Being Reformed as Identity: Remaining Faithful to Scripture and Confession

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The concept of ‘identity’ is currently receiving much attention because of gender ideology. But does what you feel and experience as a person (e.g. gender ideology) determine who you really are? An identity concerns your personality: who am I, what do I live for. We are Reformed; it’s part of our identity. But what does it mean that being Reformed is your identity?

As a believer, you know that God created the universe. You pay attention to how He created you and who He made you to be. God created man good and in His image (Gen. 1:28). That is the original identity of man. His calling was to be the image of God and to live for His glory. Man and woman received all the qualities necessary to carry that mandate; that was their God-intended identity. For this they were blessed by God and provided with everything they needed. But with the Fall, that identity was corrupted. Man’s identity, being the image of God, continues to exist as a calling, but he no longer possesses the qualities (true righteousness and holiness) for it. Through his own fault he robbed himself of all those gifts (HC Lord’s Day 3). Although God continues to hold all people to their calling to image Him, to reflect that identity, the fall into sin made this an impossibility.

RESTORED IDENTITY

But God, as a miracle of grace in Christ, has chosen people to make them His children again through regeneration. By grace, as children of God, they accept Christ as their only Savior and, through His work of redemption and the renewing power of His Spirit, they more and more become the image of God again, albeit not yet perfect.

That means restoration of identity. They have become the property of Christ, new people. God gives them all the gifts and powers to live for Him from now on. At their baptism this is depicted and sealed and, when they make their profession of faith, they wholeheartedly say amen to it. The identity we have as believers comes from the creative and renewing work of God with the calling and obligation to be a royal priesthood and to proclaim the great works of God (1 Peter 2:9).

STRUGGLES AND APOSTASY IN SALVATION CHURCH HISTORY

The Bible teaches us that immediately after the fall there is enmity between the seed of a woman and the seed of the serpent. Only through divine intervention with the flood is the seed of women (through only one family) saved. Even after that their apostasy again rears its ugly head. Therefore, God again acts in a saving manner by calling Abram and Sarah away from their family. God then established the covenant of grace with Abram and makes him the father of all believers. From him comes Israel, the nation from which the Messiah will be born.

But Israel also repeatedly falls away from God—in Egypt, in the desert, and in Canaan—and chooses the side of the opponent. Reformations do occur under David, Hezekiah and Josiah, but these are always of a temporary nature. Apostasy ultimately leads to exile. When a remnant returns after 70 years, that remnant also falls into the same pattern (Acts 7:1-53).

At the coming of Christ there are very few people who believe in Him. Following His completed work of salvation on earth, Christ appoints His apostles to send them to all the ends of the earth with His glorious Gospel of salvation and grace. After Pentecost, the church of Christ grows, but there remains a struggle against self-willed religion, against errors in the church and temptations from outside. This battle has a different character: there is firm hope for final victory. The battle is still tough, because the devil knows he has little time. He cannot destroy the church, but he can seriously damage it. Yet even this is not outside of God’s rule and Christ’s kingship.

Already in the apostolic time there are all kinds of heresies that needed to be fought against. They are largely condemned; but the error of Pelagius, who refuses to call man depraved after the Fall, remains. Since 590, papal power has been established and the church has become a self-willed church. The church falls into serious disrepair. Only with Luther comes a real great reformation: obedience to the only Lord and Head of the church, Jesus Christ, and a return from wrong, unscriptural ways. It takes a lot of struggle and human sacrifice, but the Lord blesses this reformation work. As a summary of the Reformed belief, there are 5 solas: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be glory).

NEW REFORMATIONS

The church separates itself from the self-willed religion of the false church and is ‘reformed’. She is the true continuation of the ‘one universal Christian church, the communion of saints’. In the meantime, the struggle continues: the teaching of the Anabaptists is rejected (BCF art. 34). This is followed by the fight against the Remonstrants (Canons of Dort). In this way the church remains reformed under God’s blessing. Yet already around the time of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) superficiality and neglect of discipline begins to emerge. Subsequently, freedom in doctrine develops under the influence of the Enlightenment, accompanied by an unscriptural church government from 1815 onwards. This leads to the Secession in 1834 and to the Doleantie (Second Secession) in 1886.

Later, a new self-willed error about covenant and baptism takes hold in the (united) Reformed Churches, which leads to the Liberation in 1944. That Liberation is necessary in order to remain reformed, obedient to God’s Word, for we must to reject everything that is contrary to God’s Word.

After the struggle against independentism in the 1960s, room for tolerance is permitted in the 1990s. When the Lord’s commandments lose their legal force and Scripture criticism is introduced in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (GKV), the Liberation of 2003 comes after years of warnings in the magazine Reformanda (meaning, ‘must be reformed’). Through all this, however, the church in the Netherlands has become much smaller. Yet by God’s grace she is allowed to hold on to the truth of God’s Word. She remains Reformed through the Reformation.

