In the previous issue we briefly explained what Reformed distinctives are and their importance to the individual believer and the church of Jesus Christ. By distinctives we refer to the unique doctrines and practices of the Reformed church that give it its unique character. Without distinctives, a church cannot be Reformed. Our faith would not be Reformed.
We live in an evil age where churches prefer to be less distinct in order to be more accepting of men. These churches claim that doctrinal distinction is a hindrance to the unity of the church. They assert, moreover, that we must be loving and sympathetic towards those who share a different opinion in matters of the truth. Some would go so far as to say that the individual child of God can never be certain of the truth.
Confusion is bound to reign in churches which tolerate doctrinal differences amongst her members. Where their members confess sharply opposing doctrines, an accurate understanding of God’s truth is lost. For example, on the one hand some members confess that God’s grace is common to all men. Yet at the same time others believe that God’s grace is particular only for His elect. On the one hand some claim that God’s covenant is conditional upon faith and obedience. On the other hand others maintain
that no conditions are attached to membership in the covenant. On the one hand some claim that the Christian marriage can be dissolved by lawful divorce. Yet others in the same church maintain a lifelong marriage bond. The prophet Elijah’s question comes to them forcefully, “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow Him.” (1 King 18:21)
The truth of the matter is that churches which prefer to be doctrinally tolerant and obscure do not love the truth at all costs. Their attitude is rooted in what Christ condemns as luke- warmness, being “neither cold nor hot” (Rev 3:16). They are not at all concerned about the purity Christ’s doctrine. These churches desire to please men more than God. Christ would have none of that when He declared: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matt 12:30). The church of Jesus Christ either cleaves steadfastly to the truth and confesses it distinctively or sells it to the devil. No church sits on the fence. It is either or.
Toleration of false doctrine is toleration of lies about God Himself. The devil is the father of the lie that hates God and His truth. From the beginning in creation the devil deceived Eve by questioning God’s true Word, bringing mankind down in sinful ruin. Because the devil is cunning and subtle, he presents false doctrines as the truth and tempts the church of Jesus Christ to accept them. Gradually more false doctrines enter into the church and corrupts the whole truth. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump (1 Cor 5:6). How sad is it today that the majority of churches have fallen sway to the devil’s devices.
But the true church will always stand firm in the truth. One of the distinctive marks of the true church is her preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel (Belgic Confession Art 29). Not obscure, contradictory and confusing but pure, unadulterated, decisive doctrine. It is the doctrine of her God who has revealed Himself to her. It is her confession of the truth about Him. Her love is manifested in the accuracy and boldness of her confession. She will do this because she loves Him with all her heart, soul, mind and strength. There are crucial reasons why a Reformed church must not only be doctrinally distinctive but also maintain her distinctives unashamedly.
1. All doctrine is principally a doctrine of God. God would not have His people confessing a shallow and obscure doctrine about Him, much less one that is false. For this reason He calls the church to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). Ever does the church that loves her God desire to be an un inching witness to His truth. As a wife loves her husband as a unique person, so the church loves her God according to the unique truth that He reveals Himself in. She will not tolerate a speck of lie in any degree about her God.
2. The one calling of the church is to preach the gospel distinctly. The call of the gospel that extends to the people of God must be quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two- edged sword (Heb 4:12). It is a call that pierces the believer’s conscience, turning his heart to the sovereign Lord who graciously pardons the sinner in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is a call that comes with the full counsel of God, declaring Who He is and all His wondrous works. She holds forth the word of life (Phi 2:16) accurately, confidently and powerfully.
3. By doctrinal distinction the true church is separated from the false. It is striking that the BC in Article 29 declares that “we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the church”. For the true church, the Word of God is her infallible rule. She cleaves steadfastly to this rule for all matters of her faith and practice. She will not be flippant about observing this rule.
4. The church cannot be governed according to the rule of Christ where His doctrines are not distinctly confessed. A trumpet that gives an uncertain sound cannot prepare soldiers in Christ’s army for battle (1 Cor 14:8). Where differing doctrines pervade in the church, members can live according to any doctrine they believe in. After all, they insist that we should not condemn others for believing in a differing doctrine. There is not one doctrine according to godliness (1 Tim 6:3), but many according to them. Church discipline, the third mark of distinguishing a true church, can hardly be exercised in such a church.
5. Godliness and holiness of life are impossible without doctrinal distinction. The apostle Peter speaks of the fact that believers are to increase in their gifts and the fruits of the Spirit according to the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet 1:8). It is evident that doctrines flow into life. Without doctrine, we cannot be a holy people. Without doctrinal distinction, we would still be babes who cannot take solid meat from God’s Word. We are to desire the sincere milk of the Word, that we may grow thereby (1 Pet 2:2).
6. Biblical evangelism begins with doctrinal distinction. Our evil age of tolerance prides itself in promoting mission work and evangelism to the unbelieving world. But where a church is not strong doctrinally, she will only promote a shallow gospel at best. A Reformed church does a great injustice to the blessed Reformed faith when she does not preach with doctrinal distinction.
7. The church in succeeding generations will grow stronger with doctrinal distinction. The psalmist declares that “one generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts” (Ps 145:4). They are able to do so because they know the works of Jehovah distinctly. They know Him intimately. Therefore the church prospers in strength and true unity.
“If in our day Reformed men would be a little less disposed to tolerate error and a little more disposed to refute and contradict the errors rejected by our fathers, Reformed churches in general would be doctrinally more vigorous and spiritually more healthy” (pg 292, The Voice of Our Fathers, Homer C. Hoeksema, RFPA, 1980).
These words by Prof. Hoeksema underscore the importance of maintaining solid doctrinal distinctions. A vague and obscure understanding of the truth would be of little profit to the child of God. Our fathers at Dordt would not budge an inch in their condemnation of false doctrine. So must we not.
Well, do we in CERC confess that by the grace of God alone we have been delivered the Reformed faith? Doctrinal distinction is required for that faith to mature and develop. It requires a zealous striving to understand the deeper things of God found in His Word. It requires a godly courage to fight the enemies of the truth. It requires an impeccable boldness to stand alone for the truth’s sake when friend and family forsake us. God’s truth, to the Reformed believer, is above all. He will be distinctively Reformed.
Written by: Aaron Lim | Issue 4