Monday, 6 July 2015

What does it mean to be “charismatic Reformed”?

Over the last 17 years or so, I’ve been referring to myself as being “charismatic Reformed” – rooted in the theological tradition of John Calvin and charismatic in my experiences.
Lately, many people are asking me what “charismatic Reformed” stands for. What does “Reformed” mean for me, and how is my theology “charismatic”?

I’ll try to put some thoughts down in this blog. This is my no means a theological paper, or a church vision document – merely some thoughts that might be helpful. Of course, not everyone who considers themselves to be charismatic Reformed necessarily agrees with all things I’ll be suggesting – this is just me.

1. It’s all about the Gospel of grace in Christ

In the words of Tim Keller: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.
That’s not merely “imputed righteousness”, it’s passionate love and grace from our Maker, the triune God! God created us to share in the eternal love between Father and Son and Spirit and to glorify and be glorified, and to find our deepest joy and fulfilment in God. When we chose self-centeredness instead, disobedient to our divine calling, God in his great mercy did not abandon us to our sin, but remained faithful despite our unfaithfulness. He took the burden of our sin and all the consequences of it – the corruption of all creation – on himself, so we may be restored in our divine calling: sharing in the love of the triune God and enjoy Him forever. In other words, because of the great love God has for us, we are adopted by the Father as his children and heirs of God’s Kingdom of glory, in the Son, and through the Spirit of sonship (Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7; Revelation 21:7).
Grace changes everything! When we realize that we are adopted as God’s children not because of who we are (and how good we live), but because of who God is, we are freed from condemnation and self-condemnation and freed to be changed from the inside out.  Nothing we do or fail to do can make Him love us more or less – we are loved and accepted in Jesus Christ. The Reformation has coined the terms sola gratia, sola fide and solus Christus and soli Deo gloria to capture this gospel of sheer grace.

Grace enables us to be honest about our sins and flaws, not pretending to be holier than we are. It frees us from moralism, from judging and excluding each other when we fail to live up to God’s standard. We all are in need of God’s grace. We all stumble and fall, and we all need to grow in Christ-likeness – not by moral law (merely affecting outward behaviour), but from the inside out: through union with Christ in the Spirit. This is why the Reformation has greatly valued the holy sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: our communion with Christ through the Spirit. The Reformed liturgical documents teach us that Lord’s table is not restricted to those who succeed in living holy, on the contrary: it is for the very reason that we constantly fall short, that we desperately need to be comforted, strengthened  and nourished through communion with Christ.
Within contemporary Reformed theology, both the recent retrieval of the notion of “being in Christ”, and the renewed trinitarian and pneumatological perspectives, would seem to call for an even greater prominence of the holy sacrament of communion in our corporate worship. I’d say, in a charismatic Reformed church Communion  should be celebrated not casually but truly sacramentally, yet frequently and in an inclusive manner: welcoming all who seek to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, however messy their lives.

2. God’s plan of salvation comprises all of creation

God’s plan of salvation is not to redeem people from the earth (eternal souls to go to heaven), but it entails the redemption of the earth and the entire creation. It’s all about earth, about the cosmic universe, about mountains and oceans and rivers, about birds and livestock and wild animals, about communities and society, politics and economics. The Kingdom of God, that we are heirs of, is over all creation. God does not abandon his creation, but He brings it to completion and into his glory. God’s plan of salvation moves from creation to new creation. We were not created to go to heaven, but for life on earth – earth is our eternal destination, and earth is to be God’s dwelling place when heaven comes down on earth and God will be “all in all”. Over against gnostic and spiritualized tendencies within Christianity (also within Evangelicalism and specifically Pentecostalism), this has been a strong insistence of Reformed theology: God’s salvation means wholeness for the entire creation, and earthly life matters – including ecology, culture, politics, economics.
Over against Anabaptist, traditional Pentecostal and some orthodox-Reformed tendencies to downplay the importance of Christian involvement with culture, politics and ecology, this Kingdom-perspective calls for social, political, cultural, and ecological engagement (the church seeking the good for their city and society, expressing environmental awareness, etc).
The notion that creation is to be God’s dwelling place, opens a deeper understanding of the significance of the indwelling of the Spirit of God in us.

