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Covenantal Catholicity

By Steve M. Schlissel
July 01, 2001

Our culture cannot be recaptured for Christ unless we begin with God's objectively true calling. The task of Christian ministry is to encourage, challenge, and enable the people of God to "live lives worthy of the calling they have received" (Eph. 4:1), not to bully and berate them. It is especially important in our day when God is in the process of powerfully reinvigorating the Antithesis which had been taking a long, illicit nap to learn to address as brothers those with whom we might well share a prison cell someday.

Most denominational distinctives have as much meaning in our culture as Israelite tribal descent had to the invading Assyrians. Were you from Dan or Gad or Issachar? It made no difference to the barbarous foe intent on destroying all Jacob. Today we see humanist claws scratching for blood at Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, and Baptist throats with equal ferocity. It is Christ these humanists are after, of course, however clearly or vaguely He might be revealed in these respective groups. Our posture toward the non-Reformed mustn't be to assume they are non-Christian. To Romanists we say, "You are in the covenant, but you are not faithful to its terms." To Pentecostals we say, "You are in the covenant, but you must grow in it." To Methodists we say, "You are in the covenant, not because of your will, but despite it." To Baptists we say, "You are in the covenant, and so are your children."

There is no reason we cannot be faithful to our own denominational or traditional distinctives while recognizing that God has not confined Christianity to our corner of the vineyard. William Jay wrote, "Who can entertain too bad an opinion of popery? Yet we find a Nicol, a Pascal, a Fenelon, in that most corrupt church. Where may not God have his hidden ones?" Charles Hodge argued forcefully (and correctly) that the Roman Catholic Church is a church. In this he followed Calvin: "When we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them" (Institutes, IV, 2, 12). For "of old, certain peculiar prerogatives of the church remained among the Jews. In like manner, today we do not deprive the papists of those traces of the church which the Lord willed should among them survive the destruction. God had once for all made His covenant with the Jews, but it was not they who preserved the covenant; rather, leaning upon its own strength, it kept itself alive by struggling against their impiety. Therefore such was the certainty and constancy of God's goodness the Lord's covenant abode there. Their treachery could not obliterate his faithfulness" (IV, 2, 11).

Amen. One might have hoped that Westminster's admission that "the purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error" would have led to an inheritance of hearty humility. Though blessed with a double-portion of truth, the Reformed are not God's only offspring in Christ. Our Lord told us once about an elder brother with an attitude problem. The source was ungodly pride. There is wide variation in covenantal fidelity among God's heirs, to be sure, but rather than pout that God has included others who might live below their calling, we should help them to realize its glory. It seems to me that is what our Lord was about doing in Israel. I know that is what Paul was doing in his letters.

Christ and Covenant
Read the New Testament again and see how it consists of a real Christ for real people in a real world. Perhaps it was the crisis of the Reformation that made inclination toward abstractionism unavoidable. "My proposition is better than yours!" Anyway, somehow Christ and covenant came to be replaced by propositions about Christ and covenant. The Bible, in some quarters, would be brought into the servitude of system so that, to borrow a phrase, men were thought to be justified by faith in justification by faith, rather than by faith in Jesus. There is a difference, you know.

God's expansive covenant was, in time, reduced to "Are you saved?" The spotlight was turned inward and eventually, in some quarters, 1800 years of worldwide Christian expansion came to be replaced by "my personal experience." Covenant wherein God's grace and His people's responsibilities are equally objects of concern was eclipsed by "fire insurance."

Thomas Manton spoke well when he admonished that the task of the ministry is not to fight against ghosts and opinions antiquated, but against the sins and errors of the present time. We are not living in 1645; we have crises of our own. All of Christendom has had its head placed on the chopping block. Yet, in a remarkable display of bad timing, growing like kudzu are "ministries" devoted to declaring all Catholics, or other professing Christians, not merely in error, but altogether hell-bound. In every case these quixotic "ministries" regard themselves as the knighted guardians of the gospel upon whose shoulders the very future of Christianity in this world has come to rest. Where are those little airline bags when you need them? One pathetic yellow sheet out of New England rambles ad nauseum that not only are all Arminians going to hell, but so are all Calvinists who dare to think that Arminians could have any share in the benefits of Messiah's death. Among their targets are the "reprobates" Whitefield, Spurgeon, and Hodge.

