstein, no doubt, had no intention of being a phrase-maker or sloganeer. What was his intention, and what did he mean by this phrase?
Van Lodenstein was a minister in the Reformed Church of the United Provinces in what we know today as the Netherlands. This church was born of decades of faithful preaching by ministers—many educated in Geneva—who risked their lives to carry the gospel, first into the French-speaking regions of the Low Countries, and later into the Dutch-speaking regions farther north. Some ministers were martyred for their faith, but they gathered a rich harvest of committed believers. Their message of the need for the reform of the church according to the Bible resonated with many who saw the corruptions of the old church.
Under the rulers Charles V and Philip II, the government of the Low Countries made every effort to suppress the Reformed religion, which was a large part of the reason for the Dutch revolt against their Spanish overlords. This revolt (1568-1648) became known as the Eighty Years’ War, giving birth to a new state in the northern part of the Low Countries. In this new state—the Dutch Republic, also known as the United Provinces—the Reformed Church was dominant, receiving government support and becoming the church of the majority of the population by the middle of the seventeenth century.
This church subscribed to the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and had an essentially presbyterian form of government. Interference from the Protestant civil authorities of the new state limited the freedom of the Reformed Church, particularly in matters of discipline. That interference, in part, led to a crisis in the church in the early seventeenth century with the rise of Arminianism. That crisis was addressed and settled at the great international synod held in the city of Dordrecht in 1618-19. The Canons of Dort prepared at this synod became another doctrinal authority in the life of the church.
Jodocus van Lodenstein was born into a prominent family in the city of Delft in 1620. He was educated by two of the most distinguished Reformed professors of the day: the scholastic and pietist theologian Gisbertus Voetius of Utrecht and the covenant theologian Johannes Cocceius of Franeker. While being personally friendly with both theologians, he was more influenced by Voetius. Voetius stressed both precise theology and Christian living. Van Lodenstein was called to serve as a pastor in Utrecht, where he ministered from 1653 until his death in 1677. As a pastor, he always encouraged the faithful to disciplined, vital Christianity.
Van Lodenstein was an inheritor of a body clearly and fully reformed according to the Reformed or Calvinistic interpretation of the Bible. The Calvinists often described their vision of the church in three categories: doctrine, worship, and church government. In all three of these areas, the Dutch Reformed Church was thoroughly Calvinistic, similar in most ways to Calvinistic churches throughout the rest of Europe.
No church’s life is ever static, however, and van Lodenstein certainly saw some changes in his lifetime. In doctrine, for example, Reformed theologians were developing a covenant theology that would give great insight into both the structure of the unfolding revelation of the Bible and the work of Christ. Most Reformed Christians have seen this as a real theological advance. Van Lodenstein also saw the increasing use of the organ in public worship in the Reformed churches in his time. He knew the debates as to whether this change was a reformation or a deformation in the worship of the church. Are these the kinds of changes that he had in mind when he wrote about a church reformed and always reforming?
The answer to this question is no. Van Lodenstein was not thinking about adjustments and improvements to the church’s doctrine, worship, and government. These matters of external reform had been absolutely necessary when the Reformers accomplished them in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But for Calvinists like van Lodenstein, they had been definitively accomplished and settled. He was not contemplating the value of relatively minor changes. He was not a man of later centuries who believed progress and change were necessary and good in and of themselves. He believed the Bible was clear on the foundations of doctrine, worship, and government, and that the Reformed churches had reformed these things correctly. In this sense, reform was a return to the teaching of the Bible. The Reformers had gotten these things right, and they were settled.
The great concern of ministers like van Lodenstein was not the externals of religion—as absolutely important as they are—but rather the internal side of religion. Van Lodenstein was a Reformed pietist and part of the Dutch Second Reformation. As such, his religious concerns were very similar to those of the English Puritans. They all believed that once the externals of religion had been carefully and faithfully reformed according to the Word of God, the great need was for ministers to lead people in the true religion of the heart. They saw the great danger of their day not as false doctrine or superstition or idolatry, but as formalism. The danger of formalism is that a church member could subscribe to true doctrine, participate in true worship in a biblically regulated church, and yet still not have true faith. As Jesus had warned against the Pharisees of His day, citing the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).
The part of religion that always needs reforming is the human heart. It is vital religion and true faith that must be constantly cultivated. Formalism, indifferentism, and conformism must all be vigorously opposed by a faithful ministry.
