College Students and the Church (2): A Challenge to Students

goingtocollege(Originally published in Christian Renewal)

In his chapter in To You And Your Children, Mark Sumpter (pastor of Faith OPC in Grants Pass, OR) observes the declining commitment of twenty-somethings to the church and argues that the problem begins with the nature of their relationship to the church before they leave: “We lose our youth in their young adult years because the church never had them” (252). His point is that we often keep our young people and college students on a separate track of church life – including their own Bible studies, their own activities, and their own leadership structure – such that they are never really integrated into the broader community life of the church. When they leave, it’s because they were never really there.

If we are going to reverse this trend, then we need a renewed vision for what it means to include our children, young people, and college students in the life of the church. The Reformed tradition gives us the theological resources we need to do this: the doctrine of the covenant, a high view of the church, our inter-generational unity as the body of Christ. But we need to be more consistent in how we express those great truths in the way we live together. This series of articles is intended to illustrate how that might be the case in one particular area of the church’s life: the relationship between college students and the church.To be sure, this vision for church life in college raises all sorts of additional questions: what role should the location of a church be in choosing a college in the first place? How should our churches order their life together in order to encourage this sort of involvement of young people and students? Furthermore, while this article addresses students in particular, this vision for church life is important for everyone. A love for the church and a desire for spiritual growth in Christ should cause churches and students to share a vision for life together. This is a vision for life in the church that we need to be instilling in our young people before they leave for college.

We begin, then, with a challenge to college students: you need the church. If you are going to stay Christian in college, if you are going to grow and mature as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, then you need a rich and robust relationship with a local congregation. The remainder of this article will suggest a number of ways in which you can pursue this sort of commitment and growth.

Do not assume that this matter is less urgent because you are going to a Christian college.

The temptations to neglect the church can be even worse when you are at a Christian college, or when you have a bunch of Christian friends on campus. This situation may make your parents feel better, but you are in fact in great spiritual danger. All of the chapel services, hall Bible studies, and campus ministries can tempt you to think: I don’t really need the local church.

While all of those things are often very valuable, they are not the institutional church. They are not the means God has promised to use to nurture you in your faith and cause you to grow in your Christian walk. You need word and sacrament on the Lord’s Day, formal accountability, and the diverse live of a congregation of people who are different from you.

The students at the large state university are likely to feel from day one that they need the church. But when you go to the small Christian liberal arts college you need to be even more careful to remember:  you still need the church.

When you do connect with a local congregation, don’t begin by seeking out the young-adult ministry or the college student Bible study.

This is the most important moment in the process of committing to a church. It all starts here: do not, as your first step, seek out the group of folks who are just like you, a group of other college students who are worshiping with the same congregation.

You need to be integrated into the real life of the congregation, not cordoned off in your own section of the church. Attend worship, build connections with those who are different from you, go to the church fellowship events. Attend the prayer meetings and Bible studies and classes that involve people who are different from you, who are older or younger than you, who are in different situation in life than you are. That is what real life is like, that is what the real life of the church is like, and that is what your relationship with the church should be like while in college.

This is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration. The young adult ministry or college student Bible study can be a real blessing. But it must not be the center of your relationship with the church. This can be difficult, to be sure, since not every church has structured its programs such that it will be easy or natural to integrate with the rest of the congregation. This means that you may need to put that much more work into welcoming others into your life.

Practice hospitality. Yes, that’s right, practice hospitality as a college student.

This sort of commitment to the church of course means attending worship faithfully on Sunday. But it means far more than that. It means embracing and following the commands in Scripture regarding the church’s life together: “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9).

This is the advice I’ve often given college students in our own congregation as a measure of whether or not they are really plugging into the church as they should: You need to have friendships and relationships with people, not because you attend the same college or are the same age, but because you are part of the same congregation. You need to be able to say, during your college years, “I am friends with this junior high student, and this young couple, and this single mom, and this older gentleman, simply because we are part of the same congregation.”

So, how can you pursue this? Practice hospitality. It’s true, of course, that you probably don’t have a home into which you can invite somebody or a kitchen to prepare a meal. But you can still self-sacrifically, in a self-giving way, involve somebody else in your life – and that is the heart of hospitality. Invite an older couple from church to join you in the campus dining hall for a meal. Invite folks from church to your concerts and drama productions and sporting events. If you have a favorite coffee shop, ask somebody from your congregation to meet you there for fellowship. Go to a friend’s child’s piano recital. Sit with a young mom in church and help her with her squirming children. The possibilities are endless.

In short: be a real, self-giving part of the church. Love the church, serve the church, and you will grow and flourish in ways you probably haven’t imagined.

Seek formal accountability.

Would the pastor or elders or members of the church notice if you failed to attend on a Sunday? If the answer is no, then this is another sign that your spiritual health is in danger. We need accountability, and we need it within the defined committed body of a congregation. The college years are no exception.

The best way to do this is to seek something like a student (or associate) membership. You keep your membership in your home church, but establish a formal relationship of accountability with the church where you will be worshiping on Sundays.

It’s not enough to “go to church.” You need to be the church, and that means having a pastor and elders who are looking out for you, who are available for counsel, and who can then invite you into their lives as a committed part of their congregation.


None of this is easy. Churches often fail their college students in many ways. The next articles will address some of those problems. But don’t let the church’s failure keep you from being and doing what you need to be and do – both for your sake and for the sake of the congregation.

