Are You Persuaded?

My recent post talked in part about my conviction that the Church in America is indeed in need of a new reformation, a new experience of the Jesus’ renewal promise to his Church (Rev 2:5). It occurs to me that my urging only registers to the degree that one is persuaded that the Church in America is truly seriously spiritually ill. In this post here I want to offer some of my reasons for believing that the Church in America is heading the way of the Church in Europe – all but non-existent.

To start off, let me clarify my understanding of “Church”. I am specifically referring only to the portion of the Protestant branch of the Church that still affirms what Machen identified as the fundamentals of the faith, especially the five solas of the Reformation. This definition is more or less coterminous with what is historically identified as Evangelicalism in America, those denominations for whom justification by faith alone is a sine qua non, an absolute essential.

(This definition of the Church does exclude the Roman Communion. Following the Reformers, I understand the Roman Church to be a broken branch, a part of the Church historic that no longer exhibits the essential marks of the True Church. Sorry guys, just the way I roll.)

Leave aside the question whether or not the Reformation has/had a terminal point (see Dr. Carl Trueman’s review of Noll and Nystrom’s, Is the Reformation Over?) That question is interesting, but ineffective in answering the question here. Rather than determine whether or not Reformation has ended (and therefore need to be re-started) I think a better way forward to look at what factors demonstrate the need for a Reformation. Insights into this approach can be gleaned from both the Bible and history.

From the Bible, Jesus’ message to the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7) I relevant. This church had lost their first love. That is, they had forgotten the basics of their doctrine and practice, summarized in the words Christ (doctrine), grace (practice), and the gospel (doctrine + practice). Their spiritual illness was so serious that this church was in danger of ceasing to exist (lampstand removal). To correct this Jesus offered the church a renewal promise (Rev 2:5), involving three parts: remembering, repenting, and recovering. In summary, this promise involved a recommitment to the ministry of the gospel (remembering, word-ministry-preaching) resulting in expressions of repentance and faith (repenting, doing first works).

Applied to the question here, we can gather from this that reformation is needed whenever there is evidence that a church has wandered/forgotten the core of its doctrine and practice. A church in need of reformation is one that has forgotten the Bible’s teaching about Christ, grace, and the gospel, a wandering/forgetting in both doctrine and practice.

From history the most obvious application of Christ’s renewal promise is the Reformation of the Church in Medieval Europe. Applying the biblical insights here, what were the signs present in this Church that demonstrated the need for reformation? What was the evidence that the Medieval Church had forgotten her first love? While there were many factors, I’m rather partial to the summary Dr. Harry Reeder offered in a sermon recently. He noted there were five characteristics marking this Church’s need for reformation: 1) Biblical illiteracy, 2) spiritual impotency, 3) compromised leadership, 4) devaluation of the word, and 5) devaluation of word-ministry, preaching. While longer, more detailed lists could be adduced, these five, it seems to me, offer an efficient summary of what it looks like for a Church to lose its first love, its adherence to Christ, grace and the gospel.

So, the question now is, does the Church in America evidence these or similar characteristics? Are these signs of spiritual illness present in our Church? I would argue that the answer needs to be a resounding yes! This post is already too long, so I’ll forgo making an argument relevant to each point. (More than happy to discuss this via the combox.) Maybe my point is simply made by your immediate response to this argument. Do you see these factors present across the Church in America? Are they dominant, that is common characteristics from one denomination to the next? Are they observable in most congregations? If you say yes I need say no more. (If not, might I ask you to pray about it?).

For me, I see increasing evidence of this week by week. In fact I believe that the spiritual illness in our Church is far advanced. While not unrecoverable, I believe it will be fatal if God is not merciful and soon sends the Spirit of renewal upon us. I’ve taken to telling folks in our congregation that that unless Jesus once again keeps his renewal promise in our city, we’re looking at the Church all but being nonexistent in twenty years – and we’re in the heart of the Bible Belt. I may be tad alarmist, but only like a doctor who gives a cancer patient three months to live, who then dies six months later.

I’m convinced – Jesus will remove the Church in America’s lampstand, unless she remembers, repents and recovers. We need a new reformation.

How about you, are you persuaded?