Van Lodenstein and those who stood with him believed that the Canons of Dort presented a vision of true religion like their own. In the battle against Arminianism, one of the great issues had been the doctrine of regeneration. In sixteenth-century Reformed theology, theologians used regeneration as one of several synonyms for sanctification. So, for example, Article 24 of the Belgic Confession could state that we are regenerated by faith. But in the struggle against the Arminians, regeneration took on a more technical meaning, referring to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in planting the new life in the soul that is necessary for faith. This new use of regeneration explained how faith was a gift of God, not the work of human free will. But it also explained how Christians were, by the grace of God, able to live a new life, pursuing holiness. The Canons of Dort declared:
When God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.
This doctrine of regeneration was used, then, to stress the new principle of life in the Christian and the need for that new life to be lived out. The Christian needed to eschew formalism and live out his faith in the daily struggle against sin, finding rest and hope in the promises and Spirit of God.
So what did van Lodenstein mean by his famous phrase reformed and always reforming? Probably something like this: since we now have a church reformed in the externals of doctrine, worship, and government, let us always be working to ensure that our hearts and lives are being reformed by the Word and Spirit of God. Whatever other meanings may be made of this phrase, this original meaning is well worth pondering and preserving.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.
March 23, 2017
It's time for our weekly $5 Friday sale. This week's resources include such topics as the atonement, the Gospel of Mark, the Christian life, the sacraments, truth, ethics, Psalm 51, the hard sayings of the Bible, and more.
Sale runs through 12:01 a.m. — 11:59 p.m. Friday ET.
Delaying adulthood is not consistent with a biblical vision of life, and for most young Christians, marriage should be a central part of planning for young adulthood and faithfulness to Christ. As husband and wife achieving adulthood together, young Christians serve as a witness of God’s plan and God’s gift before a confused world.
March 22, 2017
On March 8-10, 2018, we will gather in Orlando for our 31st annual National Conference. We will consider the way the Lord brings about awakening so that we might be used by God to be the means of a new awakening today. Watch the trailer below.
R.C. Sproul will be joined by Rosaria Butterfield, Kevin DeYoung, Sinclair Ferguson, W. Robert Godfrey, Steven Lawson, Albert Mohler, Stephen Nichols, Burk Parsons, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Derek Thomas for three days of encouragement and edification. We invite your whole family to join us as children ages 17 and under may register for free with a paying adult. There are also opportunities for additional discounts and scholarships.
Every time I read the Gospels, I am struck by how Jesus seems to have found Himself in the middle of controversy wherever He went. I am also struck by how Jesus handled each controversy differently. He did not follow the example of Leo “The Lip” DeRosier, the former manager of the New York Giants and treat every person He encountered in the same manner. Although He expected everyone to play by the same rules, He shepherded people according to their specific needs.
The Old Testament depicts the Good Shepherd as One who carries both a staff and a rod, for His responsibility is both to guide His sheep and to protect them from ravenous wolves (Ps. 23:4). In the Gospels, we see Jesus exercise His protective rod most often against the scribes and Pharisees. When Jesus dealt with these men, He asked no quarter and gave none. When He pronounced the judgment of God on them publicly, He used the oracle of woe that was used by the Old Testament prophets: “Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte [convert], and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).
Jesus dealt with many of the religious leaders of His day so forcefully because of their hard-hearted hypocrisy. Other people who were cognizant of their sin and ashamed of it—these He addressed with love and encouragement. Consider the woman at the well (John 4). Jesus sat and talked with a Samaritan woman, which was unheard of for a Jewish rabbi in those days because of common biases against women and Samaritans. He patiently drew a confession of sin out of her and revealed His Messianic office to her. Jesus treated her as a bruised reed and smoldering wick, tenderly confronting but not crushing her (Matt. 12:15–21).
Among many other things, I think Christ’s example teaches us how we are to deal with those with whom we disagree. Sometimes we must be forceful and sometimes we must be gentle—forceful with the wolves and gentle with Jesus’ lambs.
There are disagreements we have with our brothers, but also disagreements we have with those who claim to be our brothers but who may, in fact, be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such wolves always represent a clear danger to the safety, health, and well-being of Christ’s sheep. No quarter can be given to wolves, but we are called to exercise gentleness toward those whose disagreements with us do not touch the heart of Christian orthodoxy.
To know the difference between when to be gentle and when to be forceful is one of the most difficult matters for mature Christians to discern. I don’t have a formula that is easily applied, but I do know that we are always called to deal with the disputes and disagreements we have on the basis of charity, that is, love.
Charity and Its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards is the deepest exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 that I know of. I’ve read it at least half-a-dozen times, probably more. In this work, Edwards writes:
A truly humble man, is inflexible in nothing but in the cause of his Lord and master, which is the cause of truth and virtue. In this he is inflexible because God and conscience require it; but in things of lesser moment, and which do not involve his principles as a follower of Christ, and in things that only concern his own private interests, he is apt to yield to others.