It’s not just that you need the church. The church needs you. Don’t ask what the church can do for you; ask what you, as part of the church, can do for others. Seek to be a mature, vital member of the congregation, practice hospitality, and welcome accountability, and God will use his church – with all of her strengths and weaknesses – to be a blessing to you and to allow you to be a blessing to others.

College Students and the Church (1): Introduction


(Originally Published in Christian Renewal.)

Leaders and writers in the Reformed and evangelical world are wrestling with what seems to be a growing crisis: the waning commitment of twenty-somethings to the church. In the book To You and To Your Children, Mark Sumpter (pastor of Faith OPC in Grants Pass, OR) seeks to diagnose part of the problem, writing of the “success” of youth ministry in Reformed and evangelical churches, a success when measured in numbers and busy-ness and programs, but a success that he argues has had unforeseen consequences:

“This ‘success’ has allowed young people to grow up in a youth ministry program of nurture and teaching, but sadly this is done with an emphasis that isolates the younger age groups from the rest of the community of the congregation. Therefore, we have seen a growing absence of young adults in the local church when they arrive at their early and mid-twenties. We lose our youth in their young adult years because the church never had them” (251-252).

When our youth leave the church, it’s because we never really had them in the church in the first place. To be sure, we had them busy in all manner of programs – many of which have their value and importance – but often while neglecting the difficult work of simply living with them in the every-day, inter-generational life of the church.

This is a widely acknowledged phenomenon in the broader evangelical world, and while it can be debated to what extent it has affected Reformed churches, the anecdotal evidence and the concerned conversations among parents and church leaders are growing: our young people often have difficulty transitioning from childhood to mature participation in the life of the local church. Some of our churches even speak of an absence of young adults in their early and mid-twenties, similar to what Mark Sumpter describes.

The Challenge

It is important that we ask the question of why this happens. Even if we are not yet convinced it is a crisis in the Reformed churches – and I think it is nearing that status – we need to be asking what we should be doing to avoid the mistakes of the broader evangelical world. There are many areas of the church’s life in which we need to work against this trend; the one that I will be focusing on in this series of articles is the relationship between college students and the church. This is one of the most formative times in life, and it is a time when an individual’s connection with local church life is often at its weakest.

In American culture, the presence of a “generation gap” is an assumed inevitable reality, and too often our church life conforms to that assumption, at precisely the time when our young people and young adults most need to be plugged in to the broader life of the church as a whole. Over against a culture that divides the generations, we in the church need to begin with the deepest truth of our unity together: that our fellowship is not based on shared demographics or generational sameness, but on our shared union with Christ. More than that, God intends that our inter-generational life together be a means of discipleship and spiritual growth. When we are united to Christ by faith, we are united to each other as his body, and that union should be reflected in our we love, serve, and live with each other – regardless of age or demographic differences.

My goal in this series of articles, then, is to challenge us to think more creatively – and, in some cases, to re-think from scratch – about how we can better express that shared union with Christ in our life together with the church, especially during the formative college years. We all have a responsibility to pursue this shared life, and this series of articles will be addressing three centers of responsibility in turn: college students themselves, their home church, and the congregation with whom they worship while in college.

College Students: Commit to, love, and live with a local congregation.

When in college, we face the temptation of treating those four years as an ecclesiastical no-man’s land, an in-between time of sorts, with little commitment to a local church. Especially if it’s a Christian college or the campus ministries are robust and flourishing, it is easy to feel like “adult” church life is unnecessary.

But I want to challenge college students to pursue a real-life relationship with a local congregation, not as a mere additional benefit for one’s spiritual life, but as something that is fundamental and essential for spiritual growth. This is not easy; indeed, there are many forces in college life and contemporary church life that conspire against such a commitment, and so I will be suggesting several ways to pursue a connection with a local church.

This challenge will raise a difficult question for some: what should you do if there is no faithful church near your college? That certainly is a problem. And so I want to suggest that when choosing a college – much like choosing a job – the location of a faithful church should be an important criterion. Indeed, there are situations where the availability of a church can be more important than the spiritual health or faithfulness of the college. Even in Reformed churches, we have fallen into the bad habit of underestimating the importance of one’s relationship (or lack thereof) with a church during the college years.

The Home Church: Get connected, and stay connected.

The first challenge for the college student’s home church is to get connected – in a real-life, inter-generational way – before our young people leave for college. Pastor Sumpter identifies what I am increasingly convinced is a real problem, the danger of keeping our young people on a separate track of church life such that, when they leave for college, the absence of their peers back at home means they don’t really feel like part of the church anymore. Youth ministries can have an important and valuable place in the life of the church. But we need to be careful to preserve a both/and approach in which we intentionally and creatively live with our young people as a genuine part of the broader life of the congregation.

That way of life helps with the second challenge: to stay connected with our college students while they are away. If we have lived together as we should, our young people should feel like they are away from their family – their church family, the household of faith – when they are away for college. We should be thankful that this often does happen; but we must not stop there. Home churches need to be more consistent and intentional about maintaining contact with students while they are away: encouraging commitment to a local congregation, and providing guidance and discipleship through these formative years.

The Church Away From Home: Welcome and include college students, not as a separate category, but as an integral part of the life of the congregation.

Here is the place where we may need to do some creative thinking from the ground up. Sometimes the way we structure our lives together in our churches can discourage college students from integrating into the broader fellowship. Our bible studies and fellowship groups are typically demographically segregated, and that sort of thing can certainly have its place. But if our church life is exclusively or even primarily segregated, it is difficult for a student to pursue inter-generational relationships with the rest of the congregation, at precisely the time when such relationships are most needed.