3. We are God’s covenant people

God’s covenant with Noah and “every living creature on earth – birds, livestock, and all the wild animals” (Genesis 9: 8-17), is followed by God’s covenant with Abraham: “All the people on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12, 22), and Isaac and Jacob. God works his plan of salvation through his chosen people: not elected out of the world, but set apart for the sake of the world. Again, it is all about sheer grace: It is not about people choosing for God, but God choosing for his people: Israel. God takes the initiative for this covenant, and He warrants it himself. His people merely have to respond to his grace, and act upon it in reliance on God.
The Reformation emphasises the continuity of the Old and the New Testament: God enfolds his single plan of salvation from creation to new creation. With the new covenant in Christ, Israel is not replaced with the Church, but the people of God is expanded to all who follow Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel, including gentiles (“all the people of the earth”) (Hebrews 9: 15; Galatians 3:29). All who follow the Messiah, are God’s covenant people.
A charismatic Reformed church will hold this covenant notion dear, highlighting the primacy of grace, the faithfulness of God from creation to new creation, the communality of faith (it’s about a people, over against individualistic tendencies in some strands of contemporary Evangelicalism), and the calling that comes with being the people of God: purposed for the blessing of the world.

4. We are baptised into God’s covenant people…

When we are baptized – infant baptism and faith baptism alike – we are baptized into God’s covenant people. Our initiation into the people of God is God’s act of grace: it is his initiative, and He warrants it, out of sheer grace and love – being taken up in the death of the Son, we are transferred from death to the Kingdom of life. It is not about our choice for God, but God’s choice for us. That’s grace in Christ.
Since we are baptized into God’s people, it is by definition a communal event (not something merely between the individual and God): becoming a child of the Father and heir to the Kingdom - in the Son through the Spirit of sonship - simultaneously involves being initiated into God’s family, his church.
Just as with the old covenant, children are fully part of the covenant and its promises, not based upon their personal choice for God but on God’s choice for them, and rooted in the communal faith of the people of God (first of all their parents, but then also the entire local church community). Any church should see many faith baptisms, as new believers are touched by God’s grace and initiated into God’s people (this is what we see in the New Testament: accounts of new believers being baptized). But I’d say that the believer’s children should be baptized at birth, as this seems to be the most consistent expression of the notion that baptism is about God’s covenant with his people, and a sacrament of grace.
Considering the gravity and radicality of this event - being saved and receiving new life through being taken up in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ - the recommendable way to baptize would be by immersion, both in the case of faith baptism and infant baptism.

5. … and the power of his Spirit is released in us

When a child is old enough to take responsibility over her or his own life, she/he is called to respond to God’s covenant grace, embracing what is received at baptism and taking the responsibility to seek to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ and thus as a witness to the coming Kingdom of God in both word and deed. This is what is at stake at the public profession of faith, in the midst of the people of God and public to the world around us. Responding to Jesus’ call to follow Him and be his disciple is a big deal! Reformed churches are seriously neglecting their theological richness when the public profession of faith has become something of an automatism or a jaded ritual. Heaven rejoices when a person responds to God’s grace and surrenders her or his life to Jesus to be his disciple, and so should the church!
A public profession of faith is a great opportunity to celebrate God’s grace received through a godly upbringing in the midst of God’s family. Such a worship service could very well begin with a ritual of “remembrance of baptism”, showing a picture of the infant’s baptism, inviting parents (if present) to the front and thanking God for their faith and his grace through their upbringing. Then followed by a personal testimony by the child of her/his response to Jesus’ call to surrender her/his life and be his disciple, and the answering of creedal questions.
It is only in the power of the Spirit that we can live as disciples of Jesus Christ and witnesses to the Kingdom of God. Therefore, an important element of the public profession of faith should be the laying on of hands by the pastor/elders and prayer for the power of the Spirit. Anointing with oil would be a powerful way to express that believers share in the anointing of Christ, receiving the same Spirit that empowered Jesus Christ for his public ministry (see the Heidelberg Catechism; also section 8 of this blog). I would not refer to this as a “baptism with the Spirit” (as traditional Pentecostal theology would assert), since we have received the Spirit of sonship with our water baptism already. The Spirit was poured out into us, and dwells within us. But the power of the indwelling Spirit may be “released” in us, made actual and functional, empowering us for witness to the Kingdom of God. According to the New Testament accounts, this is an experienced reality, releasing the gifts of the Spirit in our lives (including healing, prophecy, discernment, tongues, serving, teaching, leadership, miracles, and so on; Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12). This may be experienced at the moment of laying on of hands, or throughout the disciple’s life.
The apostle Paul urges us to be filled with the Spirit (throughout our lives, again and again) – apparently this is something that requires our activity. He commands us to strive for the spiritual gifts for the upbuilding of the church and eagerly desire them – “be eager to prophesy” (receiving and sharing a revelation in the church) “and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14). Timothy he urges to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6).