The humility of which Edwards is speaking here is a humility that must be brought to every disagreement that erupts among believers. It is a humility that brings to the fore what in church history many have called the judgment of charity. The judgment of charity works something like this: When we disagree with one another, I believe that we are called as Christians to assume the motives of the person with whom we disagree are pure motives. This is the approach we are to have with those with whom we have an honest difference in biblical interpretation but who love the Bible and aren’t trying to change what it teaches. Such people are unwilling to compromise the essential truths of the Christian faith.
Now, the judgment of charity assumes in a Christian dispute that the brother or sister with whom we are disagreeing is disagreeing honestly and with personal integrity. Here I think of my friend John MacArthur. If I disagree about something with John—I don’t care what it is—and we go to the mat and talk about it, John will change his position—no matter the cost— if I can persuade him that the Bible teaches my view and not his. That’s because what he wants more than anything else is to be faithful to the Word of God.
That’s what I mean by the judgment of charity. We don’t impugn people’s motives and don’t assume the worst of them when we disagree with them. We make a distinction between best-case and worst-case analysis. The problem we all have as sinners on this side of glory is that we tend to reserve best-case analysis to our own motives and give worst-case analysis to our brother’s and sister’s motives. That’s just the opposite of the spirit we’re called to have in terms of biblical humility.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.
March 21, 2017
Conventional wisdom says at least 1,500 pastors hang it up every month. I doubt the situation is that dire. Still, many ministers of the gospel are blue not just on occasional Mondays but constantly. They feel underpaid and overstretched, discouraged if not depressed. They say they no longer hear the music of God’s love. They’ve had their fill of crises, conflicts, and complaints. Their bodies may be in the pulpit, but their hearts no longer beat with gospel enthusiasm.
March 20, 2017
Time is running out to secure the $50 early-bird discount for our regional conference in Los Angeles, California on June 9-10, 2017, We’re calling this conference, “Discovering the God of the Bible.” Together with W. Robert Godfrey, Michael Horton, John MacArthur, and Stephen Nichols, we will consider the mercy of God, divine sovereignty, the love of God, the holiness of God, and other topics.
We invite your whole family to join us in Los Angeles as children ages 17 and under may register for free with a paying adult. There are also opportunities for additional discounts and scholarships.
The early-bird discount ends next week. Don't miss this opportunity to save $20. Register today.
Sovereign Over All by Michael Horton
Holy, Holy, Holy by Stephen Nichols
A God Merciful and Gracious by W. Robert Godfrey
None Other by John MacArthur
Panel Discussion with Drs. Godfrey, Horton, and MacArthur
Learning to Love the Psalms by W. Robert Godfrey
God Is Love by Michael Horton
The Lord Is My Salvation by John MacArthur
Learn more by browsing the conference schedule.
At a recent conference, I was asked what my favorite book of the Bible is. My initial reaction was to wonder if that was a bad question. Should we not like all of the Word of God equally? Then I thought that I should cooperate, and I asked myself what book I most often turn to and enjoy. I realized that the answer was easy. In recent years, that book has been the book of Psalms.
I was converted to Christ as a junior in high school through the ministry of a church that primarily sang the Psalms. So, for many years, I have lived with the Psalms and have come to know some things about them. But only in recent years have I found them profoundly engaging and fascinating.
Several features of the Psalms have been especially attractive to me. The first is the beauty of the language and the poetic expression of the great truths of the faith. Consider the simple words, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). How much comfort they have brought to many, many souls in distress. Or think of the promises of God’s redemption in Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (vv. 2–5). Or ponder the poignant picture of God’s remembrance of our suffering: “Put thou my tears into thy bottle” (Ps. 56:8 KJV).
The second attraction is the discovery that the more you dig into the Psalter, the more you discover. Like all great poetry, the Psalms are like a mine with ever new depths to reach and ever more gold to find. They reward abundantly whatever effort we make to know them better.
Third, there are psalms for all occasions. The Psalms do not, to be sure, make explicit reference to all the occasions for which there are Hallmark cards. But they do mark all the important spiritual moments and emotions in the lives of the people of God. As John Calvin said, “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” The Psalms teach us how to express our emotions to God in all the circumstances of our lives. Fourth, the Psalms are full of Christ. They not only explicitly prophesy the coming of Christ (e.g., Pss. 2; 22; 110), but the message of the Psalms always pulls the soul to Christ and His great saving work. As was said in the ancient church, “Always a psalm in the mouth, always Christ in the heart” (semper in ore psalmus, semper in corde Christus). The Psalms intensify our fellowship with Christ.