To be sure, a college-and-career group or young adults group can be valuable. But it can also be a distraction from what is really most needed: older men being an example for the younger, older women teaching the younger, all in the course of real everyday life, following Paul’s instructions to Titus.

We need to think more deeply about how we can order the life of our churches so as to encourage mentoring and discipling relationships between our young adults and the rest of the congregation – both older and younger. This is needed for everyone in the church, even as it is particularly needed during the college years.

Keller on Identifying Idolatry

“[W]e need to look honestly at each area of our lives – our families, our careers, our possessions, our ambitions, our time, and so on – and ask two questions of them: Am I willing to do whatever God says about this area? Am I will to accept whatever God sends in this area? Where either answer is ‘no,’ there is the area of our lives and hearts which we have opened up, or already given over, to an alternative god.” Judges for You, 38.

Five Principles of the New Sexual Morality

This is an excellent article from Alastair Roberts: Five Principles of the New Sexual Morality.

It’s imperative we appreciate the instinctive appeal of these moral principles to most persons within our society. These principles spring out of the liberal tradition and its definition of personhood, a tradition that has decisively shaped our politics, our economics, and our society’s ethics more broadly. As the assumptions grounding these sexual ethics are so pervasive in our society, and even in much conservative Christianity, we often lack the resources to present a principled challenge to them.

cityHis analysis leads to some of the same conclusions as Timothy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. The church needs to offer far more than a doubling down on traditional morality.

The “thou shalt not” of biblical authority is erected as little more than a last-ditch resistance, a dam against the encroachment of principles we have no means of neutralizing, as we have imbibed them so fully. The Scriptures, however, have a far more compelling and substantial alternative vision to offer us, one that could inoculate us against this ersatz morality.

And, I would add, the church needs to live this “compelling and substantial alternative vision” in a way that is winsome and appealing.

Venema on Continuity Between Present Creation and Renewed Creation

Cornelis Venema on the continuity between the present and the renewed creation:

christ and the future

“The continuity between the pre- and post-resurrection body of the believer finds its counterpart in the continuity between the present and the renewed creation. Just as Adam was originally formed from the dust of the earth and placed within the creation-temple of God in which to serve and glorify the Creator, so also in redemption the new humanity will be restored to life and service under the headship and dominion of the second Adam, in a newly cleansed creation-temple.

“For this reason, Romans 8:18-23 describes the creation as being under the same ‘slavery to corruption’ that afflicts believers in their present bodies of humiliation. The term used to describe the corruption of creation in Romans 8 is used in 1 Corinthians 15:42, 50 to describe the corruption of the body. The creation’s groaning under the curse of sin mirrors the groaning of the believer. The creation waits eagerly for the revelation of the sons of God, because the redemption of God’s children is a redemption in which creation itself participates. The link between the resurrection of the believer and the renewal of the creation is an intimate one.

“This intimate link between the resurrection of the believer and the renewal of the creation allows us to see the unity between individual and general (or cosmic) eschatology. It joins together the salvation of the church and her members with the great events of cosmic renewal that will accompany Christ’s return. The justification and sanctification of the believer find their parallels in the justification and sanctification of the heavens and earth in the new creation. Just as the Lord declared the first creation very good (Gen. 1:31), so the renewed creation will be worthy of the same judgment. And just as the first creation was perfect and holy  in its consecration to the Lord, so the renewed creation will be one ‘wherein dwells righteousness’ (see 2 Pet. 3;10-13). Justified and sanctified saints will dwell in a justified and sanctified creation. A people holy unto the Lord, a royal priesthood, will enjoy fellowship with the Lord in the sanctuary of his renewed creation” (Christ and the Future, 168-169).


The Doorposts of Your House: Law in the Context of Grace

Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 7 (Jan. 22, 2014), pp. 30-31.

According to the Heidelberg Catechism, the law always addresses the believer in the context of the gospel. Lord’s Days 2 and 3, describing our sin and misery, come after Lord’s Day 1, the confession that we belong to Jesus and are redeemed by his grace. Even more importantly, the third part of the Catechism, describing the Ten Commandments in detail as guide for the Christian life, comes after the great explanation of our salvation in Christ in the second part.

In previous articles, we have examined several New Testament passages that provide the biblical foundation for the Catechism’s use of the Ten Commandments (Rom. 15:4, 2 Tim. 3:14-17, Rom. 13:8-10, Eph. 6:1-3, and Jam. 1:25). But the foundation for this view of the law is actually much deeper than that. When the apostles apply the law to God’s people in the context of God’s grace as the life of gratitude, they are not doing something new. This was always how God’s covenant people were to receive the commandments. When Paul in Ephesians 6, for example, applies the fifth commandment to the church as part of what it means to live “in in the Lord,” he is able to do that because the fifth commandment was always given to God’s people in the context of God’s grace.

The Prologue: “I am the LORD your God”

Many have observed that this is clearly taught by the prologue of the law:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 5:6).

God addresses Israel as the LORD, their covenant God, the one who has already bound himself to them by his promises. And he addresses them as the one who has already brought them out of the land of Egypt and is now giving them the promised land – all by his grace. The commandments are given in that context, as a description of the life of gratitude.