6. We are God’s Kingdom-people, the beginning of New Creation

This is the Gospel: The Kingdom of God, that restores creation in the love of God, has begun in Jesus Christ. The entire history of salvation is about God ushering in his Kingdom over all creation, and the decisive moment is when the Son of God is resurrected from the dead as the firstborn of the New Creation. In the words of N.T. Wright: The Bible tells the story of how God became King. The followers of the Messiah are God’s Kingdom people: To be God’s covenant people is to be his Kingdom people.
Here the doctrine of church moves to the centre. The church is not merely a “gathering of believers” (I think the Reformers may sometimes have been too meagre in their appreciation of church here, in response to the Roman Catholic Church of their days; and certainly Evangelical Congregationalists have been notoriously poor on ecclesiology, as have been Pentecostals). Amazing as it is, the church is God’s new beginning – his eschatological new people. At Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus Christ, igniting the church. The Bible refers to the outpoured Spirit as the “down payment” (arrabōn) of the future inheritance (the Kingdom of glory, as God dwells on the new earth), and as the “firstfruit” (aparchē) of the new creation.  Subsequently, the Spirit-filled church is referred to as the “firstfruit” of the new creation. In all its weakness and deficiency, the church is the beginning of God’s future creation.

The vocation of the church then, is to truly live as God’s new people – no longer living according the world’s ideas and values, but under the new order of the Kingdom of God. That is, loving God and one another, seeking God’s shalom for the world, by living from “the powers of the future age”. In doing so, the church is both a sign and a tool of the coming of that Kingdom – proclaiming the Kingdom in the power of the Spirit and demonstrating it.
When Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God, he read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4). And when his disciples noticed his intimacy with the Father and asked Him to teach them how to pray, He taught them what we came to call “the Lord’s Prayer”. Both passages reveal how Jesus understood the messianic Kingdom: reconciliation to God, healing of the sick, freedom for the captives, food for the hungry, justice for the oppressed – in other words, the restoration to wholeness of all creation in the Kingdom of God.

What does this entail for a local charismatic Reformed church? First of all, that the congregation will be characterized by being a place of Spirit-filled and Spirit-led worship – not just in its Sunday worship services but in all its aspects of being. The church community first of all is a temple: a place of God’s holy presence - here God’s eschatological indwelling of creation takes its beginning. What we do in our gatherings – Word, sacraments, testimonies, sharing a revelation, singing, praying – is aimed at helping one another to become aware of God’s presence, entering into it and being regenerated by his Spirit, thus glorifying God.
Practically, this would translate in (among other things):
  • times of praise and worship aimed at God’s presence in our midst, following not merely a “set list of songs” or “program” but the prompting of the Spirit, expecting the Spirit to move and minister in our midst
  • cultivating a culture of church in which we share testimonies of what God is doing in our lives, share prophetic words for the strengthening of the church, glorify God for what He is doing, and seek to be filled with the Spirit so we can serve one another
  • a practice of prayer in which we pray with one another in the power of the Spirit, bringing each other in the presence of God and expect Him to minister his grace (“prayer ministry”)
Secondly (and flowing from the above), such a church would be leading people to Christ, our King, and have ministries of reconciliation, ministries of healing and deliverance, ministries of mercy, and be engaged with social justice and environmental care, expressing the shalom that comes with the Kingdom of God.

7. The church lives in the “in-between times”

As essential it is to understand that the Kingdom of God has come in Christ, it is to understand that is still is in the process of coming: it has been “inaugurated” in Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit on the church, but not “realized” - it has to be consummated still, at Christ’s return.

  • Over against theologies that postpone any “materialization” of God’s salvation to the eschatological future (future eschatology), a charismatic Reformed theology will argue that the Kingdom has been inaugurated already, and we often may see glimpses of God’s future glory as we proclaim this – in terms of healing, restoration, wholeness.
  • Over against triumphalist theologies that assert that “heaven” has “come on earth” already, and Christians should “name and claim” their future blessings in the present life – such as healing and prosperity, “declaring” a sick person healthy, or “declaring victory over financial problems” –, charismatic Reformed theology will argue that the church is living in the “in-between times”, awaiting the future consummation still: we still live in a reality that is scarred and burdened by sin and its consequences for all creation.
The church thus lives in the mysterious tension of the coming Kingdom, living from the powers of the future age while the powers of the present age continue around us. This understanding of the “inaugurated Kingdom” makes us continually open to signs and wonders and overwhelming interventions of God, in a moment-by-moment expectancy, while never “claiming” it and not being unnerved when future wholeness fails to happen yet.