What I have found in the Psalms has been well known to many in the history of the church. Throughout history, the book of Psalms has been treasured by many Christians in many places. In the ancient and medieval periods, the Psalms were studied and sung very frequently, especially by monastics. The great Athanasius (296–373) said, “I believe that a man can find nothing more glorious than these Psalms; for they embrace the whole life of man, the affections of his mind, and the motions of his soul. To praise and glorify God, he can select a psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him. ”In the Reformation, the recovery of the Bible for all in the church meant also a recovery of the Psalms. Luther had learned the Psalms early as a monk and continued to love them. He called the Psalter “a little Bible,” saying, “The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly—and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom—that it might well be called a little Bible.
In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.” Among the Reformed, the Psalms were versified and sung as the songbook of the church. Those early Calvinists delighted to be able to take the words of God on their lips to praise Him. John Calvin, who supervised the versification of the whole Psalter for singing, expressed his enthusiasm for the Psalms in these words: “As calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise [of prayer] cannot be found elsewhere than in the Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.”
The followers of Calvin shared his conviction about the value. We can see that clearly, for example, in the experience of the French Calvinists known as Huguenots. As Bernard Cottret wrote, “The psalter was the French Reformation.” Those French Protestants of the mid-sixteenth century loved the Psalms and sang them eagerly, even on their way to die as martyrs. The French Huguenots found in their metrical version of the Psalms songs that “lent Calvin’s piety poetic power.” These poetic translations of the Psalms for singing in the sixteenth century helped the church again to see the power and relevance of the Psalter.
The Psalms were, however, more than inspiration and comfort for Reformed Christians. The Psalms were more even than a way to express their joys and sorrows to God in God’s own words. The Psalter explained the life they lived in relation both to the wicked who opposed them and to the God who sustained them. As the people of God, they lived in the Psalms.
This excerpt is adapted from Learning to Love the Psalms by W. Robert Godfrey.
March 19, 2017
Here are highlights from our various social media accounts over the past week.
— Ligonier Ministries (@Ligonier) March 14, 2017
A post shared by Reformation Trust Publishing (@reftrust) on Mar 14, 2017 at 12:11pm PDT
— RefBibleCollege (@RefBibleCollege) March 14, 2017
— Ligonier Ministries (@Ligonier) March 15, 2017
— Ligonier Ministries (@Ligonier) March 15, 2017
A post shared by Ligonier Ministries (@ligonier) on Mar 15, 2017 at 2:07pm PDT
Who was Saint Patrick and should Christians celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? https://t.co/Nb6Kstzi4r
— Ligonier Ministries (@Ligonier) March 17, 2017
We are pleased to announce Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas as visiting professor of theology at Reformation Bible College. https://t.co/isFNp9KaOu
— RefBibleCollege (@RefBibleCollege) March 17, 2017
Subscribe now to receive a link to each day’s trusted teaching direct to your email inbox for free. https://t.co/WeScvDzKXO
— Renewing Your Mind (@RYMRadio) March 16, 2017
March 18, 2017
Just a few years before the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England in the Mayflower, a controversy erupted in the Netherlands and spread throughout Europe and then around the world. It began within the theological faculty of a Dutch institution that was committed to Calvinistic teaching. Some of the professors there began to have second thoughts about issues relating to the doctrines of election and predestination. As this theological controversy spread across the country, it upset the church and theologians of the day. Finally, a synod was convened. Issues were squared away and the views of certain people were rejected, including those of a man by the name of Jacobus Arminius.
The group that led the movement against orthodox Reformed theology was called the Remonstrants. They were called the Remonstrants because they were remonstrating or protesting against certain doctrines within their own theological heritage. There were basically five doctrines that were the core of the controversy. As a result of this debate, these five core theological issues became known in subsequent generations as the "five points of Calvinism." They are now known through the very popular acrostic TULIP, which is a clever way to sum up the five articles that were in dispute. The five points, as they are stated in order to form the acrostic TULIP, are: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
I mention this historical event because it would be a serious mistake to understand the essence of Reformed theology simply in light of these five doctrines—the Reformed faith involves many other elements of theological and ecclesiastical confession. However, these are the five controversial points of Reformed theology, and they are the ones that are popularly seen as distinctive to this particular confession. Over the next five posts, we are going to spend some time looking at these five points of Calvinism as they are spelled out in the acrostic TULIP.
TULIP and Reformed Theology: An Introduction
TULIP and Reformed Theology: Total Depravity
TULIP and Reformed Theology: Unconditional Election
TULIP and Reformed Theology: Limited Atonement
TULIP and Reformed Theology: Irresistible Grace
TULIP and Reformed Theology: Perseverance of the Saints