This must not be missed: Israel received and lived in the promised land by faith in God’s promises. Their obedience – described in the Ten Commandments – would be the fruit of that faith. Of course they would fall short in the life of faith; that is why they were given the sacrifices as signs and seals of forgiveness through the blood of the promised Messiah. When Israel was sent into exile, it wasn’t because they failed to earn or deserve anything by their lack of obedience. It was because of their lack of faith, demonstrated in their idolatry. God never called Israel to earn or merit or deserve any of his blessings. Rather, God called his people to faith in in his promises, and to a life of obedience in gratitude for his grace.

All of this grace is proclaimed in the prologue to the law. God gives the law to those he has already rescued from slavery, and to whom he is has already promised the land that he is giving them.

“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house”

While it is proclaimed clearly in the prologue to the commandments, this gospel-context of the law finds its most beautiful expression one chapter later, in Deuteronomy 6:9.

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:6-9)

Verse 9 in particular proclaims the gospel-context of the law: “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In Deut. 6, Israel is about to enter the promised land, the land that they would receive and live in by faith in God’s promises. Moses is giving them instructions regarding how they are to live when they enter the land: they are to teach the commandments to their children and keep them before the household in all of life: speaking of the commandments while sitting and walking, binding them to hands and foreheads, writing them on their homes.

At first glance we might think that surely, if anything, this is an example of the burden of the law. Nevertheless, I want to say this more pointedly. Deuteronomy 6:9 is one of the most gospel-driven, grace-saturated commands in all of Scripture. How can this be?

Blood-Stained Doorposts

This isn’t the first time the doorposts of the house are mentioned in the books of Moses, featuring prominently in Israel’s life.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.” (Exodus 12:7)

The context is the last plague in Egypt, the Passover, when God would slay all of the firstborn sons in Egypt. Israel would be spared, but it wouldn’t be because Israel somehow earned or deserved God’s favor. Rather, they were to sacrifice the Passover Lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their house.

“The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

The command of Deut. 6:9 is gospel-driven and grace-saturated, because the doorposts of the house were blood-stained. Whenever an Israelite went to write the law of God on the doorposts of the house, he was writing it on doorposts that had been stained with blood – the blood of the Passover Lamb, blood that foreshadowed and proclaimed the promised sacrifice of the Messiah.

Law in the Context of Grace

This serves as a beautiful example of how the commandments of God always functioned in the life of Israel. For Israel, obedience to God’s law was a gift of God’s grace, the fruit of faith in God’s promises, motivated by gratitude for God’s redemption. The order is essential. It is the same order that is expressed in the New Testament, the order that is taught and celebrated by the Heidelberg Catechism. First, God rescues from slavery through the blood of the Lamb. Second, he calls his people to embrace the gift of new life, described in the law, motivated by faith in and gratitude for God’s promises.

The use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism faithfully reflects this use of the law in the life of Israel. Nobody wrote the law on doorposts of a house that were not first stained by the blood of the Passover Lamb. For Israel, the law was always given in the context of grace.

As for Israel, so for us: the law is given in the context of redemption, as a description of the new life God is giving to us as a gift of his grace. We are redeemed by the blood of Christ. But God’s grace doesn’t end there. We are also being renewed to be like Christ, given the gift of new life. And in that context, God gives us life according to his law as an expression of gratitude for redemption in Christ.

“Oh, How I Love Your Law!” The Biblical Basis for the Use of The Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism (3 of 3)

Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 6 (Jan. 1, 2014), pp. 22-23.

Up to this point, we have examined two sorts of texts that speak of the relevance of God’s law to the Christian life: those that affirm the continuing importance of the Old testament Scriptures in general, and those that specifically apply the law to the church today. These together serve as an important part of the basis for the use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism. But the biblical foundation for the confession that the good we do is that which “conforms to God’s law” is actually much broader and deeper than these several passages. In addition to other passages that speak explicitly of the continuing application of the law (e.g., Matthew 5:17), the Catechism is reflecting a broader biblical-theological theme in Scripture, that the law of God describes the new life he gives his people in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.

The Big Picture

The law given to Israel always had the nations in view: as those who would witness and admire the life according to God’s law, and as those who would one day be given that same life. In Deuteronomy 4:6, Moses says of the laws of God, “Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Israel’s law-keeping was part of their witness to the nations, for the Lord always had the nations in mind. Israel was the offspring of Abraham, through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). As God’s creatures, made in God’s image, living in God’s world, the nations could be expected to recognize the goodness of the law of God.

In Jeremiah 31, God promised that when Israel was restored from exile, the result would be that the law would be written on their hearts (v. 33). The New Testament is very clear that the church now lives in this time of the new covenant (Hebrews 10:16, Luke 22:20), so that Jew and Gentile now live together as the covenant people of God who have been restored from exile. As James said at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, citing Amos 9:11-12, it was always the intention of God that when he restored Israel from exile, the nations would be included. And so the nations are included in that renewed life of having the law written on our hearts. Indeed, this life of new obedience to God’s word is one of the main goals for which Israel’s Messiah came to redeem us:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Paul uses the language of Exodus 19:5 – “a people for his own possession” who are zealous for good works – to describe the identity of the church in Christ. Indeed, this was the goal of redemption: to create a people who would live life as God created it to be, the life that conforms to God’s law. Like Israel in Deuteronomy 4:6, this life is our witness before the nations. Peter writes, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Indeed, he grounds that exhortation in the church having received the identity of Israel:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1Pe 2:1)

This is why the Apostle Paul so readily applies the Ten Commandments to the life of the church in places like Romans 13:8-10 and Ephesians 6:1-3. The law describes life as God made it to be, the life that was lost because of sin, the life that he graciously restores and gives in redemption. Sin is slavery; the law describes freedom. It is the “law of liberty” (James 1:25). And that freedom was a freedom that God always intended to give to the nations, as he redeems men and women from every tribe and tongue and nation to be “a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). The church then continues Israel’s calling to shine a light before the nations (Matthew 5:16) by living the life that conforms to God’s law (Matthew 5:17).