Posted by Reed DePace



  1. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 16, 2010 at 8:55 am

    I’ve been saying for some time, in similar words, that we need such a renewal and refreshing through the ordinary means of grace (publicly, privately and secretly). I travel throughout North America, regularly speaking and preaching. I see much that is encouraging in Reformed and Presbyterian Churches and yet it is evident that the best of us–whoever that is–has a low spiritual temperature and that we need restoration (Psalm 80:19; 85:6). Thinking of the motto of Calvin’s Academy in Geneva (post tenebras lux–“after the darkness, light”) and of all the times in the history of the people of God that He has been pleased to send reformation, I heartily agree with you and call for us not only to pray for reformation and renewal but to preach for it.

  2. Reed Here said,

    November 16, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Thank you Dr. Strange. For me, part of this conviction means regularly praying for this and repeating my conviction aloud. God has been merciful and gracious in the past. I want to be one of those who trusts him to do so again.

  3. Marshall said,

    November 16, 2010 at 9:34 am

    I don’t share your basic assumption that the Roman Church is not really part of the Church anymore. You can’t decide if an organization is really part of the church based on some technical doctrinal stand. It is possible to be FULLY orthodox from a Reformed viewpoint, and still not qualify as a real living Church, as you aknowledge. So, I’m think that the Church is continuing to grow and thrive in America, just in ways that are below our radar, for the most part. I have been to Europe, and I feel the same way about Europe. “I WILL build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not withstand the preaching of the Gospel!” There are always ups and downs, but the general direction is…the leaven is leavening everywhere, including here.

  4. Alan D. Strange said,

    November 16, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I agree entirely, Reed. It takes some courage to do this: both to pray for and to speak about this need. My prayer is that the Lord would be pleased to stir up pulpiteer and parishoner so that we might know a greater measure of true spirituality on our pilgrim journey. This is no species of perfectionism, though there are always those who suspect such when we mention the need that you have; just as we can suspect “dead orthodoxy” of those who look with a jaundiced eye at any call for renewal and reformation.

    We have seen so much nonsense in the name of revival, just as we have seen so much abuse of every good and perfect gift that God has ever given. I think that we need to get beyond the name-calling and suspicion, however, and earnestly seek from the Lord to be more and more who we are in Christ. This call for reformation from a proper confessional view is simply a call to greater faithfulness to the truth that we confess.

    A serious look at our Standards (think particularly of the WLC) shows that we are far from living what we profess. We understand (HC 114) that we make but a small beginning of obedience in this life, yet we do “begin to live, not only according to some but according to all the commandments of God.” I could go on but one thing that we must do in this battle is to convince all of our brethren that crying out to God for renewal is not only needful, but is exactly what we as Reformed and Presbyterian should be doing (HC 115; WLC 160, 167, 171-175, etc). Keep it up, brother!

  5. proregno said,

    November 16, 2010 at 10:01 am

    “Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old.” – Lam.5:21

    “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” – Ps.25:22

  6. Reed Here said,

    November 16, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Marshall: not to be annoying, but I take it then you take exception to our standards, which assumes that the RCC is no longer orthodox, and therefore not a part of the Church Universal? (Cf., WCF 24.3.)

    As to the rest of your comment, I truly think we’re on completely different pages here. First, nothing I’ve said denies or even ignores Jesus’ promise about the triumph of his Church. In fact, that promise is a foundational premiss to my post.

    Second, looking at the Church in Europe and you don’t think that Rev 2:5 applies? Seriously? I’m not saying that there are not Christians/churches, solid ones indeed still in Europe. I am blessed to meet new ones every year. Yet they are the exception to the rule. They live in the midst of the history of a collapsed Church. The promise of Matt 16:18 is theirs as well as ours. The way forward in that promise is via the renewal promise offered in Rev. 2:5.

  7. Andrew Duggan said,

    November 16, 2010 at 10:38 am

    A serious look at our Standards (think particularly of the WLC) shows that we are far from living what we profess

    Dr Strange,

    Well I see to possible responses to that 1) Change what we profess to reflect our living, or 2) change our living to better reflect our profession.

    What I see as major impediment is that even in the microcosm of the OPC we don’t agree as to which is the better solution, and in fact I get the sense that a great many if not most would, if honest, prefer option 1. What does one do when a professor presenting himself for licensure and ordination in the OPC takes exception to the teaching of the WLC with respect to the Decalogue as being inconsistent with the teaching of scripture not based on any exegesis, but rather because “no one can actually do that” (what the catechism says the law requires), and the presbytery’s response is silence? I personally find it a lonely wasteland to have been apparently the only one in the room who thinks that the teaching of the WLC on the moral law is there at least in part to demonstrate our complete need for the righteousness of Christ. Where we cannot do what the WLC says the law requires Christ has performed all and imputed that righteousness to his people. While I’m sure that everyone in that room would affirm the above if expressed that way, how is it that we are so satisfied with ourselves that no one would think it necessary to enquire as to why said candidate would take such an exception?