REFORMED VERSUS SELF-WILLED

Reformed means: the church has not taken a new path but has returned to correct doctrine and life in accordance with Holy Scriptures. After distortion and deformity of doctrine and life there is a return to God and His Word. One is again governed by God’s Word alone. Reformed is being (again) obedient to God and His Word, without self-willed religiosity. Being Reformed also includes rejecting and fleeing from everything that is contrary to God’s Word in doctrine and life (art. 7 and art. 29 BCF).

Also in the future, apostasy and self-willed service will threaten the church. There will be errors and a refusal to engage in the necessary struggle for the truth and faithful obedience to it. The reason for this is, on the one hand, that we as believers remain sinful people and, on the other hand, that we live in a sinful, tempting world and the devil is fully active, knowing that he has little time. It will be necessary again and again to return from wrong paths to God’s Word, to become obedient again, to remain or again become reformed, subservient to Christ.

With our identity of being ‘Reformed’ we take into account the gift and assignment of the Lord and at the same time our sinful nature and the constant need for conversion. Being Reformed recognizes the struggle that is necessary as a faithful Christian and is indicated by God Himself in His Word. Being Reformed recognizes this battle in history that Christ has gone through and continues to go through with His church.

REFORMATION OF THE HEART

Reformation of the church also requires reformation of the heart by every member. The terms ‘true believer’, ‘Christian’ or ‘Reformed’ indicate exactly the same thing. It concerns the same identity. Reformed is not an addition to being Christian. In the past it has sometimes been said: ‘my name is Christian, my nickname is Reformed’. But that is incorrect. Being Reformed should not be a specialty of being a Christian. In His Word, the Lord only asks us to be ordinary, faithful, obedient Christians. Nothing beyond that (1 Cor. 4:6).

In Antioch, the disciples churching there are called ‘Christians’ for the first time (Acts 11:26). We call ourselves ‘Reformed’ to indicate that being a ‘Christian’ in the event of apostasy requires a constant return to the truth of God’s Word in doctrine and life. Through conversion we can truly be ‘Christian’ again: belonging to Christ and following Him wherever He goes. Calling yourself Reformed is not necessarily being Reformed. It is if you show that by grace you actually follow Christ and His Word in doctrine and life.

CHARACTERISTICS

Our Reformed confession understands this. It also echoes God’s Word on this point. Art. 29 BCF deals with the true church as distinguished from sects that claim to be the church but are not. This same article also speaks of those who belong to the true church and are not hypocrites: they are “known by the marks of Christians”.

These characteristics of Christians are taken from Holy Scripture and as such are a touchstone for our personal life as ‘Reformed’:

“Those who are of the church … believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour, flee from sin and pursue righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works. Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life. They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in him.”

Holding the true, healthy – and therefore reformed – doctrine, being a whole-hearted member of the true church of Christ and living a hearty life according to God’s Word — it all belongs together!

It requires continuous reformation in everyone’s life: all of life is one. But this reformation must also continue; we must continue to be renewed and continue to struggle, every day, throughout our lives, both as a church member and as a church. In all things taking refuge in Christ and His grace, and in submission to Him who bought us.

OFFICE OF ALL BELIEVERS

Also Lord’s Day 12 HC (‘But why are you called a Christian?’) is about being ‘Reformed’. There the emphasis is on the office of all believers. This underlines the idea that being Reformed is the same identity as being the image of God. The office you receive as a believer is a command from God to serve and honour Him. Not only for the church, but for your entire life, also outside the church. For that ‘ongoing reformation’ you receive the Spirit of Christ: you share in His anointing because you are connected to Christ by faith.

In the power of that Spirit, as a prophet you confess the name of Christ in doctrine and life, in word and deed. Not only in church but also at school, at work, in the neighbourhood, in society. In that same power you can be a priest: you offer yourself as a living peace offering to Him. This means that you dedicate your entire life, in church, family and world, to Him and focus on Him. That is not a matter of performance and earning, but only a matter of gratitude because of God’s great grace. The Spirit also enables you to fight against sin and the devil with God’s Word. In your own life and in your environment. With the glorious end goal to reign over all creatures in eternity with Him after this life.

The office of all believers is related to being connected to Christ in everything and everywhere, following and serving Him and living to His glory. In addition, you will have to constantly fight against sins, temptations and errors. You will also have to bear your cross. That, too, requires sacrifices. Sometimes big sacrifices, but sacrifices of gratitude. None of us can do that on our own, it is the Spirit of Christ who makes it possible to fulfill this office. It will always be imperfect and stained with sin. But by grace you may live in works that God has prepared and for which He gives His Spirit.

Being Reformed is never a completed thing on earth, but we look forward to the perfection that Christ will one day grant.

 

The above article by Rev. S. de Marie (minister emeritus in the Dutch DGK) is a translated and slightly condensed version of an article he published over several issues of Bouwen en Bewaren: see Gereformeerd zijn I – identiteit – Bouwen en Bewaren (bouwen-en-bewaren.nl)