When the Heidelberg Catechism uses the law as the framework for the Christian life, this isn’t grounded in a few isolated proof texts. Instead, it is rooted in the great drama of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, in the long story of Israel finding its fulfillment in Jesus and the life of his church.

Conclusion: Why This Matters

Why does it matter that we appreciate the biblical foundation for the use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism? It matters because this is no peripheral doctrine. Indeed, this view of the law is part of the genius of the Catechism, one of the ways in which it explains, protects, and celebrates a key insight of the Reformed tradition: that the life of new obedience is in no way contrary to the gospel, but is in fact one of the benefits of the gospel.

To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood. But we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself… (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 86).

It is good news that Christ is by his Spirit renewing us be like himself, so that we might do the good that “conforms to God’s law.” This Reformed doctrine regarding the place of the law in the Christian life opens up the grace-driven character and gospel context of the life of obedience to God’s Word, and it does so in a way that drives, energizes, and motivates all of life.

Moreover, the use of the Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism opens up lovely vistas of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. In a time when functional Marcionism seems to have carried the day in so much of the church, the Catechism directs us to the Christ-fulfilled, Christ-transformed, and Christ-energized relevance of all of Scripture for the Christian life.

It matters that we appreciate the wondrous ways in which the life of the church is rooted in the earthy, all-of-life teaching of all of Scripture. It matters that we be excited about the way in which the good life, life as God created it to be, the life described in the law, is given to God’s people in Christ. For centuries, this view of the law – rooted in the story of Israel, fulfilled by Christ, and energized by God’s grace – has motivated a zeal for all-of-life obedience in the Reformed churches. This biblical treasure, explained and protected by the Catechism, has motivated us to sing Psalm 119 with God’s people through the millennia: “Oh, how I love your law!”

That song, embracing and celebrating the new life that Christ gives us by his Spirit, is the grace-driven heartbeat of the Heidelberg Catechism: the good we do is that which “conforms to God’s law.”

“Oh, How I Love Your Law!” The Biblical Basis for the Use of The Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism (2 of 3)

Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 5 (Dec. 11, 2013), pp. 22-24.

In Romans 15 and 2 Timothy 3, we have seen the broad New Testament foundation for the Heidelberg Catechism’s use of the Ten Commandments as a description of the new life we have in Christ, summarized in the confession that the life of gratitude is that which “conforms to God’s law.” The Apostle Paul rejects the Judaizer’s misuse of the law – their treating it as a means of earning one’s justification and their clinging to the ceremonial laws as a means of excluding Gentiles. But he also clearly says that the Old Testament Scriptures continue to guide and direct the life of the believer in Christ: “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Romans 15:4) and “all Scripture is … for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Understood properly in the context of the covenant of grace, the law remains the framework for the Christian life.

Someone might object that this isn’t yet an explicit affirmation of the use of “the law,” and so we now turn to a few passages that speak, not just of the Old Testament Scriptures in general, but of the law in particular as applying to the believer in Christ.

Romans 13:8-10 – “Love is the Fulfilling of the Law”

The first of those passages is Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul says that the heart of the Christian life is the calling to “love each other,” and the one who does so has “fulfilled the law.” He then lists most of the commandments of the second table of the law, together with the command of Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He concludes by summarizing his point: “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul’s reasoning is very clear: God’s people are called to a life of love, and that life is explained in the decalogue. This is, in a very direct and pointed way, exactly what the Heidelberg Catechism does. We are called to a life of love in Christ. The commandments describe that life, and so we should use the commandments to learn how we should live.

Someone might argue that when Paul speaks of love “fulfilling” the law, he means that love and the law are alternatives, that in Christ we now love instead of following the law. But this misses the character of the New Testament’s fulfillment of the Old. Jesus reveals the heart of the law more clearly than the Old, and he expands and intensifies its demands (e.g., the “neighbor” of Lev. 19:18 was focused on the “brother” Israelite, while Paul has the Gentiles in mind with the broader “one who loves another”). But the fulfilment is a matter of organic development, such that the heart of the law expounded by Jesus and Paul is the heart that was there all along. The fulfillment is such that, far from being de-centered in the life of the believer, the law comes into its own in Christ.

Paul demonstrates this way of fulfillment by using the Old Testament Scriptures themselves to explain the heart of the life that we are being given in Christ. When Paul says that “love is the fulfilling of the law,” he is not saying something new, something that by virtue of its newness would thereby displace the use of the Commandments themselves. Rather, he is simply expanding and explaining what the Old Testament Scriptures always said: that God’s people are called to love God (Deut. 6:4-5) and neighbor (Lev. 19:18), and that the Ten Commandments describe that life and are fulfilled in it.

Moreover, as we saw in 2 Timothy 3, this life of following the commandments is again most emphatically not something other than following Jesus and being made like him. Instead, the life that conforms to God’s law just is the life of being made more like Christ. That was the purpose of the law in the first place – to point to Jesus – so that now the life that conforms to Christ is at the very same time the life that conforms to the law.