    How shall reformation come under such circumstances?

    My dad had a quotation posted on the wall in our house growing up, that has always stuck with me, and it went something like this:

    We are ready to ascribe the cause of our low spiritual condition to any cause rather than to admit the possibility that God is angry with us.

  8. Cris D. said,

    November 16, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Yes, I’m persuaded. How far down from the top 5 characteristics would you place this: Devaluation of the second service on the Lord’s Day?

  9. David Gray said,

    November 16, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Pastor DePace,

    So how is that you determine that the Church is roughly “coterminous with what is historically identified as Evangelicalism in America”? The bulk of what is evangelical in America rejects Reformational teaching all over the map to the extent that John Calvin couldn’t be a member in most of their churches. Even more to the point how do you exclude folks like Lutheran Church Missouri Synod who do affirm the solas but do not, certainly in their confessional wing, consider themselves to be what America terms as “evangelicals”? And LCMS dwarfs NAPARC.

    I’m sure you remember it but Hodge thought Rome was still part of the church. It certainly wasn’t a consensus position but he’s not small potatoes either.

  10. Reed DePace said,

    November 16, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    David: the language “broadly” is intended to not require specificity, beyond that which I noted regarding the RCC. I’m not really interested in a denomination by denomination examination. Next will come a church by church examination – a pointless exercise. The position I’ve outlined here is common enough that it is not worth your effort to challenge. I’m just not going to go into with you.

    I’m aware of Hodge’s position. There were plenty of “no small potatoes” who disgreed with him as well. So what? We’re not making mashed taters. My own study has guided my conviction to where I am comfortable before God – the Potatoe if you will without accusing me of sacrilege.

  11. Jay said,

    November 17, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    I think that the church in America has much to learn from those opening chapters in Revelation where Jesus condemns and commends the various churches on their statuses. One of the churches is charged with foresaking doctrine, embracing homosexuality and following Jezebel. Another church is commended for its holding to doctrinal foundations, but are then condemned for forgetting their first love and for their lack of love.
    I think we could do well to study all of those churches and what Jesus has to say about them.

  12. David Gadbois said,

    November 18, 2010 at 12:08 am

    Reed, I hesitate to talk about the church in America in the abstract. The lampstands in Revelation were lampstands held by local churches, not denominations or collective churches in a given nation. Also, I wouldn’t regard the vast majority of self-proclaimed “churches” in America to be true visible churches, even if they fly under the evangelical flag (and zero that are under the Romanist or EO flag). So that complicates an answer to your question.

    To me, the churches that need to worry about their lampstands being taken away are generally in the sideline Reformed denominations, although that is not to say that no particular church in the NAPARC denominations is in danger.

    As for Rome, I wish people would stop trotting out poor ol’ Hodge to defend the idea that the Roman communion is still within the visible church. Part of what Hodge was (over)-reacting against those Presbyterians who were calling for re-baptism of Roman Catholic converts. It simply was not necessary to posit Rome as a true church in order to oppose re-baptism. Also, those who appeal to Hodge never bother to realize that his position was premised on distinguishing between a visible church and a true church, a novel and, frankly, impossible distinction to make. The continental Reformed could have none of this, since the 3 Marks defined a true church (and we see an explicit denial of Rome’s status as a church in the French Confession). It also overlooks obvious historical facts from the Reformation, such as the fact that Romanists were not communed, and converts to Rome were excommunicated as unbelievers.

    So we can safely keep that error buried.

  13. Reed Here said,

    November 18, 2010 at 7:59 am

    David: yes, it does come down to individual churches. That is actually what I have in mind. I’m using the (Evangelical) “Church” merely as a shorthand for the idea of the Visible Church, more or less pure (reflecting the Contintenal Reformed thinking here.)

    My focus is not on denominations; I agree with you as to the weaknesses of looking at the problem this way. Instead, I am talking about the weaknesses church by church. My use of the lampstand is intended to bring this emphasis into view.

    (E.g., I’m trying to use a different form of a plural “you”; not “you all (y’all), which references corporately a group, but rather “you ones” (“y’uns” in \western PA) used to speaki to a group comprehensively, but applying what is said particularly.)

    As to the RCC, Hodge, and baptism, yeah, me too. :-)

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