Reflections on the Battle for Sovereign Grace (2)

In this post we return to a few matters related to The Battle for Sovereign Grace. This book is very instructive in terms of what it means to be a part of the church militant here on earth, fighting the good fight of faith, not only against our own sin, but also against the continual perversion of the pure gospel, which is the church’s most precious treasure. There are many in the broader ecclesiastical world today who insist that there should not be any battles within the church. Doctrinal disputes, it is often said, are needlessly divisive. Instead, the church ought to be concerned with presenting a united witness before the world, joining together to fight social injustice and the like. This is the message of the ecumenical movement, a movement which often accuses Protestant Christianity of tearing apart the body of Christ because of the proliferation of denominations following the Reformation. Many seem to find this criticism convincing, for the Ecumenical movement continues to gain significant influence within Protestant and Reformed denominations. And the result has been a widespread surrender of the distinctive truths of the gospel among which sovereign particular grace holds a preeminent place.

What does this have to do with The Battle for Sovereign Grace? The material presented in this book is the history of a very significant doctrinal battle within the sphere of Reformed Christianity that has implications for all confessional Reformed churches, not only our own denomination. As the author makes abundantly clear, the Declaration is a document of immense import, for the error of the conditional covenant is one which persists in much of the Reformed church world. However, what I want to focus on briefly is not so much the content of the declaration (which we know and love) but the example that this history lays out for us, that is, how we are to view doctrinal controversy. Although we are called to seek peace and unity, doctrinal dispute is ultimately inevitable. Due to the sinfulness and pride of man, error will not cease to arise within the church. God in His providence often employs these controversies to refine and sharpen the Church’s understanding of the truth. This fact is clear, for example, in the case of the early Christological controversies from which emerged our ecumenical creeds. We ought to be very thankful for the peace and unity which we currently enjoy in our churches that is not imperiled by any serious controversy. This is a blessing from God to be sure.

In this regard, I was very impressed with how instructive this history in this book is for the present day, particularly with respect to the ecumenical movement. Ecumenism is a great threat to the purity of the Church, and it is probable that this threat will only intensify in the coming years. We live in a society, both secular and ecclesiastical, that stresses unity, tolerance of divergent opinions, and which finds doctrine and dogma distasteful. “Peace, peace” it is so often said, yet there is no peace. For those of us who have attended or are attending a Christian college, many have felt the draw of this movement which is especially popular among evangelicals of our generation. As we live in this cultural environment, it is very easy to become acclimated to its lukewarm perspective of the truth of the gospel, and as a result importance of maintaining the distinctive doctrinal standards of the Reformed faith may seem to be increasingly unimportant and irrelevant. This is something for us young people and young adults to consider, since in the coming years the mantle of leadership in the church will fall upon us, and we must have the same knowledge, courage, and strength to stand on the battle lines of truth and error as our predecessors. Will we be up to the task? We can only pray for God’s strength, for of ourselves we are nothing, but by His grace we can stand immovable. The fact is that the battle for sovereign grace is an ongoing battle. The adoption of the Declaration of Principles was certainly a decisive victory. But the danger never quite disappears. Again as church history shows, old heresies never die. They resurface over and over again with a refurbished appearance and behind the cloak of new terminology. By now we have all likely heard of the federal vision, a heresy which has its source in the theology of a conditional covenant; this is just one such example of a new mutation in the genome of “salvation by works” theology.

Moreover this history has much to teach us of the cost of standing for the truth, a price which we must be ready to pay.  Ultimately the Declaration’s presentation of the unconditional covenant not only prevented formal ecclesiastical unity with numerous new immigrants from the Netherlands, but also it precipitated the devastating schism of 1953 in which our churches lost a substantial portion of their membership. From an Ecumenist’s perspective, this was a disaster. Schism is in their view the worst possible outcome, and so egregious errors are tolerated because it is better to have divided opinion under one very broad roof. So, was it really worth it? Is the technical definition of the covenant as “unconditional” or “conditional” so important as to justify such a painful event. Our answer should be a resounding yes! Don’t get me wrong, schism is terrible and undesirable. But the history of the Church shows it is necessary to preserve and develop the truth and to purify the Church from error. The Church is better because of it. As Christ said, unless one is willing to sacrifice all and take up his cross and follow Him, one is not worthy of Him. This is a very important reminder for us whenever we feel the allure of ecumenism. Our ecclesiastical unity consists of a common confession of the distinctive truth of the gospel as taught in the Scripture and summarized in the Confessions. Unity that is based on anything else is false unity. As soldiers of Christ we are called to follow the captain of our salvation, and this entails battle. Young people and young adults, are we prepared and willing to defend the truth of the gospel with same devotion as our forefathers?

JS

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