It’s almost as though Paul knew we would be tempted by such a law/Christ or law/love dichotomy based on his polemics elsewhere in Romans. Over against that temptation, he places the Christ-centered and Christ-energized character of the Christian life side-by-side with the exhortation to embrace the commandments as the life of love: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 8:14).

These are not alternatives; they are one and the same thing. Now that Israel’s Messiah has come, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” simply is to love your neighbor as yourself as the fulfilling of the law. It is this biblically rich, gospel-saturated truth that the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes for us when it wisely uses the Ten Commandments as an outline of the Christian’s life of gratitude.

Ephesians 6:1-3 – “The First Commandment With a Promise”

In Ephesians 6, we have another example of the Apostle Paul applying the Ten Commandments to the Christian life, only with greater precision and directness. After describing the sovereign grace of God in salvation in Christ in Ephesians 1-3, the Apostle Paul summarizes the Christian life as a matter of being part of the body that is growing up into Christ as our head:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

Many have argued that it is precisely this exhortation, the call to grow up into Christ as our head, that in the New Testament replaces or de-centers the Ten Commandments. But Paul sees no such dichotomy or divide. Instead, by way of applying this calling to live a life shaped and formed by our union with Christ, he directly applies the commandments, explicitly affirming their continuing use as the framework for the Christian life.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)

It’s almost too obvious to say, but at this point the New Testament affirms – with boldness and clarity – that the church should look to the Ten Commandments for guidance and direction. There are any number of ways Paul could have made his point regarding the need for children to obey and honor their parents. He chose to use the decalogue, plain and simple.

Moreover, this use of the decalogue is perfectly consistent with the life that is “in the Lord” or “in Christ.” In verse 1, he calls children to obey “in the Lord.” By way of explanation of that very same requirement, he cites the fifth commandment in verse 3. Following Jesus or being made like him is not an alternative to following the law. Rather, the law describes the shape and form of what being “in the Lord” looks like.

And this continuing use of the law isn’t just true for the basic moral principle – “obey your parents.” The law continues to apply as the pathway along which God’s people enjoy blessings: “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” This is a strikingly earthy, this-worldly promise, boldly reaffirmed by Paul as continuing to apply to the church. The Heidelberg Catechism is therefore correct  to say that God continues to reward his people “in this life and the next” (Q&A 63), not as a payment that is earned, but as a gift of God’s grace.

This is, of course, the same Paul who teaches clearly in Galatians and Romans that we are no longer under the law. However we understand that polemic – emphasizing the Judaizers’ misuse of the law, or the need for the Mosaic administration of the covenant to give way to the new covenant – it obviously does not mean that we are to stop treating the Ten Commandments as a manual for the Christian life. Paul’s polemic against “the law” in Romans and Galatians is perfectly consistent with the direct and paradigmatic application of both the demands and the promises of the law in the Christian life.

The Heidelberg Catechism is robustly faithful to Paul – and to all of Scripture – when it uses the Ten Commandments to frame and outline the Christian’s life of gratitude.

James 1:25 – “The Law of Liberty”

The Apostle Paul, of course, is not the only one who commends the law to the New Testament believer. James, for example, exhorts Christians to be not only hearers of the word of God, but also “doers of the Word” (James 1:22). That word that James wants us to do is the Old Testament Scriptures, including the law of God.

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:25)

James tells the church to be those who do what the law of God commands, and he says it very unambiguously. More than that, he tells us how we should characterize the law of God – as “the perfect law” and “the law of liberty.” God’s people are to continue to sing with psalmist, “Oh, how I love your law” (Psalm 119:97).

As Paul said in Romans 6:3, so James says here: the law continues to apply, not only as moral information, but as the life pathway along which God’s people enjoy blessings. Of the one who does the “law of liberty,” James says “he will be blessed in his doing.”

When James says this, he is simply explaining, celebrating, and applying the grace of God. This is part of the gospel. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is good news that Jesus not only redeems us by his blood, but renews us to be like himself (Q&A 86). This is expressed in a verse that is pivotal for James’ epistle as a whole:

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)

Many have worried that James’ emphasis on obedience is in tension with Paul’s emphasis on God’s grace. But this is far from the truth! All that James is explaining is the fruit of God’s grace: that God has “brought us forth,” given us new life, as “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” As Paul says, we are God’s creatures, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10).

This is why James calls the law “the law of liberty.” The law describes the life of freedom from slavery to sin, the life that God gives us in Christ, by his Spirit. In this way, James and Paul both say that we should view the law and the life of obedience in the same way as Israel: the life of gratitude, in response to God’s grace, always in the context of God’s promises. As the decalogue began with the declaration of redemption by God’s grace – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 5:6) –  so James begins with God’s grace – “he brought us forth by the word of truth.” As in Deuteronomy, so in Paul and James: our obedience to God’s law is a gift of the gospel, always in the context of God’s covenant promises.

The Heidelberg Catechism is correct to say that the Christian life is that which “conforms to God’s law,” because the law is the law of liberty, a description of the freedom we have in Christ.

“Oh, How I Love Your Law!” The Biblical Basis for the Use of The Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism (1 of 3)

(Originally published in Christian Renewal Vol. 32 No. 4 (Nov. 13, 2013), pp. 20-22)

The Heidelberg Catechism famously treats the Ten Commandments in its third section as a guide for the Christian life. The third section is the section on gratitude, the description of how we are to live in response to and in the context of God’s grace, and it treats the decalogue as the framework for that life of gratitude.