In another corner you'll find people using the yardstick of common grace, still others exclusive psalmody, many others as we've been noting subjective experience. All this, mind you, while the church is virtually under worldwide siege by humanist states. To obsess about what, at best, amounts to a leg of the faith (usually more like a hair), while the body of the faith itself is being hoisted onto the humanist's table for consumption, is like a woman fixing her lipstick while fleeing a rapist. Yet the favorite pastime of some Reformed people seems to be enforcing quality control standards for other people's navel lint. Having been taught to doubt the grace of God in their own lives, they naturally look for reasons to doubt it in others. Too many precious lives are passed imagining that living for Christ means assuming that no one else does. So much to doubt and so little time!

A Better Way
But there really is a better way: that of the covenant. In the covenant we can maintain all the distinctives we believe honor God's revelation and His providence, while recognizing that other communions, legitimately Christian, may not see things in quite the same light that we do. This is not relativism: it is maturity. The core truths expressed in our Ecumenical Creeds one of which  (The Apostles') our Catechism calls the "summary of the undoubted Christian faith" have come to multiform expression throughout history. Often that expression has been lacking in substance, or unhealthy, or short of fully faithful all that without being wholly false. "One Lord, one faith, one baptism" does not equal one denomination or one presbytery. Instead of despising or ignoring our brothers who have not come to appreciate the beauty of the Reformed faith, we should be bearing with them, reasoning with them, modeling the faith for them. The tendency to build ourselves up by putting others down is not new: see Luke 18:11. But some Reformed have elevated it to a consummate skill. Some self-appointed defenders of the faith have even surpassed the blindest Jesuits in their refusal to hear or speak anything but shibboleths.

It is not to be wondered at, then, that Christen-dom cannot respond to today's challenges when the gauge to measure its presence is so foggy and miscalibrated. Having been told by our ministers to be unsure of our standing, we find it quite easy to be unsure of everyone else's, especially those from other streams. To quote Jay again:

[W]e are far from undervaluing divine truth. It is a good thing that the heart be established with grace. But it is impossible for us to say how much ignorance, and how many mistakes may be found, even in the Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile. How little did Peter know of the most important of all subjects, when our Savior pronounced him blessed: and said he was a partaker of divine illumination! We extend this even to congregations and communities. There may be individuals in them, wiser than their teachers; and no strangers to communion with the God of all grace.

Fans of the Faith
Ours is a day to fan, not quench, embers of faith in Christ, however feeble they may be. We appreciate the approach of the Rev. Dr. J. Douma who encourages people who "sigh because of their lack of love for God. They know of others who maintain a very personal bond with God, something which they miss. God is far away for them and they do not know how they can obtain and maintain a bond of love with the sovereign God." Many are the "Reformed" preachers who would place such a concern under the microscope of self-examination. But Dr. Douma wisely counsels, "Love for God has its own forms of emotionality. And for us that emotionality is not going up into the loved One because He lives in unapproachable light which we cannot penetrate. But we can and may penetrate into His works as they have occurred under the clouds, above all in the work of Jesus Christ. Therefore God is not strange but we love Him. Whoever can sing with conviction a song of thanksgiving to God, should not worry about whether he really loves Him" (Nederlands Dagblad, January 9, 1999; cited in Lux Mundi, June, 1999).

It is something to be regarded with astonishment that the one thing Jesus said would mark His church love failed to make it as one of the three "marks" we Reformed say indicate the "true" church. Three chances to spell it right and we missed! It is high time to revisit this. The Reformed faith must be propagated. We have failed to reproduce abundantly in our generation because we have become incestuous. Far from knowing how to win non-Reformed, we don't even know how to address them! The result is seen in congregations so clean they are, well, sterile. When Jesus said that they'll know we are Christians by our love, He didn't have in mind the doctrine of love, but its exhibition. We'll see our faith embraced by others when we model it, when we live it with heart and hand and voice. That's what covenant is about: the living faith. Our faith is hearty enough for the streets. It thrives in the light. Too many want to confine the Reformed faith to the Museum of the Holy Proposition rather than see it lived in a breathing covenant community. Museums, however pretty, testify only to what is past and done. But the Word of God is alive and active.


Topics: Creeds, Reformed Thought, Church, The

Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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