Instead of pretending to “possess” the power of the Spirit (and for instance have the “ability” to heal people – as in some Pentecostal and charismatic strands), Reformed charismatics will emphasize the “inaugurated” reality of the Kingdom, the sovereignty of God, and thus the need for a moment-to-moment dependency on the Spirit of Christ. Yes, believers have “authority” and “power” in Christ, but this is always a derived authority and power: we receive it insofar as we move in Christ, in obedience to Him, and following the Father in what He is doing in any given situation (compare Jesus’ own dependency on the Father, as he said: “The Son can only do what he sees the Father doing”).
This awareness of our continuous dependency finds expression in, for instance,
  •        The introductory words at the very beginning of a Reformed Sunday worship gathering: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (votum)
  •         Inviting the Holy Spirit to move in the midst of the congregation, opening the eyes of our hearts to God’s presence and ministering God’s grace to us. It is not about the program that we have prepared, but about what God wants to do in our midst.
  •         The practice of prayer ministry, that concentrates on the presence of God and inviting Him to minister.
  •      The words of sending & blessing at the end of a Reformed Sunday worship gathering: As we are sent into the world as witnesses of the Kingdom of God, we confess that we are fully dependent on the Spirit of God, and seek to be blessed by God’s presence in us.

8. We hold to the priesthood of all believers and Presbyterian governance

One of the great principles of the Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers”. All believers are priests before God through our great high priest Jesus Christ. As believers, we all have direct access to God through Christ, without the need for mediation by clergy or saints. One aspect of this communal priesthood is that all believers are called to proclaim and minister God’s blessing and shalom to people. The Heidelberg Catechism actually teaches us that all believers “share in the anointing of Christ” and thus share in his threefold office of prophet, priest and king, through the outpouring of the Spirit.
In a charismatic Reformed church, it’s not just the pastor or the elders who do the ministering and blessing, but all church members are to be encouraged and equipped to minister God’s grace to others. To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, says Paul (1 Corinthians 12-14), to all have been given spiritual gifts and ministries, and when believers come together, each one contributes.
Simultaneously, a charismatic Reformed church will hold to a “presbyterian” governance of church: the leadership of the church is with elders (presbyters) – who are to be elected from the midst of the congregation - and a pastor. This is not so much a “managing leadership” but a spiritual leadership, "devoted to prayers and the ministry of the Word" – they are to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” as they are spiritually responsible for the church (compare Acts 6: 1-7).
In addition to this spiritual leadership, I’d suggest a charismatic Reformed church knows a variety of appointed ministries (diakonia), including evangelists, pastoral workers, deacons (ministries of mercy), worship leaders, and teachers (reflecting both the contextual needs of the local church and the charismata present in the congregation).
Flowing from both the doctrine of the priesthood of all saints and the overall  including working of the Spirit – breaking down barriers of culture, gender, race and societal position – I’d say all offices and ministries are open for mature and gifted Christians, men and women alike.

9. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum Verbum Dei

The spirit and the purpose of the Reformation may be best captured by the Latin principle Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum Verbum Dei (“The reformed church must always be reformed according to the Word of God”). This is not a principle that glorifies change in itself, though it urges the church to be continuously open for change. It refers to a norm, the Word of God. As theologian Stefan Paas has put it: Reformation is not a matter of ever-new formations; it is a matter of constant re-formation – or reconstruction. We could call this the ‘restorative principle’ of the Reformation. The highest authority is always with the Word of God, the Bible. Church should always be open to be corrected by deepened insight in the Word of God.
Practically, this means for instance that “tradition” or “culture” cannot be a decisive argument when it comes to changes in church or in theological convictions. In a charismatic context, it also means that any prophetic word or spiritual direction is subject to the authority of the Scriptures and discernment through the elders’ ministry of the Word.
This high regard for the authority of the Word of God also induces an emphasis on the importance of both Bible study and theological scholarship (over against certain tendencies in some Pentecostal and charismatic strands to distrust and dismiss theology). When it comes to academic theological study, this should not be an activity that is separated from church: theology should flow from worship, be rooted in the faith community, and be aimed at serving the faith community – it is fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding”,  guided by the Spirit of God.

Baptized in one Spirit

At the end of this long blog on what it means to be “charismatic Reformed”, I can’t help but to make the remark that one of the characteristics, ironically, would be that when meeting charismatic Christians of other “flavours” – Anglican, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, or otherwise -, the denominator of a denomination is far less relevant than the shared experiences of Christ: we are all baptized in one Spirit, and members of one body.
Nonetheless, these are some aspects of the theology of the Reformation that I value greatly and that shape my understanding of church. A church that is always renewed according to the Word of God, and that has the Word of God, the sacraments of baptism and communion, and the charismata of the Spirit at the centre of its corporate life, witnessing to the coming Kingdom of God.

Amersfoort, July 6, 2015 (some additions, July 7)

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