This is a Reformed doctrine about which there seems to be perennial nervousness – that God’s law continues to guide and direct the life of the believer in Christ. At some level, the nervousness about this doctrine is understandable. The Ten Commandments were given at a certain stage in the development of the covenant of grace, and the New Testament is very clear that the law has been fulfilled in Christ and that in important ways we are no longer “under the law.” And so it is helpful to consider the biblical basis for the Catechism’s decision to treat the decalogue as the framework for the Christian life.

Before surveying several passages that explicitly affirm the use of the Old Testament Scriptures – including the decalogue – in the Christian life, we first need to summarize the way in which the Heidelberg Catechism makes use of the Ten Commandments.

The Heidelberg Catechism: Joy and Delight to do That Which “Conforms to God’s Law”

We begin with Lord’s Day 33 as the section of the Catechism that introduces the exposition of the Ten Commandments:

Q. 88 What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion? A. Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.

Q. 89 What is the dying-away of the old self? A. It is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.

Q. 90 What is the coming-to-life of the new self? A. It is wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.

Q. 91 What do we do that is good? A. Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.

There are several things to notice about the Catechism’s description of the role of the law. First, the law is given the central pace in regulating the Christian life. The good that we do is that which flows from faith, “conforms to God’s law,” and is done for God’s glory. This confession is the basis, then, for the energy spent in the subsequent Lord’s Days explaining each of the Ten Commandments.

Second, the Catechism is clear that this life, guided by the Ten Commandments, is entirely in the context of the gospel. The structure of the Catechism makes this clear, placing the decalogue in the third part, after the exposition of salvation in Christ. The words of Lord’s Day 33 in particular make this clear as well: this life that “conforms to God’s law” results from “the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new.” In the wider context of the Catechism, this is a clear statement that this new life is a gift that God is sovereignly giving by his grace as “Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself” (Q&A 86). In other words, the third section of the Catechism continues to be a description of God’s grace, an exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is good news that Christ not only redeems us by his blood, but also renews us by his Spirit. In the argument of the Catechism, the Ten Commandments are simply a description of that life God is giving us by his grace as he writes his law upon our hearts.

Third, the Catechism affirms that we are to use the Ten Commandments in a Christ-centered, Christ-fulfilled, Christ-energized manner. The life described in the law is a life we are given in union with Christ. In Christ we have died to sin (Q&A 43). In Christ we have been raised to new life (Q&A 45). In Christ we have been seated in the heavenly places so that we can seek the things that are above (Q&A 49). That is the center of the Christian life, from which flows the good that we do, the good that “conforms to God’s law.” Furthermore, the exposition of the decalogue clearly and robustly acknowledges that we are no longer “under the law” in the sense of the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. Christ has more fully revealed the heart of the law (though in a way that was always anticipated by Moses), and especially the exposition of the fourth commandment acknowledges that the law shapes our lives in Christ in a way different than it did for Israel. And finally, as noted earlier, all of this life is energized by Christ as the one who by his Spirit is renewing us to be like himself.

Fourth, in the language of the Catechism, the law is a description of the good that we find “joy” and “delight” in doing. The Catechism is clearly convinced that Paul’s polemic against “the law” in Galatians and Romans is not a polemic against the use of the Ten Commandments as the framework for the Christian life. For the Catechism, God’s people today are to continue to sing Psalm 119: “Oh, how I love your law!” Indeed, the Catechism is being biblically wise in affirming this, as the New Testament repeatedly makes it clear that the Old Testament Scriptures, including God’s moral law as summarized in the decalogue, continue to guide the life of the church today. It is to those passages that we now turn.

Romans 15:4 – “Whatever Was Written in Former Days”

There are many New Testament texts that, on their own, could be interpreted as offering a negative assessment of the Old Testament Scriptures in general and the law in particular. Why is our Catechism so confident that Paul’s statements do not mean that we are to cease using the Old Testament Scriptures as a guide for living the Christian life? It is Paul himself who says it very clearly: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.”

In Romans 15, the Apostle Paul is exhorting the church to live with one another in a self-giving, self-sacrificial manner, following the example of Christ who sought to please others rather than himself. Paul clearly sets forth the imitation of Christ as the model and driving force for the Christian life. But this following of Christ is not contrary to or other than following the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed, it is precisely the Old Testament Scriptures themselves that describe the faithfulness of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and, consequently, the life of those who follow him.

‘For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.’ (Romans 15:3-4)

Paul roots this life of following Jesus in the Old Testament Scriptures with a quote, an allusion, and an explicit statement. First, he quotes Psalm 69:9, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” The life of the faithful Israelite was a but a shadow of the true self-giving faithfulness of Jesus as the true Israel. Indeed, it was the Spirit of Christ who was speaking in the words of David.

Second, with the reference to “the encouragement of the Scriptures” by which we have hope, Paul alludes to Psalm 119:50-51, the great Psalm of celebration of God’s law: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life. The insolent utterly deride me, but I do not turn away from your law.” In addition to the broader theme of being derided by the insolent (cf. “the reproaches of those who reproach you”), the “encouragement of the Scriptures” of Rom. 15:4 is the “comfort” of Psalm 119:50.

