Reformed Confessionalism: A Radical Alternative to Ritualism and Revivalism
Let’s define terms. “Reformed” Christianity refers to the Christian Faith as confessed by those Protestant Churches which were birthed by the Calvinist branch of the Protestant Reformation, in contrast to those Protestant churches descended from the Lutheran and Anglican branches of the Reformation. “Reformed” churches are distinguished by their emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation (and over all things), and by their emphasis on biblically-ordered church government and simple, Scripturally-ordered worship.
“Confessionalism” indicates adherence to Bible-based creeds and confessions. “Confessional” churches are churches which have adopted an official confession of faith as a summary of what they believe and confess the Bible to teach. Protestant churches (like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) which adhere to “Reformed Confessionalism” are churches which have officially adopted, as their doctrinal standards, one of the historic Reformed confessions of Faith. For example, the OPC has officially adopted The Westminster Confession of Faith (American revision), along with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as its official doctrinal standards, subordinate to the Word of God.
Churches which consistently adhere to Reformed Confessionalism first of all present a biblical, historically-based alternative to the extreme ritualism which views the sacraments of the church as automatically effecting salvation. So, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church it is believed that the sacrament of baptism automatically and necessarily imparts saving grace to everyone who receives it, as long as it is properly administered and as long as no obstacle is placed in the way of that grace. In the ritualist scheme salvation is, in effect, mechanistically doled out by a human priesthood, and received by simply submitting to the properly-administered rites of the church.
Reformed Confessionalism stands squarely against such ritualism. It proclaims that the sacraments of the church only effect the salvation they signify as the Holy Spirit blesses them and as they are received with God-given faith. In the carefully-crafted and biblically-based words of the answer to Westminster Shorter Catechism # 91: “The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.” (Emphasis added.) Apart from the working of the Holy Spirit in those who receive the sacraments, along with the Spirit-wrought response of faith directed toward Christ alone on their part, the sacraments have no saving efficacy. (The same can be said of the Word, for while Scripture says that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word”, at the same time the Holy Spirit must bless the Word to our hearts if it is to produce saving faith within us.) Thus Reformed Confessionalism represents a radical alternative to the ritualism found in (for example) Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and sacerdotalist/ritualist versions of Protestantism.
On the other hand, Reformed Confessionalism also presents a biblical, historically-based alternative to the extreme mysticism that one finds throughout contemporary evangelical and charismatic versions of Christianity, a mysticism often rooted in American revivalism. Many evangelical adherents of revivalism have a very low view of the visible, organized church and the means of grace Christ has entrusted to her. Instead, they strongly emphasize the need for a dramatic, crisis conversion experience resulting in a “personal relationship with Jesus,” and they tend to view things like creeds, confessions, a well-ordered liturgy and church government with suspicion, if not disdain, as a stifling of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, we Reformed Confessionalists also strongly affirm the need for personal faith and repentance (conversion) and for the “personal relationship with Jesus” that is the fruit of such faith and repentance! (Though we do not judge the genuineness of one’s conversion by its suddenness, emotional intensity, or similar “dramatic” factors.) But, in line with Scripture, we recognize that this relationship with Christ we graciously enjoy is mediated to us by the Word and sacraments (the means of grace), which the Holy Spirit uses to bring us to saving faith in Christ and to preserve us in that faith. In other words, in this present life none of us has a “direct pipeline to God” in the sense of a direct, unmediated, mystical experience of Jesus Christ, nor in the sense that we should expect to be receiving ongoing direct revelations from God apart from what He has given us in the Bible. We neither see nor experience Christ “face-to-face” in this present age, for “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, ESV) and in this present life “we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12, ESV). Instead, we experience Christ and His grace as He comes to us in Word and sacraments, and as we receive Him by faith in those means.
As “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14) through the humble medium of our humanity; so the risen and ascended Lord Jesus continues to dwell and commune with us by the humble means of Word, water, bread and wine, as those means are blessed by the Spirit and received with hearts of faith in Jesus. These humble means of grace may seem to be weak and inadequate when compared with the hype and drama of elaborate ritualism or emotionally-intense revivalism. But just as God is often pleased to display His strength in the midst of our human weakness and frailty (see 2 Cor. 12:9-10), so He is pleased to display His power and grace through the “weak” and “despised” means of the Word, the sacraments and prayer — means which today are more often duly administered and faithfully received in small, struggling, often ignored and culturally-marginalized Reformed churches filled with imperfectly-sanctified believers, rather than in the ornate cathedrals of the ritualists or the jam-packed megachurch auditoriums of the revivalists. In today’s Christian world, Reformed Confessionalism is radically different, and it offers a radical alternative to both the extremes of ritualism and revivalism.
Were you, dear reader, even aware of this radical alternative known as Reformed Confessionalism? Have you considered this alternative for yourself?