Third and finally, Paul says in verse 4 that all of this matters precisely because it is the way of life described and commanded in the Old Testament Scriptures that guides and directs the life of the Christian today: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” To be sure, the language of “for our instruction” primarily refers to the pattern of promise and fulfillment as the story of Israel reaches its center in Jesus the Messiah. But we must remember that all of this is being said by way of establishing the command of v. 2: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” Paul says that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,” and that includes the command of Leviticus 19:18 – “love your neighbor as yourself” – the great summary of the second table of the law.

The Apostle Paul here and elsewhere clearly affirms that the way of life described in the Old Testament Scriptures, fulfilled and energized by Jesus Christ, continues to be the framework for the Christian life.

2 Timothy 3:14-17 – “All Scripture”

Before turning to Romans 13:8-10 as a passage where Paul explicitly applies the Ten Commandments to the church, we will look at a second passage that explains the foundational principle at work, a passage in which the New Testament clearly affirms that all of Scripture remains profitable for “training in righteousness.”

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings,which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

When Paul refers to “All Scripture,” he is of course referring to what we call the Old Testament Scriptures; indeed, the Old Testament simply was the Bible for Jesus and the apostles. And Paul clearly says that those Scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” He says this of all of the Scriptures: the law of God, the ceremonies and sacrifices, the Proverbs that describe the wisdom of the law, the Prophets who prosecuted Israel for their violations of the covenant and repeated God’s promises. How might one use those Scriptures for “reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”? Surely it would be in the manner used by the Heidelberg Catechism: explaining and expositing the commandments of God in terms of their heart, and in a manner that extends to all of life.

What is even more important to note is that this is emphatically not an alternative to focusing on Christ, following him, or leading a Christ-transformed life. Indeed, these Scriptures that are profitable for training in righteousness are the same Scriptures that are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” It is the “in Christ Jesus” life that is described in the commandments of God. It is the life that God gives us in Christ that is outlined in the law. One of the ways those Scriptures point to Christ is by describing the life that he alone can give, the commandments he writes upon our hearts, the renewal that he gives us by his Spirit.

2 Timothy 3 is very clear: the new life that we are given in “salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” is described for us in the Old Testament Scriptures. To be sure, the commandments of God are fulfilled, intensified, and transformed in Christ, and they can be summarized as a matter of following Christ. It is precisely that fulfillment in Christ that means that all of the Old Testament Scriptures are profitable “for training in righteousness.”

Following the Apostle Paul, the Heidelberg Catechism wisely and biblically concludes that we ought to use the Ten Commandment as the framework for understanding that Christ-following, Christ-energized life of love. The “in Christ” life is the life that “conforms to God’s law.”

Biblical Anchor Points for Orthodox Eschatology

cumulus-cloudsAs I work through texts like Matthew 24 and Luke 21, I am convinced that many of the sayings of Jesus that are popularly connected with his second coming are in fact referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. I am presently most sympathetic to a both/and approach in which Jesus is referring, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, to events with multiple fulfillments. He speaks of both the destruction of Jerusalem and the second coming, and he does so without clearly distinguishing them, since the distinction wouldn’t make sense to his hearers until after his resurrection and the commencement of the mission of the church. Moreover, the former is a type of the latter, and so a blending of them is natural. Even on this reading, however, Jesus is indeed speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem much more than is often acknowledged.

Some scholars have argued even more: that the reference to the Son of Man coming on the clouds in Luke 21 and Matthew 24 is using the language of Daniel 7, in which the coming of the son of man is not from heaven to earth, but is from earth to heaven. It is the language of his vindication. And so, even with that phrase, Jesus would be speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem as the time (together with his resurrection) when he would be vindicated as a faithful prophet. He said it would happen, and it happened. He is vindicated exactly as Daniel 7 described. This view has the strength of making the most sense of the time references (“this generation”) and of avoiding what some might consider an awkward prophetic blending of multiple fulfillments. A similar reading is possible for 2 Peter, 2 Thessalonians 2:2, and some of Revelation.

I am not yet convinced of this view, but it strikes me as possible, cogent, and making faithful use of the text in its broader biblical and historical context. So, despite being unconvinced, I often find myself asking the question: If this more preterist reading is correct, what texts do, in fact, speak of the second coming, of events that remain in the future?

From my reading of orthodox preterists (those who think Luke 21 and Matthew 24 speak exclusively of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and who nevertheless robustly affirm the second coming), the following passages are the keys anchor points for orthodox eschatology.

First, there are those passages that speak of the promised resurrection of the body.

Jesus’ resurrection in the middle of history is the firstfruits of the future resurrection of all. 1 Corinthians 15 is the key passage, together with several references in John, 1 Peter, and Revelation. For example:

1 Corinthians 15:12-28 “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (v. 23)

John 11:25 “ Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”

1 Peter 1:3-5 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Revelation 2:10 “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Second, there is the clear biblical hope of the future renewing and re-creating of the whole world.

Romans 8:18-27 “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (vv. 20-21)

1 Corinthians 15:20-28 “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (vv. 25-26)

Revelation 21-22 describe heaven and earth reunited, the whole creation being a temple-garden-city, filled with God’s presence. “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (21:5)

Third, several passages connect these events explicitly with the return of Christ.

The key passage, especially for those with a preterist reading of Luke 21, is Acts 1:10-11, Luke’s telling of the words of the angel at Jesus’ ascension: “And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 speak of the future return of Christ as well. “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” (4:15-16)

And then there is 1 Corinthians 15:12-28, already cited: “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (v. 23)